It’s hard not to get caught up in the increasing hype surrounding citywide pedestrian wayfinding systems. Ever since the unveiling of London’s ‘Legible London’ in 2007, and more recently ‘WalkNYC’ in New York, we’ve seen a significant uptake of similar wayfinding systems worldwide. And it’s no mystery as to why – with a claimed return on investment of up to 20:1 when successful, compared to 3:1 on traditional infrastructure, the economic benefits are simply too great for governments to ignore. So when we heard that the City of Sydney was investing in a wayfinding system of its own, the team here at Best Group were very excited.
So after much anticipation, the initial design for Sydney’s Legible Sydney was released for public comment… and I can’t help but say there was a sigh of disappointment throughout the BG offices. With expectations high from Legible London and WalkNYC, one question instantly sprung to mind – why is ours so average in comparison?
After all the briefs are very similar; all 3 are looking for a wayfinding system that makes the city more accessible and therefore more enjoyable to both visitors and inhabitants alike. It’s a consistent element across all modes of transport; giving them the knowledge to use the most efficient form of transport for where they need to go.
City wide pedestrian wayfinding systems are a fantastic opportunity for users to engage and interact with a city. Not only should they aim to make a city more accessible, but they should also demonstrate the identity of that city through their aesthetic. This is apparent with WalkNYC – with its obvious links to the Vignelli subway sign system, it practically oozes New York. Legible London, also derived from their existing public transport signage system, looks perfectly at home on the streets of London. Not only are both systems successful in their execution, they both promote an instant familiarity with the user that takes that success to another level.
This is where Legible Sydney simply does not deliver. The brown and yellow rectilinear pylons just don’t have that instantly recognisable link that London and NYC have. Nor do they give the impression that Sydney, the largest city in Australia, is a city that boasts world renowned landmarks such as the iconic Sydney Opera House, and beautiful white sandy beaches. This brief should present itself as a great opportunity for Sydney to represent itself as an innovative and inhabitable city.
While it’s easy to get bogged down on the information and graphic design issues – which have already been covered by others (http://blog.idlab.com.au/sydneys-legible-attempt/) – it’s equally important to look beyond the criticism, and use the journeys that others have taken to better our own outcomes.
We find these citywide wayfinding systems are better understood when compared with a concept we refer to as #brandedspaces, or built brand environments. The approach to any #brandedspace is to use graphic and tactile elements to encourage people to engage with a particular brand and draw positive experiences from that engagement, which therefore carries through to the brand itself. To be able to do this effectively, you have to understand the brands values, customers and direction.
This is similar with a citywide wayfinding system – understanding of the cultural background, architecture and existing graphical infrastructure of that particular city and being able to articulate this in the design. If this is done correctly, the result is a set of infrastructure that enhances a city; if done incorrectly, it’s at risk of becoming just another eyesore on what is an already overwhelming environment.
What really stood out to us with the approach of Legible London, and in particular WalkNYC, was the way in which they built their multidisciplinary teams. This, we believe, is where much of the success of London and NYC can be attributed; the adoption of not just a multidisciplinary approach to building their design teams, but a multi-agency approach.
This involved a combination of several consultancies into one ‘super studio’; a specifically tailored team that covered what a single agency simply couldn’t do alone. WalkNYC for instance involved an impressive team of experts who were all highly successful in their own right – people like Pentagram, T-Kartor, City ID, Billings Jackson, RBA Group, PSFK. The result is equally as impressive; strong, beautifully resolved and rationalised information, teamed together with intelligent built components to create objects that resonate with the cities identity.
It’s these reflections that demonstrate just how important the journey can be to a successful result. And with that in mind, we must now wait for the release of the next stage of Legible Sydney. Can we expect significant change? Only time will tell, but we hope the improvements work towards giving Sydney the citywide pedestrian wayfinding system it deserves.
Commentary for Best Group by George Thompson & Nick Pickering
Best Group is a leading independent signage and wayfinding strategy, design and implementation consultancy.
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