Fixed This! Yes, that train will take you there

Crosscut's Design Review Board unveils new signage for Sound Transit's LINK light rail trains from SeaTac.
Crosscut's Design Review Board unveils new signage for Sound Transit's LINK light rail trains from SeaTac.

The Crosscut Design Review Board's (CDRB) initial foray into crowd sourcing great design met with humbling, though not altogether discouraging results.

Our original story about the regrettable state of finding one's way from the airport to downtown via light rail kicked up a good bit of dust online and in the comments area. Alas, the CDRB's subsequent call to "Fix This!" design by submitting your own better solutions was less than successful.

Guess we got what we paid for, which wasn't much.

Undaunted, the CDRB sharpened its pixels and came up with its own light rail map. A workmanlike version to be sure but also, in the board's view, a design that works better than the signage now on offer aboard Sound Transit's light rail trains.

See for yourself. The current version of the sign, and the CDRB's new version are presented below.

We think our version works better for the following reasons:

1. It answers some important questions upon first glance: Does the train go to Seattle? If I take it, can I get to the Pike Place Market or near a ferry? If I'm heading to the airport, where do I go when I arrive in front of a giant parking garage?

2. The map features squiggles in all the places where the train actually turns, because nothing blows a user's confidence in a map more quickly than when the lines on the map are straight and the rig you're riding on is obviously swerving all over the place.

3. We removed the cute station icons. Now, a lone dot represents each stop and we use words to explain what's at that stop. There isn't room on the sign for multiple languages, but there is a technical solution that's ideal: put a Quick Response (QR) code on the graphic that lets riders scan the sign and see the map rendered in foreign languages, or get detailed information about each stop, right on their own smartphones. 

4. Our map also includes information about which buses connect to the train at each station, just because we're friendly like that. This also raises an important point: To be useful, signage design has to evolve. There’s no such thing as set-it-and-forget-it here. Agencies will need to put new stickers up when the bus routes change. Consider it the price of functionality.

What's missing in our yeoman signage effort is artfulness. We kept Sound Transit's blue-green palette, though we did take pains to include some (graphic design cliché alert) gradient fills. You’re welcome. Elevating public design above the ordinary, while also achieving optimum effectiveness should always be the goal.

Here's the current version of Sound Transit's in-train signage:

Crosscut archive image.

Here's the CDRB's redo:

Crosscut archive image.

(Click here for a closer look at the redesign map.)

Excellence in public design isn't easy, but it is worth striving for. It takes forethought, resources and a commitment to gathering a wide array of opinions from outside the bubble of whichever bureaucracy is paying the bills.

More of these design challenges await — for you, the CDRB and Sound Transit. As Crosscut commenter JGP pointed out, the challenge of making the system understandable will grow as the system grows: "Has anyone at Sound Transit noticed that as light rail extends northward, there will be three - count 'em - three stations named University: University Street, University of Washington, and University District. Two of those will be back to back on the map.” JGP's solution? Start thinking “now” about how to rename the downtown University Street station.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


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