A talk with the designer behind some of North America’s most famous subways, walkways, zoos—and pretty much any other place people need help finding their way around.
Few people have had as much of an impact on the world of urban wayfinding as Lance Wyman. Now in his seventies, the New York-based designer is still young enough to take on new projects while having more than enough success behind him to enjoy a career retrospective.
Currently on view at Mexico’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO) is Lance Wyman: Urban Icons. It first exhibited last year in Mexico City, where Wyman’s work for the 1968 Olympics (and a new subway system shortly after) established him as one of the world’s best at helping humans make their way around almost any kind of man-made environment.
His career stretches well beyond wayfinding, including logos and branding for institutions like MARCO. But it’s clear in speaking to Wyman that few things excite him as much as creating something that not only helps people find their way but adds to a city’s identity.
Wyman’s career keeps taking him south of the border. While his legacy is on display in Monterrey at the moment, he’s working, yet again, on a project in Mexico City. CityLab spoke with Wyman about some of the work he’s done all over North America and what he still hopes to accomplish.
How did you first get interested in urban wayfinding?
One of the first things was a taxi, bus and subway strike that happened in New York when I was working with the George Nelson office. I was living up on East 72nd street and the office was down on 22nd, East or West, I don’t remember. I walked to work the first day and realized I was seeing the city for the first time in a way I had never seen it before. The second day I took a different route and I realized between two points in the city it was a very different experience. I did the same thing for the duration of the strike, I think it lasted for a week, and that gave me a sense that cities are more than what meets the eye at a glance or on a map.
George Nelson was an interesting person and an interesting office to be working with. The community group around our building at the time asked him for suggestions as to how they could unify that area of the city. He sent me out to photograph what was out there and I started taking photographs and, like Hockney would, placing a story by putting photographs together. It gave me a sense of the city being formed by quite a few things making it what it is.
I was into graphic design at that point and I had some wayfinding experience that was more exhibit based. I did a World’s Fair pavilion for George, and that had five islands. So just by its nature I had to do signs that told you where things were in the exhibit. So it was a combination of these things that really got me following my nose. It certainly gave me the interest of going in that design direction.
Landing the Mexico City Metro project must have been a dream commission for you then.
Actually, I started on the Mexico Olympics when I was 29 and it was through the Olympics that [the] Metro came, which I got when I was around 31. Creating iconography for an Olympics had already been established. Tokyo had done a good job of that in ‘64, so it was more or less establishing a way of identifying to an international audience that speaks different languages. The one thing that got me really going in the Olympics was the cultural program.
We decided to have one cultural program for each of the 19 sporting events. Basically, what I did was design a group of 19 symbols for a very diverse system of programming. And it wasn’t like the traditional Olympic programs—sporting events where people knew what everything was—they were very different. ...[But] they make it look like it was part of one program.
So when I got involved with the Metro and realized that this type of iconography could be applied to a system like that, I suggested it and we did it. That really was a dream program. Not only was I doing something that was going to communicate to people in different languages, I was doing something that the people in the city liked. And it really brought out a lot of the history and a lot of the dynamic of the city. It was like being an archaeologist bringing it all to the surface, visually. It was really powerful. I’ve been trying to do that ever since.
The other thing that came out of that experience was that I realized ... I wasn’t just designing something for people who couldn’t read. It communicated better than language for the obvious reason of not having to be translated, but it also gave you a really quick visual reference to something, and the icons were designed well.
Did you design the Metro icons anticipating the kind of expansion it has had since?
Yes and no. I did the first three lines. I did the first one in Mexico City and then I came back to New York and started my office here but I kept in touch with my two assistants and we designed Line 2 and 3. Now they have 12.
The one thing that we didn’t do is create a manual. But, in fact, a lot of the guidelines that would have gone into a manual I wasn’t savvy enough to really understand at the time. Obviously, you want to make all the icons different and you want to make them reference something meaningful in each one of the station areas. I didn’t think about it in terms of international communication where, if you’re visiting from China and you go to the station that has a duck for a symbol, you can tell your friend immediately, “Meet you at the duck station” in Chinese or any language you speak. That should have been a very basic principal.
What’s happened now is that some of the icons of the station depend more on depicting things that come out of Aztec cultures, things that even the Mexican population would have a hard time describing as far as what they are, so there’s a weak area. But it still works.
The last time I was in Mexico, I just wanted to experience one of the lines as a passenger, not a designer. I went to one end of the line, got on the train and went all the way to the other end. And where the system really works is when you’re inside a train. They have a line map, and this came from designing the first line for our system, over the car doors. When you come into the station the line map is sequential with the icons. And then in the station on the walls they have the icon for that station. It just worked so well. I didn’t do the icons on that particular line except for the stations where they cross the with other lines.
The experience made me curious about the line and that part of the city, and that was really experiential. I wasn’t looking for kudos or any reason why I should like it, I just liked it because that was the experience I had and it worked.
And you designed the map for the system as well, right?
I did both maps [the system map and the neighborhood maps at each station]. With the neighborhood maps I worked very closely with the architectural team, and it was through those maps that Bill Cannan and I were asked to submit a proposal for the [Washington,] D.C., system. It was more the station maps that got us involved in that project than the system map.
One of the things we developed was the concentric circle system to tell someone how far they had to go to get into the environment around the station. We ended up using that in Washington, too. I don’t know if that was the first time it was ever used but I hadn’t seen it before we did Mexico. It’s so helpful to be able to give people an idea of how long or how far they have to go to get to places.
For the system map for Mexico, I lined up the icons just one next to the other and I put the three lines together. Now, with 12 lines, it kind of looks like the space of an iPad. With the technology we have, it really does make sense to hang on to the idea of using icons. You can give context and then you can go to the icon, get to the station, and go to Google Maps if you want to see what’s happening at that station area.
We navigate our lives now with icons, illiterate or not. Now it’s a matter of designing the systems and designing better icons and better systems of using them, and that’s just a lot of fun for me because I was in it from the very beginning. When it works, it’s like writing poetry. You capture the essence of something that’s important, and it’s nice because there’s immediate feedback. I’m usually working with people who are not designers, and when I get feedback it’s usually from a different place or different from how a designer would give me feedback.
You developed an icon system for D.C.’s metro system as well, but it was never used. How did you develop that system and why isn’t it in use?
We researched over 85 projected stations, and we did that in a way where I was able to visualize a lot of them. Washington has so much history and so much to make visible. I wanted to, after the experience of seeing how effective they were in making the city visible in Mexico, do that again.
But we had to use an approach that Massimo Vignelli mandated when he did the signage system, and that was to use more of a diagrammatic map like the London Underground. In doing that map, we made the lines very thick so that we could eventually incorporate symbols in them. That was helpful as far as a dominating color code system. Once the system got started I don’t think anyone anticipated how complicated just keeping it running would be. The map was effective as it was, so we just never took that next step to implement the icons.
I’d still like to do that. I don’t think it’s 100 percent off the table. I hope not. In redoing the map that’s in Washington now, I have updated some approaches to the icons and presented them, but I think before that we have to shorten the names of some of the stations and that’s hard enough. It’s not just a graphic problem.
How complicated was it to add the Silver line to your D.C. map?
It was very complicated, because as soon you start putting more weighty colors in there, like the black, it deadens the whole center of the city, so putting those nubs [that identify where three lines now serve one station] that are there now was a big breakthrough.
I was really concerned, because it was a process of trying to keep the color lines as bold as I could and I had to diminish the weight of the lines to get that Silver line to pass through. It was a real process. It looks simple at the end, but there were moments there where I was really concerned that it wasn’t going to be capable of doing that.
In the ‘80s you designed multiple walkway systems in Canada. What were some of the unique challenges you faced with those projects?
I remember going up to Calgary, that was the first one I did, +15. I remember taking a walk with the city planners through the system and I literally got a headache because you saw nothing to give you reference. And when you cross the streets with the bridges you’re usually in the center of the block, so you can’t even see the street signs. It was really a process of getting orientation, an absolute necessity, into some kind of visual form and getting a way of understanding where you were in the city itself.
The other part of that was going through different environments. Going through buildings that were mostly bank-oriented so they were very slick and you had marble floors and everything. How do you put in a signage system that you can see without destroying the environment itself? The trick there, and again, this comes from the experience in Mexico, [was that] we really made an effort to create a sense of place.
It was the first time the Olympics were in Latin America, and Mexico is very proud of that, so we wanted to make it look not only like they were the Olympics but that it was clearly in Mexico. And after doing the Metro in Mexico, I think there’s something to be said about any approach that anyone takes in any city to give the people a chance to have their own identity.
In Calgary it was the Blackfoot Indian nation. I was talking to the elders in the Blackfoot community and I noticed on the top of their teepees that they had these very strong circle patterns. In talking to them and going to the Glenbow museum I found out that they were star constellations. It just seemed like a natural fit for something like a bridge system in a city to develop a star constellation, and I did that with +15.
And after doing the National Zoo in Washington, I realized you could take indicators from the system itself and develop them into tracking where you don’t need signs, you can just put things right on the walkway itself. We were able to put the circles into marble and keep you on track so you go from one bridge crossing to another bridge crossing through a building.
Even the buildings were very complicated. When you’re going through retail space, some of these department stores that were on that floor, you had to go through them and you really need something strong there so we were cutting into carpeting and creating bright color contrasts so that if you wanted to just go through the environment and to the next bridge you could.
That was a real lesson in learning how that kind of information can work in a very camouflage situation. Those environments are extremely camouflaged as far as not giving any indication of where you’re going.
What’s the story behind the Toronto subway icon map in your portfolio?
Paul Arthur and I had become very good friends. He was involved with Expo ‘67 in Montreal and lived in Toronto. We took a look at the system together, which functions well but has absolutely no sense of graphic or visual identity that has anything to do with Toronto. But it does have some things it can kind of click into.
Paul was into iconography quite a bit, and I was looking at it from a wayfinding point of view, of bringing the city to the surface. We did some studies and it was really interesting. There’s a lot that has gone down in Toronto that no one really knows about.
There’s also a model for a man-made island in Philadelphia. How did that idea come about?
That’s the logo we developed for the ‘76 Exposition, which never happened.
The city’s on the water and I was exploring all kinds of ways of getting visual communication into the context of the environment itself. The model’s a large scale, it could have been done on a smaller scale, it could have been done with other aspects of the program and the logo.
I always liked it because it just seemed like an interesting way of putting something in an environment that wasn’t necessarily on land, using the water as the same kind of environmental canvas.
The whole thing never really got off the ground. Bill Cannan and I were in partnership when we did that. I got involved in that project through Richard Saul Wurman, who’s from Philadelphia. Bill and I met Richard down in Mexico. I think he had just finished some work in Guatemala and he came through during the Olympics. We bonded because he was doing such beautiful work, just putting things into context; architecture, cities, and so forth.
It had a lot of potential but it just never, politically, got off the ground. That was during the Nixon years, and I think like a lot of things, we weren’t really celebrating the bicentennial with gusto.
What wayfinding projects are you working on now?
Well, I had the exhibits in Mexico, and at the moment I’m going back and forth between New York and Mexico City, where, hopefully, we’ll be putting together a wayfinding program for the city itself.
This really would be a dream program because we’d be taking things like all the systems of transportation and putting them under one visual identity. So each one would have their own political structure but it would be part of an overview of how this works to get in, how they can work better together out in the street when you have connection stations, and things like that. It’s not officially in contract now, but we’re getting very close and I have quite a few ideas, obviously, from doing this type of work.
I remember when I did the Amtrak signage in New York Penn Station. In the beginning, I was standing in an area of the station and looking up and there were all these signs saying the same thing but they were from manuals for different programs: NJ Transit, Amtrak, Subway, Long Island Railroad. I saw one of the guys from LIRR and I asked him, “Who can I talk to who coordinates all of this?” and he just laughed and said, “Coordinate? We don’t even talk to each other.”
That’s one of the big problems that cities deal with. There’s a way that visual communication can make it clear that it’s a good idea to talk to each other, or at least put information out on the street and into the different complexes to help people navigate this stuff. If I really get off on anything as far as my work is concerned, it’s a real joy when that kind of communication works. The feedback is very genuine and people mean it. You can’t ask for anything more than that when you do your work.
I have two basic parts of the environment In Mexico City, as far as graphics are concerned, that have kind of hung in. The Metro is still functioning and they do a lot of good applications. There are a lot of things that could be corrected and to make part of a bigger context, which is the city itself, and I might have a chance to do that. And a lot of the things that came out of the Olympics are really held onto both internally and externally around the city. People really relate to a lot of the images that came out of the Olympics there.
So if I can take those two things that are already established that I was very involved in, and take the next step by applying and making work better what we started out with there, that would be the dream.
Lance Wyman: Urban Icons is on exhibit at Mexico’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO) through October 4, 2015.
This interview has been edited and condensed.