Ryan Murphy

Three wayfinding cures for that sense of disorientation at the top of the stairs.

Emerging from the depths of a subway station can be disorienting. Maybe you pick the closest staircase and just head for the street. You can’t idle without getting crushed by the onslaught of fellow passengers. Once outside, you choose a direction, and then make it halfway down the block before realizing that you’re headed the wrong way.

It’s a feeling familiar to all New York City subway riders, no matter how seasoned. But a number of wayfinding designers suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. Navigating could be easier. Here’s how:

Stair signage

We’ve previously written about the Efficient Passenger Project, which used decals to mark where to stand in order optimize transfers between lines. Recently a Rhode Island School of Design student, Ryan Murphy, set out to apply the same idea to exiting the station. He targeted a notoriously confusing Upper East Side exit on the 4/5/6 line, where a single MTA sign guiding riders to the southeast corner of a block features arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Murphy thought that directional information would be most helpful at the point between when you choose a corner and when you get above ground. He installed simple decals—“East towards 3rd Av” and “West onto Lex Av”—on the steps, letting people know which direction they’re facing as they climb the stairs.

Ryan Murphy

The MTA promptly removed Murphy’s decals, telling DNAinfo that station exits already provide “ample” guidance to riders.

Sidewalk compasses

As recently as 2007, the MTA tried to improve the legibility of subway exits. The agency partnered with the New York City Department of Transportation and the Grand Central Partnership (GCP) to launch a pilot program placing wayfinding compasses on the sidewalks just outside four station exits in Midtown Manhattan. Officials stated in a press release that after a “week-long experiment,” these temporary decals were intended to become a “more permanent fixture.” That never happened.

One of the proposed sidewalk compasses.

Marc Wurzel, general counsel for the GCP, says the project fell through after the Department of Transportation shifted its priorities. Given the MTA’s protracted budget crisis, it seems unlikely that this kind of wayfinding will become a priority anytime soon.

Instead, the city has thrown its weight behind WalkNYC, a new system of obelisk-style sidewalk installations in Chinatown, Herald Square, Long Island City, and Prospect Heights/Crown Heights. But these signposts, which feature detailed neighborhood maps and directions to nearby transit, serve a different audience entirely. If you’re a local, you don’t need suggestions for local attractions. You just need a single direction setting you on the right track—that “where the heck am I?” sign, as Wurzel put it.

In-station beacons

David Gibson, managing principal of the design firm Two Twelve and author of The Wayfinding Handbook, thinks location-based beacon technology could help riders make smarter navigation choices. Beacons communicate with your smartphone via Bluetooth, so they work underground, where GPS and wi-fi are often unavailable. If the MTA built beacons into its new touch-screen displays, for example, the devices could detect a rider’s exact location in the station and transmit directions to the ideal exit. In this way, signage would work with the way most people find their way—following a smartphone, turn by turn.

A number of cities are already incorporating mobile technology into their wayfinding systems. New York recently placed beacons in Grand Central station as an experimental ‘proof-of-concept’ beta test,” to spur innovation through its App Quest competition. Los Angeles has installed beacons in street parking signs and at Union Station. Chicago has them at 11 high-traffic rail stations citywide. London is testing a network of underground beacons that can triangulate a smartphone’s position to help guide blind people through the Tube. And since New York made its subway entrance data available for public use, there’s plenty of room for independent designers to experiment.

Gibson thinks a digital solution is more likely than an infrastructure solution, given the costs and complications of overhauling MTA signage. “Maybe an app developer provides a new paradigm for getting to exits, and then the MTA says, ‘That’s really great, we’re gonna adopt that,’” he speculates. “It could be that the tail wags the dog, if it’s clever enough.”

Back to the drawing board

As attractive as digital options are, there’s no substitute for the analog sign—that’s partly why the MTA’s, rendered in black, red, and white Helvetica, have endured for so long. A tech-based concept hinges on the rider’s ability to follow directions and stay oriented on what could be a very long walk through the station (not to mention, on the rider’s owning a smartphone). Meanwhile, GCP’s compasses seemed to arrive a little too late, after a rider surfaced—and, possibly, picked the wrong set of stairs. Even Murphy’s well-timed decals felt gratuitous, introducing more signs and prepositions to an already complicated system.

Maybe it’s time we rethink the existing signage entirely. After all, the current Unimark design only dates back to 1970, and while it is iconic, it is not set in stone.

Gibson suggests going back to basics: installing track and exit maps underground, so that riders get a feel for a station’s internal geography before they reach the surface. The maps would show where a station’s exits are and where they lead, “connecting the subterranean world with the world on the street.” In this framework, it might be helpful to number the exits instead of pointing riders to “NE” or “SW” corners, which are difficult to visualize underground—especially in sprawling stations like 42 Street/Times Square, which serves 12 subway lines across five levels and 24 entry points. And this approach wouldn’t preclude a digital wayfinding complement, like a beacon app; the two could work together to enhance a person’s sense of direction.

In a transit system as large and labyrinthine as New York’s, some disorientation is inevitable, and some will fade away with experience. But Sudden-Onset Subway Exit Disorientation is a condition that affects every MTA customer, from the born-and-bred New Yorker to the fanny-packed tourist. And we could all travel a little easier if we viewed it as a design opportunity, rather than a necessary evil of riding the subway.

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