Toronto Finding Its Way With New Wayfinding System
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Toronto Finding Its Way With New Wayfinding System

Sign prototype at Queen and Bay aims to better orient and direct pedestrians—and improve the city's walkability.


A prototype of the TO360 wayfinding signs.

On Friday, October 6, the minds behind the Toronto 360 Wayfinding Strategy (flashier title: TO360) unveiled what they’ve been working on since October 2012: a monolithic wayfinding prototype that’s currently standing at the southwest corner of Queen and Bay streets. Its soft launch was attended by an eager crowd of designers and city planners who’ve spent the last two years analyzing Toronto’s footfall patterns and pedestrian movements, trying to better understand what would make people walk around the city more.

“By encouraging people to make that movement on foot, you’re supporting a more sustainable, a more accessible, and a more welcoming place,” said Chris Ronson, the City’s project manager for TO360. “It’s not just about financial return on investment for the city or for businesses—it’s an emphasis on metrics such as increasing walkability, decreasing smog.”

But financial return on investment also plays a part. “More willingness to linger and spend time in these places … means they spend more money,” added Phil Berczuk, head of design at Steer Davies Gleave, the transportation-focused design firm that’s spearheading the project. If every visitor spent half a day longer in the city, Berczuk said, local businesses could earn $50 million more per year: a good reason for the City, Tourism Toronto, and the Financial District BIA to financially support the cause in the lead-up to the PanAm games.

But let’s back up: Why did Toronto need new maps at all? Mostly because the old ones, designed by Bell subsidiary Astral Media, looked like this:

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It’s no exaggeration to claim that these “InfoPillars” are unanimously hated by graphic designers and city planners across Toronto. Maps appeared on only a few of the advertising-oriented pillars, and the maps themselves are awful. “It was an advertising solution that provided mapping,” Berczuk said.

From a wayfinding design standpoint, here’s what Astral did wrong:

  • Landmark buildings and memorable places weren’t emphasized;
  • BIAs—not interesting things—were artificially colour-coded, so curious tourists had no idea where to go;
  • Maps weren’t always aligned north-up, forcing onlookers to mentally orient themselves;
  • Text was white-on-black, which is hard to see;
  • The posts’ curvature and gloss sometimes made them impossible to see in bright glare;
  • They offered no useful sense of time or distance;
  • The pillars weren’t weatherproof, so condensation ruined the maps in the winter.

And the list goes on (inconvenient locations, poor build quality, poor visual communication with the PATH and TTC). TO360 aims to fix as many of these problems as possible:

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A high-res map of the current prototype at Queen and Bay streets. Click for larger image. Courtesy of TO360.

These maps change the viewer’s focus from artificially distinct neighbourhoods to a series of connected landmarks—with malls, museums, and theatres highlighted in orange, and landmarks such as Old City Hall represented through illustrations. Each individual map is heads-up—if you’re facing south, south is up; if you’re facing north, north is up—and offers time estimates to help pedestrians better plan their travels through the city. The pillars have been designed so that colours and build materials will complement their surroundings.

Other cities have installed pedestrian-oriented maps, but Toronto’s sprawling downtown communities have been difficult to capture and correlate. Most of Toronto’s wayfinding, Berczuk said, is “inward-looking”—it tells you where you are, not where you can go.

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The prototype at Queen and Bay is a test run, and only a first step towards TO360’s two-phase plan, which includes revamping the city’s confusing highway signs and connecting all of Toronto with an aesthetically consistent wayfinding structure. In the meantime, TO360 team hopes that visitors will check out the pillar and respond to an online survey, which will help them better understand what pedestrians want to see on a map.

Staring at the pillar, Berczuk has a few ideas about what could be changed. He wonders aloud if the district name at top might be a bit small, or if the names should be on all four sides instead of just two. Having both primary and secondary landmarks highlighted in orange might be confusing. Subway entrances should probably be better articulated. “Really,” he said, “we’re out for consultation.”