The city signs you see are intentionally designed to make your life easier.
Kevin Guan never struggled to get around Toronto. The 22-year-old was born with deuteranopia (red-green colour blindness), but it didn’t create many obstacles for him: he found ways to identify colours accurately as a graphic designer, and was used to navigating Toronto as a commuter. Having lived in the city his whole life, Guan acclimated to the colours and typefaces used on the streets.
That was until he started taking driving lessons two years ago.
Reading street signs as a pedestrian was never an issue for Guan, but once he got in the driver’s seat, the perspective changed. Street signs mixed in with other signage on the road—like detours—and it was hard on his eyes.
“What really threw me off was that those types of signs compared to street name signs have a different colour tone to it,” Guan explains. Some signs would be black and others would be blue. The mess of colours and different sizes of type irritated his eyes. “It’s like looking at a collage; [I couldn’t] focus on one specific sign.”
Typography: it’s an aspect of everyday life that is subtle but integral to a city’s accessibility. It’s the art of type, and in a civic sense determines the way fonts are used to navigate streets and neighbourhoods. And for a metropolis like Toronto, comprehensible typography is an essential part of wayfinding, or the different ways people are able to get from place to place.
Margot Trudell, local digital designer and creator of Pixel and Bristle, Toronto’s first design and typography market, says the fact that people don’t notice typography is a sign (pun intended) that it’s done its job.
“Good design isn’t seen,” she explains. “By that I mean if a design is good that means it’s working and that means it’s not getting in your way.” Instead of being distracted by the different colours and type on a street sign, you just read, understand, and act accordingly.
However, choosing typography for a city isn’t as easy as it seems. A city’s diverse population should be at the forefront of this decision. “In the case of typeface for [Toronto], if you’re doing street signage, for example, I would consider people with poor eye sight, as well as people who are new to the country,” Trudell says.
Street signs could be written in fancy handwriting, but even that would be migraine-inducing for people who understand English well and have good eyesight. Trudell says type that is sans serif (think Arial as opposed to Times New Roman) and evenly spaced is clean and therefore accessible to most eyes.
In order to make streets more accessible for Torontonians, the City of Toronto commenced the Toronto 360 Wayfinding Strategy, or TO360, project in October 2012. It aimed not only to help visitors orient themselves in an unfamiliar place, but also to encourage locals to discover new areas around the city.
Launching the two-year program was an onerous task that included discussions with stakeholders and the public about what improvements were needed, graphic and product design, sign prototyping, an update of Toronto’s highway destination signage policies, and planning for a digital wayfinding strategy. This all lead to the implementation of a multi-modal (multiple forms of transportation) wayfinding pilot project in the Financial District in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“As humans, we use any number of queues to orient and find our way around,” says Fiona Chapman, the City’s manager of pedestrian projects who is working on TO360.
Along with landmarks and lighting, typography is one of the queues the City took into consideration when creating its pilot project. Working alongside consultants Steer Davies Gleaves, the City designed sleek information pillars that display distances on maps, street names, icons representing nearby facilities (such as the subway or public washrooms), and descriptions of the particular neighbourhood’s history and its local attractions.
Juan Pablo Rioseco, an associate with Steer Davies Gleaves and the Wayfinding Strategy’s principal designer, says they needed to tick a few boxes when it came to making the city more accessible with typography. The first was choosing a legible typeface to use on signs. This meant using a font that was sans serif, geometric, rounded yet sharp, and came in a family of different weights and sizes.
The font that ticked all of these boxes is Gotham, a sleek typeface first commissioned by GQ magazine that is now widely used by brands like Saturday Night Live and Twitter. Gotham was used in different forms for TO360. For example, Gotham Narrow was used for street names and for neighbourhood signs they used the font in all capitals.
Rioseco and his team also used the TTC’s font, aptly named the Toronto subway typeface, as a muse for the project. “The decision was driven by the character of the city,” he explains. “Subway font is very reminiscent of the 20th century. It’s reminiscent of how the city grew.”
In addition to typeface, Rioseco says the colour of typography is also important for legibility. He explains that the best practice is to use contrasting light and dark colours. On the informational totems for the pilot project, they used a light green and dark green so that the type would stand out on the sign.
These may seem like finicky design choices, but they are choices that are vital for people like Guan. The York University student says Toronto has done a good job for the most part making the city accessible to people with different needs.
“Especially in the subway,” he says. “I think it does a good job because it’s so simple. It utilizes primary colours against a black background and the type is evenly spaced.”
However, the graphic designer had critiques for street-level accessibility. Guan says using consistent colours, either dark text on a light background or vice-versa, and maintaining that throughout the city could make Toronto more legible. He also thinks making all signage as big as the street signs found at major intersections would be beneficial for everyone.
As an ever-evolving city, Toronto continues to make strides in becoming a more accessible metropolis. TO360 is just the beginning that has inspired a new wayfinding strategy for the PATH called #PATH360. An initiative started by Toronto’s Financial District BIA, the strategy’s pilot project will launch this summer to help make the PATH a little less daunting for locals and visitors to navigate.
Chapman hopes that these improved wayfinding strategies—and the typography that comes with it—creates a more accessible city where people are comfortable getting lost, knowing they’ll be able to find their way again.