One activist points out that when it comes to wayfinding, the TTC is lost

If you visit St. George subway station, you can see — on half of each of the north/south and east/west platforms — a 15-year-old experimental signage system developed for the TTC by British-born Canadian graphic designer Paul Arthur.

Arthur’s system had a different typeface than is used elsewhere in the TTC; used numbers, names and colours to identify lines (and contains redundancies that may appear frivolous to those without disabilities – having both the words “green line” and a graphic of a green line would be helpful to the colour blind or illiterate, however); and various other pictographs, arrow styles and such that don’t occur elsewhere. There’s even a dragon logo representing St. George station.

That signage system was subjected to testing by Generations Research Inc. in 1994, and proved to be more effective than the other systems in place in the TTC with every group of riders. At that point, having spent an estimated $400,000 on the prototype and testing, the transit commission declined to extend Arthur’s signage to the rest of the system (citing budgetary concerns) and simply left the half-implemented, completely unique signage in place where it was at St. George.

Today the test signage is at the centre – in various ways – of a campaign and website called TTC Signs run by Toronto typography expert, accessibility consultant and transit enthusiast Joe Clark.

On his website (, Clark makes a two-pronged plea to the TTC. First, he wants to save (at least for archival purposes) the experimental signage from St. George, which had been scheduled for removal later this summer, and vintage TTC signs from other stations such as Pape, Eglinton and Victoria Park that are also scheduled for overhaul.

“Under no circumstances should these old signs be taken down and simply destroyed,” Clark says. “The trick is to stop the TTC staff from barrelling ahead and destroying irreplaceable physical artifacts for no reason.”

Second, and perhaps more importantly if (less urgently), Clark aims to point out that the TTC’s signage is a wayfinding mess, and is demanding that the TTC begin testing across the system to define a standard that will be most functional for subway riders. (Addressing possible conflict-of-interest questions, Clark is eager to point out that he has proposed the TTC hire him to catalogue the signs it has in one third of the system and produce a report. The commission has thus far disregarded his proposal.)

As a recent stroll through Yonge/Bloor and Bathurst stations with Clark highlights, many of the problems with the existing system are not hard to find: there are handwritten signs ( “this door out of service,” “elevator not working”) in various degrees of illegibility, affixed by collectors looking to make up for oversights; ragged laser-printed paper signs indicating route diversions and service stoppages remain posted for months after the events they advise of are over; the permanent signs are a hodgepodge of fonts and type styles, riddled with confusing grammatical errors, often obscured from view by pillars, other signs or frames. (For a detailed account of that tour, see

This is not about aesthetics, Clark points out. “It’s not centrally about selecting a font you like. It may not even be about selecting one font… a rational system might have many fonts. It might have at least two, you never know. Because it’s not about, ‘I really don’t like Helvetica.’ No, no, no – it has nothing to do with that. It’s all about rational choices based on performance, which an intelligent person can assess upfront, then you make prototypes, then you test the hell out of them. And it’s all about function, right?”

Indeed, wayfinding signs are not decorations, as you’d realize in an emergency if you needed the sign directing you to the exit, or if you had poor vision and needed to figure out which train goes eastbound. Right now, signage is a responsibility of the marketing department. “That means that the sign you need to get out of Donlands station when it’s on fire is equivalent to the station domination [advertising] campaign for Bud Light,” Clark says.

Of course, the TTC admits the signage needs work. To address the situation – at least on the permanent signage front – the TTC is gradually implementing a new standard, by extending the signage system in use on the Sheppard line to the rest of the system as stations are cleaned up and overhauled.

Clark says this is a significant problem, pointing out that the font in use on the Sheppard line, a “fake Helvetica” called Swiss 721, is not ideal for signage, as it blurs into illegibility under illumination (meaning the station name “Bessarion” looks like “Bessarlon” if it’s backlit, for example). The attempt on Sheppard to colour-code the subway and bus lines is not explained, meaning the colours look purely like decoration. There are other specific complaints, but as Clark points out, the key complaint is that the system was never tested, and so there’s no evidence that it works well for most people.

There is, however, some evidence that it does not work well. Though I was unable, in a series of missed phone calls, to interview Bob Brent, who was head of marketing when the Sheppard signs were approved, he says in a voice mail that, “I think Joe has an honourable cause,” pointing out that he approved the signs five years ago and now finds himself getting lost trying to navigate using them. This system, which confounds even the former TTC executive who oversaw its development, is now the TTC standard. Gary Webster, current general manager of the TTC, has publicly expressed confidence in the Sheppard standard.

TTC chair Adam Giambrone, responding to questions by email, referrs to a May 2007 report that responded to Clark’s concerns, reading, “The current TTC wayfinding signage standards were developed with consideration of what was successful in other systems (including the Paul Arthur test), and with regard to government regulated accessibility requirements and Ontario Building Code compliance.”

TTC staff confirmed that “Sheppard signage was not formally tested with the general public but special interest groups such as the CNIB, ACAT and a senior’s group were involved in an advisory capacity.”

Giambrone elaborates: “I think it’s fair to say that wayfinding signage is very important to the TTC, and not a ‘frill’ at all. They can keep testing every implementation of its standards, but I suspect that too much continual tweaking would compromise consistency, which in turn compromises the overall effectivess of the signage across the system. That said, I would be happy to support a review of the signage… if it is in fact determined to be somehow lacking. Other signage issues aside, I have not been advised that the current standard itself is a problem, except, of course, by Joe Clark.”

Giambrone points out that, despite their continuing prevalence, handwritten signs are forbidden, and he has commissioned a report on removing handwritten signs, to be delivered by the end of the year, and that report is to include examples of wayfinding signage from other transit systems.

On the preservation front, Clark’s campaign seems to have had a more immediate effect. “Direction has… been given to TTC staff to keep the St. George signage in place until it is scheduled for renovation under the TTC’s station modernization program. St. George is not yet in the schedule for this program, so there is no apparent or immediate threat to the signage,” Giambrone writes. “As an archaeologist, I have a personal interest in ensuring the preservation of historical artifacts. I’m eager to have the TTC re-establish a position for an archivist (which once existed) to work with the City archives to ensure that TTC items are properly preserved and catalogued. It makes sense to continue to use the City’s archives as the repository, but we could do a much better job of ensuring that TTC-specific articles are properly stored and identified.”

Originally published July 12, 2007 in Eye Weekly.