The City’s preservation board investigates designating the entire subway sysem a heritage property — putting it on a collision course with the TTC 

“As the son of an architect, I was always amazed at the architecture of the subway. Once, it was breathtaking and beautiful,” recalls city councillor Adam Vaughan. “When those old trains came through the stations, the primary colours really played off the maroon of the subway cars in a way that was quite rich. The nostalgia around the TTC system was always pronounced with me… I have rich, vivid memories.”
So Vaughan was interested and concerned when he read a story I wrote for EYE WEEKLY (“Signs of dysfunction,” July 12) about Toronto typography expert and transit activist Joe Clark’s campaign to preserve the historically unique signage of the TTC, which has been neglected for decades and is currently threatened by a station modernization project. After visiting the website of Clark’s TTC Signs campaign (www.joeclark.org/TTC), Vaughan, as a member of the Toronto Preservation Board, felt he needed to act.

“It occurred to me that we needed to provide the TTC with a little directional kick in the pants to take care of a couple things,” says Vaughan. “One is the rich design history, which was part of their whole psyche in the early years but has left the station in ways that are really quite deplorable.… The fact that there’s a whole history to the type, a whole history to the station design, a whole history to the different lines and how they evolved and how they represent different periods in Toronto’s history needs to be honoured and recognized.”

He put my article on the agenda for discussion at the preservation board’s meeting Nov. 9 and, after hearing a presentation by Clark (and some brief remarks from me), the board voted unanimously to have staff report on the possibility of designating as Heritage Properties the entire Bloor-Danforth subway line and the Yonge-University line between St. George and Eglinton. Such a designation would require the TTC to consult with the board about any renovations or changes to the stations, and to ensure that such changes respect the historical character of the original design. The motion calls for staff to report first on designating the eight stations currently scheduled for modernization, which could put the board on a collision course with the TTC.

Clark’s campaign, begun this summer, calls on the TTC to respect and preserve the unique typeface and other characteristics — including colour patterns, tile work and original signs affixed to the walls. Stations including Pape, Victoria Park, Islington and Kipling are scheduled to be renovated in the immediate future and, at least in the case of Pape, plans call for a complete overhaul. Such a move would eliminate the design uniformity that currently exists across the entire Bloor-Danforth line, with consistent colours repeating in sequence, consistent tile patterns and one unique TTC-designed font inscribed on the walls. The renovations are part of a 35-year plan to modernize every station in the system at a rate of one per year.

“The trick is trying to prevent the destruction of the subway system as we know it,” Clark says. “What are these [TTC] commissioners doing, exactly? Through malign neglect, they are beginning a 35-year process of destruction. Because if they make over Pape station so that it doesn’t match any of the other stations, if they make it over in artificial stone — which has “fake” right there in the title — then the design uniformity of the Bloor-Danforth line is busted, and that gives future generations of commissioners authorization to make every station different.”

Clark is encouraged by the preservation board’s response to his campaign. “It’s a good sign, an excellent and necessary corrective to what the archaeologist who runs the TTC is doing,” he says, while cautioning that the wording of any designation must be specific to ensure the TTC does not simply preserve the typeface of station designations and disregard everything else.

The archaeologist mentioned derisively by Clark, TTC chair Adam Giambrone, says that he’s willing to work with the preservation board but that he thinks designating every station on entire lines is excessive.

“Usually we don’t expect to see every single station designated. Some of them certainly deserve designation … the system was built out over a number of years and I’d think you’d want examples of each of those stations.”

Giambrone says trying to preserve the look and feel of stations — which require renovation due to the need for wheelchair accessibility and general wear and tear — could be expensive, since the colour, size and shape of the original tiles are no longer produced.

“We could get special tiles, presumably someone could make them, because they do reproductions, but it’s going to be very expensive.”

Pointing to the multi-million dollar budget for each station’s renovation, Clark scoffs at this argument. “Let’s spend the money. Would you like me to chip in? I can set up a Paypal account if you want.”

Vaughan takes a similar view, characterizing the TTC’s recent bare-bones approach as being “too cheap to be special.” He says it’s the wrong way to approach infrastructure. “You can build a city off a budget sheet, but you end up with Tucson…. The reality is if you build Paris, you’ll have an economy. If you build an economy, you’ll have Houston. Or Calgary. The poet laureate [Pier Giorgio Di Cicco] has said it the best. He said ‘beauty has its own economy,’ and he’s right. The old subway stations were beautiful, and they found their own economy. It’s the roots of the wealthiest transit system in the world in terms of being able to generate passengers and off-peak passengers…. The Toronto Transit system is still one of the great transit systems in the world and it performs in a way that’s quite spectacular, despite its underfunding. That finds its roots in the attention to detail of the earlier generations who used to run it.”

While promising to work with the board, Giambrone claims it may be too late for Pape station, where, he says, an artificial-stone redesign is too far along to stop. “We’re going to have to figure this out. We’ll work with them — there are already some stations like Pape, where contracts are being issued. So those will go ahead, I suspect, before designation. We’re going to have to take a look at it.”

Clark thinks it is urgent that the “destruction” of Pape station be halted, and is considering taking the fight to city council.

Vaughan would also like to see the TTC slow down its plans there to wait for the preservation board’s advice. “If it’s too late for Pape, my apologies. But the reality is, we’re going to move to try to curb the way the TTC is approaching this and approach it from a perspective of heritage and not just of refreshing the subway system. We’re going to immediately get a handle on the eight [stations] that are most likely to change and get them to just be refreshments rather than renovations. And then, for the two heritage lines in particular, that have a really consistent set of design principles attached to them, to immediately establish what those principles are and make sure that all future conversions talk to that status.”

Vaughan claims the Bloor-Danforth line is a set and that, aesthetics aside, tells us something important about our history, something worth preserving. “When we built the subway, we built it as one big project. That in and of itself is what the design of the subway speaks to — [a time] when we had the confidence and the ability and the vision to build infrastructure the size and the scope of the Bloor subway line. That’s an amazing mindset compared to what we have today, where if we’re really lucky we could add a station and if we do, it should just be bare concrete because everyone will think we’re rich if we do it any other way. We didn’t just sort of go to a computer and print some signs, we designed a friggin’ typeface. That speaks to a level of design and a level of endeavour, which is, in fact, real city building. Now we just renovate.” 

Originally published November 14, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

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The TTC is the keeper of a one-of-a-kind typographic treasure: the font used on the walls and old signs of most subway stations. Created from scratch in the 1950s with the launch of the subway system by a now-forgotten designer, the distinctive, unnamed, all-caps typeface features, among other things, near-perfectly circular forms on the O, Q, C and G; sharp points on the A, M, N, W and V; and a cute, almost cartoon-like R with an oversized round and a stubby little leg. This typeface has been the object of some amount of public attention recently, alongside the generalized TTC appreciation that’s sprung up in the Spacing magazine-led activist community. Not that the transit commission has done anything to preserve this heritage or to encourage enthusiasts.

“The TTC had a unique typographic legacy and, by accident or design, destroyed it,” writes Joe Clark in “Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway,” a 50-page research paper he presented earlier this month to the Association Typographique International conference in Brighton, UK, the source of the above font history. The Toronto blogger, accessibility consultant and typographic expert has recently been leading a campaign to address problems with TTC signage, as I reported here on July 12 (“Signs of dysfunction,” City – full disclosure: my reporting on the campaign is cited in several places in Clark’s report). “Inscribed in the living tile,” now available on his website at www.joeclark.org/atypi-ttc, comes complete with photographs and pages of references to make his case comprehensively: the TTC’s slapdash approach to signage has disregarded history, accessibility, functionality and consistency.

Various approaches to way-finding have usually been implemented piecemeal with no formal testing, and when testing has been carried out, it has been disregarded (in the case of a way-finding system tested at St. George station in the early ’90s, Clark reports that the discarded tests cost almost $400,000). Along the way, Clark outlines the previously untold history of the TTC font and other great bits of subway miscellany.

For the TTC, the report should be an alarm to wake them from their signage sleepwalking. But for the general Torontonian, it is worth a read for its well-documented historical accounts of the TTC’s growth and expansion, its blow-by-blow recaps of bureaucratic bungles past and present and, not least, for Clark’s entertainingly deadpan prose (“The Sheppard arrow probably functions adequately. The Paul Arthur arrow might have been used instead had the TTC not forgotten it existed”) as he documents in excruciating detail the way-finding mess of today’s TTC.

Originally published in Eye Weekly, September 20, 2007.

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 (www.joeclark.org/ttc), 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 http://www.eyeweekly.com/daily.)

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.