Introduction: Over the years, Show+Tell has worked on the Environmental Design / Signage Design of numerous Transit Centers in many major cities around the world. We’ve seen some great design and some not-so-great examples, both giving us hundreds of “lessons learned”. After taking lots of notes, I wanted to share passages of my ‘transit design’ journal. I’m sure these are ideas many of you have gleaned as well, but I thought I’d post them for anyone to use, comment on, share as you like. Hopefully having another’s perspective may help you make your case one day.

Designing The User Interface of a City

Today, the brand of a city is more than just a logo, a snappy TV ad or a great website. Just like in retail,  a modern city must deliver genuine in-person experiences in order to give residents and visitors real and relevant emotional touch-points that will create bonds that in turn develops value, investment and loyalty.

The public spaces where a city’s brand is most effectively conveyed are the same ones as always:

    • Transit Centers
    • Parks
    • Downtown zones or public squares
    • Shopping districts
    • Historical sites

One of the greatest opportunities to introduce and embed the character and brand of a city is through smart design of Transit Centers – from the architecture, materials, colors, to its wayfinding, signage, and physical and virtual digital interconnects with the world. Unfortunately, in many cases, this is a missed opportunity that is neglected and forsaken – often because bad design isn’t easily recognized as the cause of a larger identity problem.


Transit Environments: The Brand of Today’s Cities 

Everyday, there are more and more wonderful examples of new transit hubs opening all over the world. Beautiful structures from the world’s leading architects anchor and validate a city’s virility as a ‘player’ on the world stage of modern cities. To attract the biggest companies, talent, and financing to their area, a government must build private-sector alliances and design creative financing plans to produce grand transit creations from international rock-star architects. Just as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty did in the late 1800’s, transit centers become the cornerstone gateway branding for a modern city today.

Singapore’s new Changi Airport is part airport terminal, hotel, shopping center, amusement park and rainforest.

The Beijing Daxing Airport (just opened) is currently the world’s largest. China is building 8 new airports every year with a total of more than 216 new airports by 2035.

The Port Authority of NY/NJ  is renovating JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports to play in an ever competitive landscape of leading cities with easy access from its major transit portals. A massive, but mostly invisible underground construction project has been underway for many years to expand and modernize Grand Central Terminal – accommodating [millions] of commuters to and from Long Island.   

While Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong are among the newest, cities like NYC, San Francisco, Miami and Chicago are creating new world-class architectural marvels that will make mass transit stations and terminals be both efficient and memorable. Paralleling contemporary retail design trends, in transit, an emphasis is being put on providing a better user experience. 

An airport, train or bus station can be thought of as a core user interface element for a city. We are all aware how fundamental a user interface is to a mobile app – usability or friendliness can determine whether a user will return for a second trip. This is fundamentally a design challenge, and in the same way, transit design can make or break the user experience for both visitors and residents. 

Good design of a transit center is critical to the first and lasting impression on visitors. For residents, bad design in transit is a constant blemish eroding their faith in a city, while good transit design reinforces their happiness and commitment to that city.

Have a look at the design of your city’s transit hubs.
What does it say about where you live?
How is your town greeting transit visitors?

In the next section, I’ll discuss some specific lessons around Customer Satisfaction Design Elements, and the influences that compete against success.

Read next:   Transit Design Journal (Part 2)

Some interesting reading: 

Why Did America Give Up on Mass Transit? (Don’t Blame Cars.)

Transit Hubs: A Growing Lure for Developers

China is building 8 new airports every year