Transit Design Derailed: How Environments Evolve Out of Control

For every modern architectural transit masterpiece, there are hundreds of transit environments which have fallen into poor visual design decay. What is that? It’s got nothing to do with physical disrepair – it’s neglect for the visual environment and ultimately a degradation of the user experience. Too much visual noise, unclear signage, competing visual communications, displays that distract the visitor from the important information, and other visual stimuli creep into the environment to distract from the main objective. 

There are a series of natural forces, which over time come into play on a transit environment, changing it’s ‘flow’. When left unchecked, these forces can cause what may once have been a fabulous user-centric space, to turn into a seemingly uncaring and even hostile user-UNfriendly place. Though they may happen with different timings and with various emphasis depending on the site, a simple classification of the evolutionary stages are: 1) Design/Build,  2) Marketing, and 3) the Operational Problem/Fix Cycle. In the latter of these stages, the practice of ensuring good environmental design becomes overshadowed by more pressing challenges (perhaps financial) or other competing objectives. Of course it’s never the intention of the owners and operators to let the visual appearance deteriorate, it’s just that budgets, governments, growth, trends, agendas and evolution all have a way of eroding the original design vision of a transit location.

Let’s take a look at how each of these stages shift the importance of environmental design as a priority.

1) Design/Build – In this stage, typically visual design and user experience is held in a key priority position – the experience is still somewhat ‘sacred’. The projects’ momentum has often been fueled by the power of expected community benefit, transformative design and visual impact. User experience is well considered and protected by most stakeholders. In the opening of a transit environment, user experience is most scrutinized by the design and development team. Hopefully the site debuts with the purest possible expression of user-friendliness. 

2) Marketing – At some point prior to or after opening, marketing or revenue agendas are introduced for a variety of reasons. Sometimes an advertising partner is brought on to exploit ‘blank’ areas for third-party ads, bringing advertising revenue to the transit operator to offset operational costs. Sometimes the in-house (carrier) marketing team may begin campaigns to promote travel discounts, offers or other carrier based messaging, public service, or branding campaigns. Sometimes there are on-premise vendors who also would like to grab a few more eyeballs and they are allowed to install signage, banners or other attractive visual elements to ‘plus-up’ their foot traffic. There is a good deal of pressure on facility operators to make those retail tenants happy, so UX compromises are made.

Usually, the process of installing new marketing signage is as simple as finding an ‘empty’ visible spot and installing signage there. “Let’s put a giant LED screen on that big empty wall – it’s not doing anything else!”   While on the surface this sounds like a good idea – and probably is a good idea for whatever they are promoting – the fact is that whatever attention they draw to their messages is attention that was previously being directed at something else. (See part 4 – “Guest Attention – a Natural Resource to be Preserved”)

A good marketing department will definitely find creative and effective ways to draw attention from the transit audience – it’s what they do. Advertising partners have a lot at stake for getting eyeballs looking in their direction. While that spells success for their advertising and marketing goals, it ultimately creates a distraction to the travelers prime objective – to successfully navigate the space en route to another destination, on time and stress free. Depending on the traveler (see “pro vs novice” in Part 3) and the scale of the distraction, this can be welcome or unwelcome.

During Marketing additions, there is typically little or no oversight for the prime objective of the traveller – ensuring that the user experience remains relatively unaffected (the ‘sacred’ plan in Stage 1 Design/Build). It is very difficult for the marketing team members – who by this point are very familiar with the layout and operation of the location – to have a fresh eye on the negative impact of the new changes.

When adding post-opening wayfinding, digital displays, and other environmental design elements, ask:

How does the traveller’s experience change?

Has the landscape of the visual communications become busier?

How can the impact be minimized and built into the evolution of a transit site?

3) Operational Problem/Fix Cycle – It never really possible for architects and designers to understand how efficient and user-friendly a space is until it is fully opened to the public and travelers have had time to use and experience the space. Post-opening is the only real ‘beta test’ for the UX. Only in real-world daily use can one begin to see the operational trouble spots, foot traffic bottlenecks, underutilized areas, and other challenges the owner or customers may experience. This break-in period is never really finished, and the cycle of identifying a problem and designing and applying a fix is rarely ever done, it’s a daily part of the ongoing task of operating a large transit facility.

A transit facility relies on their ability to make adaptations to their location as efficiently as possible – and as inexpensively as possible. It doesn’t always make sense to contract the original architect or design team to address these alterations since doing so would certainly drive up the cost of the fix. In addition, there are trained and skilled members of the in-house operations staff who are perfectly capable of engineering a solution to the problem. 

For example, an organization may see the need for extra information to be given where a frequent bottleneck of pedestrian traffic is beginning to occur. Redesigning the original, beautiful metal-engraved wayfinding to include the new information would be prohibitive from a resource and cost standpoint. So they decide to simply add a sign or 2 at the periphery and be done with it.

The caution here is that over time, these ad-hoc additions to the visual language start to erode fundamental subliminal instructions to the visitor. In other words, in its purest state, the original design told guests “here are the places you should look for information like this”.   The new additions break those rules and now introduce doubt in the mind of the viewer. 

Imagine if, on a highway, an exit sign was placed on the left side of the road where the exit is on the right – and it used a blue background and a serif font. You wouldn’t feel very confident in the highway designers. If you saw too many variations like that, you might begin to question your ability to get where you need to go safely. Stressful.

Confusion ➝ Stress ➝ Bad Customer Experience ➝ Bad City Branding   🙁

Just add a sign. This seemingly innocuous suggestion as a solution to a problem is perhaps the simplest and most ironic cause to so much of the confusion plaguing evolving transportation terminals.

In the problem/fix cycle, there’s rarely oversight to protect the overall long-term user-experience. An argument can be made that the fixes are being done in the service of the user experience, but too often the reality is that they are adding to the erosion of the overall experience. 

Avoiding Sign Anarchy

After taking a moment to understand the goals of the Marketing and Problem/Fix Phases, it’s easy to understand how the unintended result, over time, can be visual anarchy. 

It’s not unlike communities with little or no zoning standards. The result is ‘growth anarchy’ – a hodgepodge of buildings with no logic or order. It makes and area extremely difficult to navigate, and especially complicated to overhaul. It’s very hard to rescue a clean and orderly environment out of the chaos. In city governments, there are planning officials and codes to regulate these problems from happening. Could there be a similar visual communication authority in public spaces to protect the integrity of the customer experience? To protect the City Brand?

In transit environments, how can Sign Anarchy be flagged as a problem? How can it be prevented?

Whose job is it to raise a flag and say “This is getting out of control” ?

Is there a better way to serve advertising and marketing, to allow for evolution and fixes, while still remaining faithful to the customer experience?

To be continued…    🙂

⬅︎  See Previous Transit Design Journal (Part 4)