From Guerrilla Signs to 3D Maps: Clever Wayfinding for the NYC Subway System

Urban subway systems can be disorienting, particularly when it comes to changing trains, exiting stations and maneuvering through multiple underground floors. New York City’s network is particularly notorious, a maze on many levels. These three creative projects were all developed in response to its complexity and share a common aim: making the NYC rail system easier to navigate through graphic design.

The Efficient Passenger Project

Launched in 2014, the Efficient Passenger Project was developed to help people get on and off optimal train cars in NYC. The problem: it can be hard to know which car will position a passenger to most easily access their connecting train or desired exit. The solution: a guerrilla intervention using the visual language of the Metro Transit Authority.

The anonymous creator of the EPP describes the NYC subway system as “a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways” and explains that the EPP project “is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

The EPP sign designs incorporate similar typography and colored dots, made to coordinate with existing MTA signage. Still, they were taken down almost as quickly as they were put up. The MTA’s argument: such signs could lead to overcrowding in desirable cars.

Stair Exit Signage

In 2015, Rhode Island School of Design student Ryan Murphy took a similar approach but focused specifically on exit (rather than entry) signs, skirting the MTA-raised issue of overloading particular train cars.

His below-grade interventions were designed to help people choose exits, providing guidance on the directions and destinations of staircases. Situated at eye level, they would be hard to miss.

These too, however, were removed by the MTA. In this case, authorities argued that existing signage was sufficient. While that claim is debatable, clearly the MTA is not open to guerrilla interventions.

Project Subway NYC

Over the past few years, architect Candy Chan has been developing a series of graphic designs that handily avoid potential conflicts with the MTA altogether (as they include no on-site interventions). For Project Subway NYC, she has created a growing series of detailed three-dimensional maps to help guide people through NYC subways.

“There is a lot to love and to hate about the subway, but I am specifically interested in the stations themselves,” Chan says, including “signs, stairs, turnstiles, tunnels, platforms, escalators, and the space … in other words, anything between the streets and the trains.”

First, she carefully documents specific stops, taking photographs and drawing individual spaces and stairwells by hand. In conjunction with Google and MTA details, Chan assembles her findings using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator then Rhino, a 3D rendering software.

Inspired by projects like the 3D mapping of Hong Kong’s winding underground passages, Chan’s highly readable and simplified results use minimal lines, colors and symbols for clear communication. Superimposed street outlines also help orient the user.

Like Exit Strategy, an app designed to work offline, her renderings can be carried on passengers’ devices, avoiding conflicts with the MTA while also requiring no internet access to use.

Functionality aside, they make really lovely poster prints as well.

Meanwhile, fans of guerrilla signage should take a listen to Guerrilla Public Service (embedded above) — it is the tale of one man’s quest to correct a prominent but problematic highway sign in Los Angeles.

  1. That Guy

    Not to be that guy (but I am), but the sign bullets for the trains are set in Akzidenz-Grotesk (also known as Standard) and not in Helvetica.

    1. Perry F. Bruns

      I think that falls into the category of “beautiful nerdery,” Guy.

  2. Glenn

    I’m actually quite impressed that the MTA even noticed those signs and someone took the initiative to follow up on their legitimacy. Probably their security people watching too many heist movies.

  3. I take the subway each day. E train from queens to the A aT 42nd all the way up to 181in Washington heights….Does that sound like giberish? Basically it is an hr and half commute if I’m lucky. I got on the f train by accident I had to tajke a 5 a 4 a w and a C train get back on track It was awful .

    It is also straight up filthy.

    If you can do for our subway what you did for the flag of pocatello Idaho we would all be grateful.

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