16 March, 2011

Next stop: more concrete


I am generally a mild-tempered person. However, there are a few things in life that inspire downright vehement feelings within me...they include Disney teen stars, products that pass as "cheese," and the design of the DC Metro. Let's talk about the Metro, shall we?

One of the things I believe about design - whether graphic, industrial, architectural, fashion, etc. - is that it ought, essentially, to create order out of chaos. It ought to make the world a more easily understood and navigated place. It seems to me that some people respond to the need for such order and comprehension by assuming that a totally uniform aesthetic is the solution. In the case of public transportation systems in a teeming metropolis, I beg to differ. Think about it: At certain times of day and certain periods of the year (--and really, in the nation's capital, all the time), a high percentage of passengers are tourists who are not familiar with the city they're trying to enjoy. They are flustered by trying to figure out which line, which direction, which stop, where to go at the top of the escalator, and how in the heck to figure it out all before they are trampled under a stampede of commuters who know exactly what they're doing.

They should be able to quickly and easily locate and process that information. Cities like Philadelphia or London are somewhat better at enabling passengers to comprehend and act because they utilize the power of variety; each station is well-lit and has different colors of tile work, artwork and signs related to the history of the area around a particular stop, sometimes different fonts for each station name. At the same time, they employ standard signage directing you to exits or transfers. I can be on a moving train and know at a glance exactly where I am and which way I need to go when I alight, because each station has visual characteristics that distinguish it from the others while also maintaining a degree of consistency.

The design of DC Metro stations falls short of providing this courtesy to its passengers. Every station looks the same. Every station is poorly lit. The ceiling is a bleak coffered concrete shell. These stations are gloomy places to wait for a train. All the signage is dark and tacked on the wall where it is not always easy to spot from a crowded moving train. Furthermore, the type is often too small to read quickly or from a distance, requiring you to stop and peer closely at the list of stations in order to find out where to go. Once on the train, if you can't see the sign or hear the operator, there is absolutely no visual cue to tip you off to the fact that you've ended up in Dupont Circle rather than Forest Glen. I can't count how many times I've seen people half-rise from their seat, eyes wide and full of fear, trying to discern where they've ended up and if they should be worried (okay, I've been that person, too!). It seems unfortunate that supreme standardization actually causes the confusion it was surely meant to avoid.

I wish that the design of DC Metro stations told more stories; I wish it told you something about where you are before you even arrive aboveground. I wish it told confused and weary people exactly what they need to know in a simple, efficient way. I wish it communicated with people who are blind or illiterate or non-English-speakers! I wish it were brightly lit and full of color, rather than a gloomy gray system that matches the way its commuters look and feel too much of the time. Is that too much to ask?

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