19 September 2002

Which Way to Manhattan?

In 1999, Paul Mijksenaar was hired by the New York and New Jersey Port Authority to change the old and confusing wayfinding systems at the La Guardia, JFK, and Newark airports to more user-friendly systems. His Amsterdam-based firm, Bureau Mijksenaar, is responsible for the signs at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, which is consistently rated by travelers as the most well-organized airport in the world. Work for the Port Authority “will ultimately replace more than 5,000 dated and confusing ones, easing the way for some 90 million travelers each year.”

From The New York Times, June 7, 2001:

“His arrival in New York was precipitated by a survey for the Port Authority three years ago by J. D. Power & Associates, a marketing firm. It revealed that among the vast spectrum of bĂȘtes noires at the three major New York airports, getting lost because of confusing directions was second only to unclean restrooms as the most irksome problem.

At Kennedy, for instance, there was no sign telling newcomers how to get to Manhattan. ‘No sign to Manhattan!’ Mr. Mijksenaar recalled. ‘Only to the Van Wyck Expressway! What is this Van Wyck? You didn’t see the word “Manhattan” until the Midtown Tunnel.’...

At the three airports, his mission is daunting: 17 separate terminals with some 300 directional signs each, including signs for garages, airport roads and parking lots. Most terminals are leased to individual airlines with competing agendas and graphics.

The old signs, dating from the early 70’s to late 80’s, almost always had white letters on dark backgrounds, and were indistinguishable from one another. ‘Most airport people don’t have the experience of clients,’ he said. ‘Their solution was to put up more signs and more signs and more signs. So it ended up being a contradictory mess.’...

The new designs are backlit and color-coded into three different modes that peg color contrast to urgency: black letters on bright yellow for “flying mode, the panic mode, the most nervous mode,” used to direct passengers to the gate and from the plane to their baggage; white letters on green for exits, the “the ‘I want to go home’ mode” (based on the color of American road signs); and yellow letters on dark gray, the “waiting mode, the time-to-kill mode,” directing travelers to the restrooms and shopping areas.

Eliminating jargon was [also] a major part of his New York mandate. He replaced the words ‘courtesy van,’ for instance, with ‘free hotel shuttle,’ ‘because that’s what it is,’ he said. ‘Long term’ and ‘short term’ parking were replaced with ‘daily’ and ‘hourly.’ Information areas are now marked with a double pictogram that combines the question mark typically used in the United States with the ‘i’ used in Europe, resulting in a rather existential new sign: ‘i?’...

Mr. Mijksenaar sometimes finds himself at odds with architects. ‘Architects fear visual clutter,’ he said. ‘So there will always be some tension. They think their buildings should speak for themselves. But how can you find a restroom that speaks for itself?’...

In 1963, while Mr. Mijksenaar was an art student at Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, the British highway authority introduced road signs that offered elegantly simple depictions of complex roundabouts. ‘It was a shock for me that road signs could be nice and good-looking,’ he said. ‘Most people think that road signs... are made by civil servants, not designers. That was a real eye-opener.’

Mr. Mijksenaar, now a professor at Delft University of Technology, designed the signs for Schiphol Airport in 1991. Other public spaces bearing his mark are the subways in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and the Dutch railway, Nederlandse Spoorwegen. He is currently redesigning immigration identity forms, with pictograms that eliminate language barriers, and is studying the ‘tax form of the future’ for the Dutch government.”

Europeans may share familiarity with a common pictogram vocabulary, but as suggested above by the use of the two different symbols for ‘information,’ it remains to be seen how well the imigration form graphics will ‘eliminate language barriers.’ As with any language, systems of symbols must be learned.

Thanks to Stephanie for the heads up.