So I walked, of course, to the Sekforde Arms to attend CILIP in London's first meeting of 2010, on Legible London: A Wayfinding System for London. The speaker, Tim Fendley, of the Applied Information Group surprised us all by using a projector, something the faded grandeur of the upstairs room at the Sekforde Arms was not quite ready for, but he resourcefully improvised a screen from sheets of flip-chart paper.
The room was packed, though it was cold and snowy and the meeting came in the traditionally slow early part of January, and attracted a much broader spread of participants than usual. Stephen Cook introduced Tim, telling us that Ralph Adam, CILIP in London's usual master of ceremonies, having got lost on the way. He may have been joking.
Tim is Creative Director of the Applied Information Group and an information designer by profession; he asked if there were any others in the audience and one owned up. Tim has been an orienteer since childhood and is one of those at home with the symbolism of maps, but he said that most people can't read a conventional map. He showed us examples of the many imprecise ways people use to navigate around the capital, using the A-Z, asking for directions, which are difficult to give and to receive, or using simple trial and error. Not only do the millions of visitors to London need to find their way around, Londoners themselves may be unfamiliar with areas other than their normal places of work, leisure and home.
The Legible London project began in 2003 as an initial study working with the central London boroughs and business fora, aiming not just to improve signs, but to offer far better guidance for walkers. The project was to run a prototype, a measurable trial to prove the concept. They set about developing a taxonomy of walkers, but when they had discovered sixty different types and were still counting they gave up, and instead measured walking activity along two axes, the walkers' knowledge of the area and their speed, defined on a continuum from strolling to striding. Thus there can be knowledgeable striders, ignorant striders, knowledgeable strollers, ignorant strollers, and all point in between.
One of their key principles was that the system should be seamless, but information about places is controlled by many different organisations, and standards are not universally observed. Try finding a street number on a shop in Oxford Street. Even in the small space of the old congestion charge area Tim and his team found thirty-two different sign systems for pedestrians, including maps, diagrams and signs. Distances may be measured in walking time to a destination, or in metric or imperial units of length. There may be multiple signs showing the way to what is ostensibly the same place, but which send the walker in different directions, for example King's Cross. Yet all these signs conform to guidelines and are, in their own terms, accurate. In the picture Tim showed of signs to King's Cross, four organisations, each with its own system, had added a sign.
Signs can also be defaced, or can be inaccurately labelled with spelling mistakes. Street name plates in particular are a mess. Although there is a standard agreed by the London boroughs which stipulates, among other things, that there should be one on every street corner, it is a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. The height of signs can vary, signs on road surfaces for cyclists and skateboarders can be inconsistent and confusing and direction indicators for exits can point in ambiguous or contradictory ways. Tim concluded this section with a picture of a plethora of signs at a splendidly anarchic Irish road junction.
The problem, he continued, is one of finding the right balance between information overload and information scarcity. In their work 44.5% of the people they spoke to used the tube map to navigate above ground! London is a confused environment, with few long views. One of the reasons why Oxford Street is a successful shopping street is precisely because it is long and straight. We do not have the grid pattern of New York, or Paris's long wide boulevards, designed, I was told in my youth, by Hausmann so as to ensure a clear line of fire for artillery when suppressing the future revolts that the Parisian bourgeoisie feared after they drowned the Commune of 1871 in blood.
Apart from the health benefits of encouraging more people to walk, many tube journeys in the central area would be faster on foot. Not only this, but many central London stations, Oxford Circus for example, are frequently over capacity, and rather than costly underground building projects, better way-finding above ground could help congestion. Transport for London;s journey planner gives journey times between stations but ignores the time it takes on stairs, in lifts or on escalators to reach the platform or the surface .
Tim told us that in China, Japan and Korea, where building numbers are allocated, if at all, chronologically, people will use mobiles to guide visitors or their taxi drivers to their destination. They studied a Korean student living in London: she used the underground for very short journeys, believing it to be safe and practical. There are many other such curious perceptions. Many think that Westminster Bridge, since it crosses the river, must run north-south, but in fact it runs east-west. We navigate by shops, by nodes or by visible landmarks such as the London Eye.
Drawing on neuroscience, he reminded us of the studies showing that black cab drivers have an enlarged hippocampus†. We are apparently good at perceiving structures, but poor at understanding angles, bends and distances
To the indignation and dismay of those of us taught to read maps and orientate ourselves properly, as soldiers are, he shocked us by saying north doesn't matter. Only 60% of the people in the study drew a mental map with north in right pace. We use latent addressing systems: areas, villages or neighbourhoods.
To implement the pilot in the Bond Street area he and his team used a SecondLife-like virtual environment to experiment with signs and hit on the idea of the 'mini-lith'. As an aside, Google maps, he suggested, are useless as walking maps. For example, Wigmore Street, carrying the course of the A5204, is shown as a much bigger thoroughfare than Oxford Street.
They had to choose the right number of landmarks to include, and orientated maps the way people are facing, to give people the confidence to find the way.
In the prototype, they put nineteen signs around Bond Street, the cue for another aside, in which Tim pointed out that in Bond Street underground station there is only one reference to Bond Street itself. This station of course debouches onto Oxford Street and New Bond Street is a small but significant way away, a fact that causes endless confusion to tourists, who believe that since the station is called Bond Street, they must be on Bond Street.
They found that 1.9 million people used them; people use a series of tools, maps, mobile, signs and audio information. They conducted 1300 before and after interviews, 300 behavioural observations and 50 before and after functional tests to how information was found and used.
In questions and answers I asked how they managed the difficulties of nomenclature of London areas, for example according to estate agents most of North London is ‘Hampstead borders’? Tim replied that they had debated with residents what areas should be called, citing the example of Fitzrovia, which some wish to rename Noho (as in NOrth SOho).
The questions came thick and fast and my notes are incomplete. Here a few of the points raised:
Would it help if, at notoriously difficult underground stations exits, TfL used pictures of the scene above ground to help people orientate themselves?
Will they extends the project to all thirty two London boroughs? At the moment the project has in principle support from every central London and they are running pilots in South Bank and Bankside, the Clear Zone Partnership area (Covent Garden and Bloomsbury) and Richmond and Twickenham. Might they include the Olympic boroughs (Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest? They’re talking to the Mayor's office and the London Development Agency
Are there any examples elsewhere in the world? No, not as far as Tim is aware. Hey started with a project in Bristol. I see they have recently done some work in Brighton.
How did they decide how many signs were needed? It was based on a footfall analysis. On routes such as Oxford and Regent Street signs need to be provide on both sides of the road. Ideally they should be on every street corner, but if not, how far apart can they be, should they be only at key junctions? People have to trust the system, so it has to be consistent, unlike for example Transport for London’s real-time bus system which is not trusted.
The mini-liths have to be visible in crowded conditions.
How corruptible are you, someone asked? Are you open to bribes to send people to particular shops? Money doesn’t change hands when deciding what to put on a map, only the logic of way-finding. Tim pointed us to the example of Dubai, where the names of the metro stations have been sold to the highest corporate bidder leading to exceptionally unhelpful station names.
How do they update them? Much of the information is presented as digital print behind glass, so is easily changeable. The vitreous enamel plinths on the other hand, are made to be durable and so are less easy to amend.
One lesson in the way people look at information is the case of signs to say ‘you are here’ . Although they included these in many of the prototypes, people missed them and commented that a ‘you are here’ sign would be useful. They need to be unmissable.
† Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Apr 11;97(8):4398-403.
Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers.
Maguire EA, Gadian DG, Johnsrude IS, Good CD, Ashburner J, Frackowiak RS, Frith CD.