Compliant and Consistent— Creates Tools for MBTA

Read Time: 7 minutes

From an existing signage audit to developing manuals, guidelines and custom software, (Boston) designed a completely new wayfinding program for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s vast system.

In 2004, the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) and the MBTA signed a Settlement Agreement which promised improvements to various aspects of system accessibility, including the signage system. It even created a new department of System-Wide Accessibility to oversee design and implementation. The other facets of the MBTA’s still ongoing customer experience enhancement effort include: Customer Assistance Ambassadors, coordinated system and line maps, countdown arrival clocks, audio announcements, improved lighting and new finishes.

In terms of wayfinding, the main goal read simply: “[To] create a consistent system of signage and location of signs throughout the MBTA system.”  This, however innocuous it sounds, was no straightforward task: Since its modest beginnings in 1897, the MBTA system has grown incrementally, increasing in complexity and reach with each passing decade, it now comprises over 150 subway stations, 130 commuter rail stations, eight ferry stations, and 8500 bus stops.

As a result of this additive growth, travelers frequently find it difficult to navigate the fourth-busiest transit system in the United States and wayfinding signage has often been cited as the culprit due to lacking consistency and clarity. In addition, the redesign of the system aspired to be united in a “one-system” brand across all modes of transportation, allowing for customers with different mobility needs to move with greater ease through stations. In essence, a holistic reassessment of how the system works was needed.

Enter, who came on to the project initially in 2009 to help revise the existing sign manual, then to do a visual audit—because the scope and estimated costs of updating the signage were largely unknowable without one. “We sent teams out to photograph every sign in every station on the subway, commuter rail and ferry lines,” remembers Sela Bailey, senior associate. “We also developed plans and sections, so we have a complete library for each station.”

Then, they took that information, which took a year to compile, and documented a much larger problem than initially identified by the BCIL, back to the MBTA. “What the research showed was a wide range of inconsistencies over time,” explains Chris Iwerks, principal. “The existing sign manual, developed in the 1970s by Cambridge Seven hadn’t always been applied and had never been updated to address ADA compliance, changes in design technology or the shifting conditions and needs of the system at any point.” From that point on, the team evolved a new Signage DNA – a set of guiding principles for creating clear, correct, and consistent signage that would work everywhere. was tasked with a number of specific design challenges over the period from 2009 to 2015, to include: documentation of existing wayfinding signage and physical infrastructure at all MBTA subway, commuter rail, and ferry stations; development of a new vocabulary and rule system for signage design; a digital signage manual/website that provides guidelines for signage layout and fabrication; software for creating visual and tactile signage; and “How To” instructions for use by MBTA staff and consultants.

The architecture, planning and experience design firm—admitting they are not signage specialists —credits their success in problem solving to a methodology they call “Outcome-Driven Design,” a framework for including varied stakeholder perspectives in the design process by way of starting with the identification of desired future outcomes—not preconceived solutions. The combined concepts that inform the ODd methodology came from examining protocols from the innovation, education and behavioral economics worlds (see the work of Daniel Kahneman). “It forces everyone to slow down and think outside of current solutions,” explains Iwerks. “which in turn leads to better decision making.”

That process led to the development and production of the four key innovations of the project: Digital Signage Manual, Data-Driven Graphic System, SIGNmaker Software Suite and the End-to-End Delivery Process. During the six-year process, the design team frequently presented to stakeholders, MBTA staff and the public; the BCIL was consulted regularly and feedback was incorporated throughout.

A large part of the work for the team was developing design guides, which included the Digital Signage Manual, DSM Management Guide, Signage Guidelines Book, Signage System Overview for Design Consultants and Wayfinding Training Guide. The DSM is a browser-based repository of station information containing over 3,000 pages of content including spatially indexed photography of every individual sign at all 288 stations.

The DSM also hosts the new wayfinding signage manual, which provides instructions and tools for the end-to-end process of sign design and fabrication specific to the unique configurations and requirements of each individual station. The Signage Guidelines Book is a 730-page definitive user manual for every aspect of the signage design process, including standards, methods and software use, while the Wayfinding Training Guide provides a 36-page curriculum for in-house personnel, with practice modules and training videos for developing station signage.

The entire MBTA signage system was built by the team using a newly-designed library of standard wayfinding graphic elements. These elements include a standard set of icons, colors, fonts and size variants, as well as predefined text for lines and destinations applicable to each individual station. Software applications were developed as a way to leverage these rule-based graphics, helping to assure consistency and compliance of signage over time.

“We needed to make everything ADA compliant, which led us to think about how to create a program for sign design,” describes Iwerks. “We enlisted the help of a programmer to create  menu-driven software programs where you choose a specific station and sign type and work through the details by selecting applicable icons and pre-defined text.” To prove that it worked, they did the signage for every station—all 288 stations’ worth of signs—then trained MBTA staff how to use the software and create spatial layouts. The ultimate goal was to provide the tools necessary for the Authority to easily create consistent and compliant signage packages—without having to reinvent the wheel with every new project.

In addition to building-in ADA compliance, the design team spent time and effort making certain the system was accessible to color-blind individuals as well. The previous application of color coding via banding on signage was the sole identification for the subway lines—a serious oversight if you have difficulty distinguishing green from red or orange—particularly at the multi-line stations. “Ultimately, we put the ‘color name’ of the line and its terminal destination inside a colored oval to solve the issue,” says Iwerks. “It wasn’t novel; but it was vital to catch up to normative color use.”

The software tools they developed, called SIGNmaker, SIGNmaker TB (TB stands for tactile/braille) and SIGNmaker BUS (specific to the MBTA bus system) are custom, menu-driven applications for automating the visual station signage design process to ensure that wayfinding signs are correct, clear and consistent across the system. SIGNmaker outputs  ½” scale sign files for use in construction documents, as well as full-size EPS sign files for direct fabrication of porcelain enamel signs, SIGNmaker TB does the same for ADA-compliant tactile/braille signs, outputting drawings ready for fabrication in cast zinc. The TB system also includes layouts of directional signage at key decision points within a station, as well as room ID signs and station entry maps. In addition to enabling auto-generation of full-size signs, SIGNmaker BUS is linked to MBTA’s route database of 18,000 stops and serves as a content management tool for the MBTA’s in-house Bus Operation staff.

This new wayfinding system has now been fully adopted by the MBTA and is used in the creation of all new subway, commuter rail, ferry and bus signage installations. Their signage and graphics department has been trained in the use of SIGNmaker software as well as the end-to-end methodology for implementing signage at all new and renovated stations.

It’s been a landmark project for the team as well: their first of this kind. “This was also the first project I worked on after coming out of grad school,” recounts Bailey. “The thing I found most exciting was how widespread it would be and how much impact it would have on the whole transit system.”

To date, the new wayfinding system has been fully deployed at eight of 288 stations and at over 3,000 bus stops. Customer Assistance Ambassadors at key stations report exceptionally positive user feedback. In addition, ridership is up, and new stations are under construction; most importantly, however, the BCIL is highly supportive of the design concepts of the new system, stating that the end results “exceeded their expectations” for improving wayfinding for all riders.


Project Name: MBTA Systemwide Wayfinding
Client: MBTA Systemwide Accessibility
Location: Boston
Open Date: 2015—current
Strategy/Planning/Research and Wayfinding Design:
Design Team: Chris Iwerks (principal, project leader), Sela Bailey (senior associate, lead designer), Terra Caussin (digital interface designer, content manager), Doug Jack, (designer, tactile typography design), Joshua Simoneau (systems and graphic designer), Matthew Zbawiony (tutorial products), Lauren Drojarski (field documentation), Jakov Kucan (SIGNMaker software development)
Photography: Chris Iwerks