It’s a long story: a 98-year-long story, in fact. When the much-anticipated addition to the Q line of the New York City Subway initiated construction, Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design Consultants began the highly-specialized work of wayfinding for the first new stations in nearly 30 years.
Circles and Stations
The Upper East Side of Manhattan had been notably underserved by the New York City Subway system for decades—the idea was first proposed in 1919.1 After fits and starts with funding and digging new tunnels under Second Avenue over the years, in 2004 the Metropolitan Transit Authority and New York City Transit organizations made the official commitment to renovating one and building three completely new multi-level “Phase One” stations as an addition to the Q Line. The stations would be connected by two miles of track running from Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street to Second Avenue and 96th Street.
After being invited along with several other design firms, Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design Consultants (New York) were chosen for the Second Avenue Subway signage and wayfinding work, consulting with the architects, a joint venture between AECOM and Arup. C&VE was an ideal candidate for the project, having completed a range of transportation work, including work with Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit.
The C&VE team employed a rather “ballsy” strategy in their presentation for the work, in order to make a unique impression. In a room filled with engineers, so quiet one could hear a pin drop, they concluded their presentation with a risky (or risqué) joke: “We’re right for this project because we think the New York City Subway is the subway with balls!” “It was very funny; it caught everybody off-guard,” remembers SEGD Fellow David Vanden-Eynden, Co-founder and Principal of C&VE. The “balls” referenced are part of the visual language of the New York City Subway—both the colored globes outside the entrances and the circles with letters and numbers, which identify the lines—that people often refer to as “balls” or "bullets."
The completely new stations were designed to have three levels with center loading or island platforms with very few or no columns and high ceilings. This was in stark contrast to many of the older stations, which have side loading platforms for inbound and outbound trains, low ceilings and are littered with columns. The station improvements are thanks to advances in construction and engineering. Unlike the three brand new stations, the 63rd Street station was a newer existing one that serviced the F Train to Roosevelt Island.
The 63rd Street station is comprised of two center platforms stacked on top of each other, of which one-half of each platform had been walled off and the platforms and tracks used for storage, which the C&VE team was able to tour as they were preparing for the project. Chris Calori, SEGD Fellow, Co-Founder and Principal of C&VE describes the behind-the-scenes experience: “It’s a bit like exploring an ancient Egyptian tomb–it was actually really fascinating.” The rest of the preparation included a thorough review of architectural documents, user data from Transit Authority’s Station Signage group, the NYCTA Graphic Standards manual and scores of meetings with the MTA and design team.
The group of professionals and the effort expended to create these new stations was nothing short of gargantuan. From the architects, engineers and planners to the Station Signage Group, MTA and the Arts in Transit initiative, “There were hundreds and hundreds of people involved with this project,” remarks Vanden-Eynden. The C&VE team, however, worked most closely with two of these groups, the Station Signage Group and the AECOM-Arup architecture group.
As consultants to the architect group, the C&VE team’s main focus was the communication of navigational directions to users through the design and placement of station signage in visual concert with the existing graphic standards. It wasn’t all just legibility and graphic continuity; C&VE worked in close coordination with the AECOM-Arup group, consulting with the team on everything from wall finishes and graphic reproductions on columns to sign suspension systems and the effect of subway dynamics.
Wayfinding design for these complicated subterranean spaces was no small task. “When people are so deep underground and have no physical reference to North, South, East or West they are usually disoriented by the time they reach the street,” says Calori. “Orienting people where to go up, down, etc. plus transfers between the Q and F Line became very interesting from a signage point of view.” Each station would have hundreds of signs to inform, guide and direct users to their destinations inside the station, as well as to their ultimate exit from the subway.
Each station is the length of two to three blocks, so if a subway rider exits at the wrong end, they may be quite far from their intended destination. The stations are composed of three levels: platform, mezzanine and street level. The core conceptual intention of the station design was to promote navigation and circulation of both departing and arriving passengers on the mezzanine level to ease congestion on the platform itself. It was equally important to assess each decision point with the first-time subway user in mind: “A user might not know what, say, ‘Uptown’ means. Am I Uptown at 68th Street or 98th Street?” posits Vanden-Eynden. “The scope of work was ‘get people in, get people out’ and everything that happens in between, but you could say the first-time user was the true focus of our work.”
Working on a New York City subway wayfinding project comes with a handy guide: the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, by Unimark’s Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda. The Manual was developed in 1970 and because of its extremely consistent application and recognizable colored "balls,"white Helvetica text and black backgrounds, it has become emblematic of the subway itself and leaves no room for graphic deviation.
The Graphics Standards, however, were designed for the existing stations at the time—there’s nothing in the manual to prescribe what to do without columns or low ceilings. “It’s a whole different architectural and design vocabulary, which was one of the challenges of this project,” Vanden-Eynden explains. The Manual goes into great detail about the placement, size and number of signs in addition to the use of maps, colors and typefaces. Adds Calori, “The Graphic Standards were based on a module that was 12 inches wide. For all signs that weren’t part of the architecture, we used those modules, but for tiled walls we had to break the module to fit within the architecture.”
The C&VE team worked closely with the Station Signage group, getting their feedback at key points to ensure visual conformity and continuity in accordance with the Standards. The two teams, consultant and client, were deeply committed to the betterment of the city and were well suited for the collaboration. They were able to discuss the applications of the project in a way only graphic designers could. Says Calori of the teamwork, “We got into the nuances of it. For example, the Standards Manual calls for Helvetica Medium, but the original cut of the typeface is no longer available as a font.”
Another challenge unique to this project was that the graphic work was on the same schedule as the architectural design and had to be completed at the same time—a bit of an anomaly. Architectural changes and revisions along the way created a fair amount of pressure, but the project proceeded as normally as possible; the work for the four stations was slightly staggered, which eased the process.
While the architects and C&VE were doing their job, there was another separate, but very involved group at work—Arts in Transit. Arts in Transit was responsible for much of the placemaking work in the new stations, bringing in artists like Chuck Close, Sarah Sze, Vik Muniz and Jean Shin to craft sizable, spirited murals in tile.2
Because of the size of the stations, the architectural drawings for each level were composed of many sheets on which every sign was drawn to scale, each coded with location markers for cross-reference across drawing match lines. To add to the growing mountain of drawings, the team had to perform a series of checks special to transportation projects.
The Quality Assurance Quality Control (QAQC) process dictates that a three-to-four person team from each discipline perform color-coded checks, cross checks, and signoffs on each drawing. The first person would check the drawings for errors then a second person would check their work. The third person would make all the corrections noted and the fourth would cross check to make sure all of the corrections were completed. The QAQC checks added a significant amount of time and paper to the process but were very effective at catching technical errors. “Transportation projects move slowly and involve an exceptional amount of checking, because once they’re open, you can’t exactly shut them down,” muses Vanden-Eynden.
While the C&VE team did not oversee the fabrication and installation of the signage, they were intimately involved in the process of determining the physicality of it. The AECOM-Arup group designed the wire tension hanging systems with input from C&VE. They advised on signage size, weight, legibility, support, lighting, material and even wind loads. The signs were all—as was stipulated in the Standards Manual—fabricated using porcelain enamel on steel, a durable and heavy material (resistant to all but the harshest of vandalism) used in subways throughout the world. “One of the interesting things about working in transportation is you become privy to information that most people don’t know; when a train comes into a station, it pushes a lot of air in front of it causing substantial wind gusts. However a sign is suspended, it has to withstand a certain amount of wind loading,” explains Vanden-Eynden. “Things like this make transportation projects fascinating for us.”
C&VE actively worked on the project from 2006 until 2011—finishing nearly a full six years before the stations opened. Calori sums it up best: “When you think of everything involved in the overall construction, the signage seems insignificant and in terms of budget at least, it is very small—but the impact on the end user is huge. The logistics of building four stations of a subway line is enormous and it has to go slowly.”
Second Avenue Sensation
The process of designing the wayfinding for the Second Avenue Subway was long and involved but gave the C&VE team even more insight into transportation projects and a wonderful opportunity on many levels, not the least of which was to impact the lives of people in New York. “The New York Subway is one of the few subways that operates 24/7/365. Transportation projects tend to be hard, tedious, long-term projects, but the big benefit is that we get to have a real impact on the everyday lives of New Yorkers. Before that subway opened, Second Avenue was a construction site for ten years. Now that it’s open our work allows hundreds of thousands of people every day to easily find their way to and from home and work. It’s a really good feeling,” asserts Vanden-Eynden. “Nobody’s hesitating, nobody’s getting lost—we did our job well and that feels great,” agrees Calori. They noted that the project was also fulfilling because the enormous team of architects, engineers, designers and clients were all so committed to the successful outcome.
But it wasn’t only the project teams who were satisfied with the result. Daily ridership on the line has steadily grown to over 176,000, necessitating the running of additional trains and improving conditions on other lines by easing the passenger load.3 The new subway line has also decreased taxi usage by nearly 20 percent on the Upper East Side.4 The Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, was proud of the completed line, holding a well-publicized opening night party at the 72nd Street Station on New Year’s Eve.5
If the three future phases of the project are completed, the resulting total of 17 stations and 8.5 new miles of tunnels would stretch North to 125th Street and South to Hanover Square, creating the long-awaited T Line. 6
Project Name: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 Station Signage
Client: Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), New York City Transit (NYCT)
Location: New York City
Open Date: January 1, 2017
Overall Project Budget: $4.5 Billion
Architect: AECOM and Arup Joint Venture
Wayfinding Design: Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design Consultants—Chris Calori, Kisuh Chung, Jordan Marcus, David Vanden-Eynden, Lindsay McCosh, Jessica Schrader, Charles Goodwin
Placemaking Design: MTA Arts & Design, NYCT Station Signage Department
Graphic Standards Design: Unimark International with periodic updates by Michael Hertz Associates and the MTA
1,6 Wikipedia contributors, "Second Avenue Subway," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_Avenue_Subway&oldid=788161148
2 Tanay Warerkar, “Second Avenue Subway art, including work by Chuck Close, is unveiled,” Curbed, New York, https://ny.curbed.com/2016/12/19/14010084/second-avenue-subway-chuck-clo...
3 Shaye Weaver and Gwynne Hogan, “More Q Trains Coming to 2nd Ave. Subway During Rush Hour This Fall: MTA,” DNA Info, New York, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20170522/upper-east-side/second-avenue-...
4 Shaye Weaver, “Taxi Use Plummets on Upper East Side Due to 2nd Avenue Subway, Report Finds,” DNA Info, New York, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20170419/upper-east-side/second-avenue-...
5 Stephen Nessen, “New York's Long-Awaited Second Avenue Subway Finally Leaves The Station,” NPR, All Things Considered, http://www.npr.org/2017/01/02/507898727/new-yorks-long-awaited-second-av...