Washington, D.C., Metro

From the SEGD archives, circa 2009.

Timeless Transit

With its good bones and Massimo Vignelli-designed graphics, the D.C. Metro is considered a classic. New additions to the system balance respect with user-focused improvements.

The design of Washington’s Metro certainly meets the expectations for a transit system in the U.S. capital. As majestic as any monument in the city, the vaulted subway stations rank among the greatest public infrastructure of the past century. Conceived by Chicago architects Harry Weese Associates, these lofty, column-free spaces have changed little since they opened in 1976, and the addition of new stops in recent years has both respected and improved upon the original vision for Metro.

"People respond very positively to the spaciousness," says Edward Riley, manager of architecture for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). "They feel safe because they can see everything within the open spaces of the stations."

From floors covered in hexagonal tiles to color-coded dots representing various lines, every detail is planned for ease of travel on the 106-mile-long system. Blinking lights at the granite edges of the subway platforms signal the arrival of trains in the station. Passengers disembark to walk past tall pylons bearing the names of the stations and ascend escalators to mezzanines before reaching the street under sleek canopies of steel and glass. 

Public respect for Metro’s well organized environments may be one reason why the prototypical station design has endured intact—and graffiti-free—with only recent updates to its wayfinding and signage systems.

“It has held up well because it has been designed to be timeless rather than trendy,” says Massimo Vignelli, who collaborated with Weese on the design of the Metro stations in the late 1960s.

Modern but classic

Their modern solution, inspired by the classical tradition, came after decades of planning for a D.C. subway system. A series of bills passed by Congress in the 1950s and 1960s led to the proposal for a regional rapid transit system called Metro and a new agency to construct and operate it. Hoping to avoid the chaotic environment of New York City’s subways, WMATA officials and planners sought clean, well-lit stations similar to Toronto’s then-new system.

President Lyndon Johnson supported the idea and pushed for a more innovative infrastructure. In 1966, he suggested Washington’s new transit systems “…should be designed so as to set an example for the nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world.”

However, only after Weese was hired did the stations assume their monumental character. A tour of subway systems throughout Europe and Japan led the architect to propose vaulted, column-free spaces for the underground downtown stations. This idea was initially dismissed by engineers as too costly until it was endorsed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the federal agency charged with reviewing designs for the District’s monumental core. A mock-up of the structure was built near Union Station to test construction techniques and interior lighting and acoustical schemes.

This commitment to design resulted in features used as a kit of parts within every station. Below the coffered ceilings, mezzanines for buying tickets and entering and exiting the Metro were designed as levels independent of the vaults. Signs also remained separate from the stations’ curved enclosures.

Minimal graphics

“Weese did not want anything to interfere with his architectural statement,” Vignelli recalls. “So we agreed not to have a strip or a panel on the face of the vault. I came up with idea of the pylon as a single element to combine all the functions—signage, lighting, HVAC, and so on—on the platforms. He was receptive to that idea.”

Vignelli’s square porcelain enamel pylons display the name of the station and incorporate loudspeakers, fire emergency boxes, air vents, and uplights to illuminate the vaults. “They relate to the vaults but are independent of the vaults,” notes the Italian-born designer.

Freestanding in the center of the platforms, the pylons are placed on the diagonal so as to face travelers as they leave the trains. 

Their brown color, Vignelli says, came from the bronze used to forge the single columns announcing the station names outside the Metro entrances. Stripes and dots identify the Metro service lines, which are simply named Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, and Blue.

Helvetica type running up the side of the pylons and throughout the stations was chosen for its legibility. “This choice of Helvetica was an excellent selection given the type's clarity, objective form, and broad appeal,” says Michael McBride, Metro’s manager of public art and environmental graphic design.

However, Vignelli kept wayfinding graphics to a bare minimum, and soon WMATA added more signage to the stations in response to public complaints about the scarcity of wayfinding signage.

Changing with the times

In the 1990s, WMATA affixed signs to the sides of the vaults parallel to tracks to indicate the station name and provide brief directions to destinations upon existing stations. Increasing Metro ridership led WMATA to add even more signage to help improve passenger flow. In 1999, electronic signs noting the arrival times of trains were installed on the platforms.

“One of the problems was that over the years, signage had been added to the pylons and other places, and people didn’t know where to look to get directions,” says Riley. Public confusion and complaints prompted WMATA to undertake a pilot program in 2002 to study ways of improving wayfinding from inside the stations.

Working with Ilium Associates (Bellevue, Wash.), WMATA experimented with sign placement and alternative typefaces and colors to highlight directions to destinations within and outside the stations.

These graphics were tested at the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop next to the Verizon Center arena and two Smithsonian museums, where the Metro’s Red, Green, and Yellow lines intersect. “It is one of the most complex stations to navigate because of the convergence of lines, platform levels, and the high-occupancy venues that surround the station,” says McBride.

To help guide travelers, directions to destinations were moved from the station identification signs on the sides of the vaults to new signs at vertical circulation points. “We placed some signs directly over escalators so you would read them like you would at an airport where signs are typically placed overhead,” says Sellars. Wayfinding information was placed perpendicular to the tracks so as to be more obvious to the public. “It became clear that the ridership experience would be enhanced if we improved the signage by placing it to follow the path of the passenger,” he adds.

To ease navigation further, Sellars developed bifurcated signage with directions to destinations both outside and inside the station. On one half of the sign, he spelled out landmarks such as the arena and museums in Bodoni serif typeface on a light brown background. On the other, he kept the in-station wayfinding in Helvetica on a darker brown ground.

Based on the test results for these designs, Gable Signs (Baltimore) fabricated and installed the new signs at the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop before going on to complete signage for the Red Line infill station at New York and Florida avenues, one of three new destinations opened in 2004.

Keeping the image alive

The new stations mark a change from Vignelli’s original vision, featuring a new generation of signage based on Metro’s push for more contemporary, easier-to-read designs.

“The original signage system placed most signs parallel to the movement of Metro customers,” says McBride. “However, in response to customer comments about signage and dramatic increases in ridership, we have found that strategically placing signs perpendicular to customer flow at decision-making points enhances individual wayfinding and improves mass movement throughout the system.”

On the platforms of the new Morgan Boulevard, Largo Town Center, and New York Ave-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University stations, slender round poles topped by four integral light fixtures have replaced the brown pylons and globe lights from older aboveground stops. Signs indicating the direction of the trains extend from these new posts. Hung perpendicular to the tracks to face the traveler, they feature text in Metro's standard Helvetica typeface.

The Bodoni serif face tested at Gallery Place was abandoned because “many people had trouble reading it, especially the visually impaired, and the U.S, Commission of Fine Arts staff recommended not using it,” explains Riley. “We also did not want to present something radically different from what worked well. The intent of the new signs is to keep the overall look familiar to our customers while at the same time making them easier to read with more concise, pertinent information.”

The new signs are made of aluminum and are slightly curved for improved legibility, following the model used by Amtrak and other transit agencies. Cut-outs in the illuminated signs are covered with an acrylic infill, while non-illuminated signs have engineer-grade vinyl lettering applied to their faces.

“The biggest challenge so far in the new stations is making sure the mounting of hanging signs is sturdy enough to withstand wind pressure,” says Riley.

The same type of signs will be installed in 11 future stations being planned for the new Silver Line, a 23-mile-long corridor extending from West Falls Church Metro Station on the Orange Line to Dulles International Airport in Fairfax, Va. The first phase of the Extension to Dulles project is scheduled to open in 2013, adding five new stations to the existing 86-station system.

Though the signage system has been changed to aid increasing numbers of Metro passengers, it still employs Vignelli’s original vision, says McBride. “White Helvetica on a brown background has become the Metro signature for signage and is at the core of our image,” he says. Those graphics will continue in the new stations. Adds Riley, "The intent is to keep Metro’s image alive."

--By Deborah Dietsch, segdDESIGN No. 27, 2009

Editor's note: Washington, DC-based writer Deborah Dietsch covers art, architecture, and design for numerous publications. Her latest book is Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work.



Location:  Metropolitan Washington, D.C.

Client:  Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Design:  Don Sellars, Ilium Associates (Next Generation Pilot Study)

Fabrication:  Gable Signs (pilot study, Red Line infill station), Signs and Decal Corp. (Largo and Morgan Boulevard stations), Winsor Fireform (porcelain enamel)

Photos:  Larry Levine/WMATA (except as noted)


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