Sign Me Up: Washington Metro’s Sign Shop

The soul, if you will, of a subway system is in its signage. From the clean lines of the London Underground and its Johnston typeface through the mish-mash of typefaces and styles in New York City’s transit system, signs do more than direct passengers. Subway signs tell a story about the aspirations and history of the system.

Be Smart: Ride Metro by wheelo541 on, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license

Today’s Washington Post story by James Hohmann, (“Metro’s Sign Shop Points Riders in the Right Way“, Tuesday, August 25, 2009) details the efforts of the people responsible for keeping the Washington Metro‘s signs updated and functional:

The sign shop provides a glimpse into the aging system that Metro is struggling to maintain 33 years after it opened. The transit system has about 127,000 signs, which need to be repaired or replaced when they become outdated, vandalized or broken. Or when someone asks for them.

“Every time a new initiative comes down the pike, that number is growing,” said sign shop project manager Paul Kram. “We don’t make policy. We make signs.”

Metro’s signs are just as memorable as the station architecture; while perhaps not as grandiose as the vaulting arches of Metro Center, the signage is distinct and legible, even when the station names grow to unwieldy lengths to satisfy various community constituencies (U St/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo might be an accurate description of the stop, but it’s about six words too long for a station name).

Of note is the trend towards electronic signs, with their limited capacity for stylish typefaces. One hopes that technology will improve sufficiently that we aren’t forced to suffer design limited by the lowest-common denominator of the LCD…

(Image courtesy of wheelo541 via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license.)

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