Not long ago, graphic designer Sylvia Harris emerged from a Midtown Manhattan subway station with two friends, and, without exchanging a word, they each turned right. Later, the group realized they had all fixed their direction using different methods: One had read the street signs; one had looked for the Empire State Building; and one had checked the angle of Broadway cutting across the avenue.
On December 9, Harris and other experts weighed in on an official orientation system to help New Yorkers figure uptown from downtown. Joined by design consultant Mark Randall and Grand Central Partnership spokesman Mark Wurzel, the three helped kick off an exhibition at the Center for Architecture of design proposals from students at NYU, Fordham, FIT, and Pratt, all of whom had been invited by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to take a crack at this time-honored urban conundrum.
As DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, herself on hand for the occasion, pointed out, even the most grizzled New Yorkers can get confused when emerging from a subway station. Two years ago, the agency rolled out a pilot program of compass-like decals to help orient pedestrians, and while public response was positive, dozens of new suggestions poured in, sending the DOT back to the drawing board.
So what might this sidewalk system look like? Several teams worked within the original compass motif. One FIT concept showed a ring labeling the general neighborhoods lying in each direction, while Fordham’s Michael Goncalves envisioned the subway station at the center of a bull’s-eye. A second Fordham design used a circle of gray rubber, with raised metal dots representing nearby streets and landmarks. More traditionally, Pratt’s designers made the case for comprehensively detailed maps, and NYU’s team, the most adventurous of them all, designed a sprawling cluster of arrows to encourage forward movement.
At the opening for the exhibit, which runs through January 24, experts had both praise and criticism for the designs. Randall admired several teams’ use of imagery—such as NYU’s pagoda silhouette that paid homage to Chinatown—since images can reflect local character while crossing linguistic barriers. But other panelists argued that images can be problematic, since not all neighborhoods have iconic landmarks, and if a landmark should change, the whole design might get scrapped. On the other hand, more literal map-like designs would probably be too complicated. Fordham’s clear and intuitive bulls-eye scheme won plaudits on that count. As Randall summed up, “This really should be an opportunity to develop a new symbolic language.”
Some of the most spirited debate ensued not over which design to use, but which materials to craft it with. “We like bronze because it’s easy to maintain, it can be removed, and it reflects the classic landmark nature of our community,” said Wurzel. But bronze plaques would cost upwards of $7,000 each, and since the DOT has suggested having business improvement districts in each community fund their own signage, bronze could be too costly for some neighborhoods. And some audience members argued that the orientation device should be placed at eye-level, where people naturally look, rather than in the pavement, as is the current plan. (The DOT is studying the proposals and has not yet set a timeline for the project’s final design.)
There is some question whether design is even the best solution. A large part of the cure for New Yorkers’ disorientation may, in fact, be other New Yorkers. Harris described how, in a similar project she worked on, she frequently observed people soliciting directions from uniformed sanitation workers picking up trash near the subway. “So we could think about training them to be wayfinders,” she suggested, “because they actually liked that part of their job the best.”