Stepping out of an unfamiliar subway station in Manhattan can be incredibly disorienting, especially if there aren’t obvious landmarks around. The exits themselves are often not on the street the stop is named for, and you may have no idea which direction you’re face as you transition from being underground to the real world. Even New Yorkers occasionally pause and surreptitiously pull out a phone to get directions. Since the MTA doesn’t have clear signs to help, a design student decided to create his own.
“The whole idea is to provide information in a very simple way,” says Ryan Murphy, an industrial design student at Rhode Island School of Design. “When Massimo Vignelli designed the subway signs in the 1970s, one of the intentions was that you get the exact information you need when you need it. But if you actually navigate the subway every day in New York, you realize that doesn’t always happen.”
Murphy took on the station at 86th and Lexington for his experiment. Sixty thousand people pass through every day, adding to 20 million in a year. Unlike some of the bigger transfer stations, like Times Square, the station has a standard design that could easily be replicated in much of the rest of the city. “It’s sort of a perfect example of a mix of everyday commuters, tourists going to museums, and a general buzz of traffic throughout the day,” says Murphy.
It’s also hard to navigate. Of the eight exits in the station, six face a different direction than the labeled corner–if you get out at the northwest corner, for example, you’ll be facing east or south.
“It’s the kind of problem where you think, okay, I’m going to the Guggenheim, and that’s north–and then you get out facing south and you walk half a block and you’re kind of cursing yourself thinking you knew what you were doing,” Murphy says. “I think everyone can relate to that.”
Murphy’s signs, plastered to the stairs, offer two simple pieces of information: What street you’re going to end up on, and which way you’ll be headed. Though he tested signs in a variety of places–surreptitiously watching to see how commuters responded–the stairs made the most sense. They also worked better than something outside the station, like the sidewalk-embedded compasses the MTA tested a few years ago.
“Once you’re out of station, it’s a lot easier to look around at your surroundings and figure things out,” Murphy says. “Whereas when you’re in sort of that middle zone between knowing what corner you’re at but not yet being outside, that’s where there’s really a good opportunity for more information.”
His first prototypes, made with duct tape and plotter-printed paper and slapped on in the few seconds when no one was exiting or entering, managed to survive for a surprising two weeks. The latest version may last longer. “I decided to make some very sort of legit-looking ones–vinyl cut, waterproof, with plexi carpet tape on the back so they’re pretty permanent,” he says. “So the only way they’d be taken out is through the MTA actually doing it. This is really a bottom-up approach to try to put pressure on the MTA to think more about where certain signs are going.”
Murphy is still waiting for a call back from the MTA, but in the meantime, commuters are using the temporary signs while they last. “While I was watching, one person said to his friend, ‘Finally the MTA made some damn signs showing which direction you’re going.'”