Who doesn’t love the Luas? Smooth, clean and efficient, it gets you from A to B. And when the link-up is completed, it will also connect you to C, D, E and F. But even when it first opened I was disappointed by the signage. Like the Luas itself, the station signs are smooth, clean and efficient, but devoid of character or style.
The temporary signs at the new Luas stops are also disappointing. Designed in-house by the team at Luas Cross City, they're there to give information on the newly expanded routes. I can see the idea behind the logo: an abstract Luas, energetically gliding ahead, picked out in light blue, streaking into lime and yellow; but it could be doing much more.
When Luas Cross City opens in December, these temporary signs will disappear and all signage will revert to the standard Luas livery. The problem is that the overarching feel is highly corporate, with no emotional power.
Transport and way-finding signage is a tricky business. At its core it is purely functional: it has to be legible up close and from a distance, non-confusing, and meaningful to a whole range of ages, abilities and cultural backgrounds. But that core can also have heart. Motorway signs are designed to be read at speed, and lives are at stake if they’re not clear, simple and immediately comprehensible. But name-signage for our stations, whether they are for trains, Dart or Luas, doesn’t have to be so utilitarian.
the overriding sense is that being clean, contemporary and efficient is prioritised over heritage, pride in a sense of place, and even – dare I say it – love.
The Transport for Ireland Design Guidelines formalise uniformity across our bus, rail and Luas networks. The guidelines, which include colour specifics and templates – everything except individual operator logos, in fact – were developed by the National Transport Authority in consultation with agencies including the National Disability Agency and National Council for the Blind of Ireland. But while accessibility is vital, there's still a strong corporate vibe to the results.
According to the document: "The guidelines will enable operators and others to produce panel artworks to exact specifications ensuring design continuity across the entire public transport family and reinforcing perceptions of an integrated public transport network." The "core principles" are: colour by mode, diagrams, concise information and ease of use. The designated font is Univers (used also by Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt Airport and George W Bush for his campaign logos), and the overriding sense is that being clean, contemporary and efficient is prioritised over heritage, pride in a sense of place, and even – dare I say it – love.
it's not simply a question of romantic nostalgia versus the evil tide of modernisation.
The most obvious example of that love is the signage that Hector Guimard created for the Paris Metro in 1899. Go to one of the stations that still bear his work, at Port Dauphine or Abbesses, and it feels as if you're embarking on a romantic Parisian adventure, even if you're simply on your regular commute. In the 1960s and 1970s, the mania for modernisation, which had a parallel in the destruction of Georgian Dublin, saw many disappear. In 1978, all Guimard entrances were listed as historic monuments.
While the Guimard designs were modern in their day, it was a style that leaned on art history, but it’s not simply a question of romantic nostalgia versus the evil tide of modernisation. Harry Beck’s brilliant 1931 schematic map of the London Underground is a triumph of how to present complex information in an easy-to-understand way. Beck realised that as the Tube ran underground, the physical locations of the stations were less important than a representation of how they related to others on the network. It’s a system that has been emulated around the world.
Famous red logo
The London Underground's famous round red logo is also a classic of modernist design. Emerging from a fussier version, a winged wheel from 1905, the shape and colour system was steadily refined, and Edward Johnston's font included. London Underground knows how to add creativity to utility, employing artists, including the surrealist Man Ray, to design transport posters. An original of Man Ray's 1939 Keeps London Going, showing the famous logo transmogrifying into a Saturn-like planet, sold at Christie's in London in 2014 for £50,000. Artists are commissioned to design the cover for the Underground's pocket map – so you can pick up a Tracey Emin, David Shrigley or Rachel Whiteread to accompany you on your journey.
We don't have a great track record in Ireland with transport signage
Good signage is a balance of word and image, although the Geneva Convention (no, not that one) of 1931, "Concerning the Unification of Road Signals", prioritises the visual – which makes safety sense when you cannot be certain everyone speaks the same language. In the UK in the 1960s, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert were commissioned to create new signs, such as the little girl leading a smaller boy by the hand to denote schoolchildren crossing.
Calvert had deliberately omitted the boy’s cap and book to get rid of any grammar school/class distinctions – she described it as “more inclusive”. Controversial when they were launched, they have stood the test of time, and demonstrate how good design can convey emotion as well as reason, while still meeting legibility criteria.
We don’t have a great track record in Ireland with transport signage. Who can forget the unrolling of all those mysterious road signs in 2002, when then minister for transport Séamus Brennan came back from holidays to discover a confusing system of numbers, letters, colours and symbols had been launched? “You would want to be a maths student to understand them,” Brennan said at the time.
There have been initiatives to put art and poetry on both Dart and Luas, but imagine getting designers and artists involved in a competition to create a template for station names
There have been initiatives to put art and poetry on both Dart and Luas, but imagine getting designers and artists involved in a competition to create a template for station names. That could really go places.