legible london user

Tim Fendley Explains why Analog Wayfinding Tools Matter in a Digital World

The founder and CEO of Applied, the design firm behind wayfinding systems for London, Seattle, and Madrid, knows the power of good design to orient travelers in unfamiliar territory.

If you have ever walked around the center of London you will have seen those yellow and dark blue panels featuring maps, local attractions and walking times dotted along the streets and near bus and tube stops. Credited with redefining city wayfinding, Legible London, as the system is called, is now seen as the benchmark for making cities accessible and legible to residents, commuters and visitors alike. And now Seattle has launched its own version of the London system, and Madrid will do so next year. Giovanna Dunmall asks Tim Fendley, the founder and CEO of Applied, the spatial experience design practice behind all these projects, why analog is often still so superior to digital and what makes for good wayfinding.

Giovanna Dunmall: As someone who gets out of the tube and starts looking at Google Maps and panicking those Legible London panels have been a life-changer. Why is something so analogue still so much better than the digital alternative?

Tim Fendley: I think for somebody who is getting around, they don’t really care if it’s digital or physical. They just want to know where they are and how to get somewhere and an analog sign outside a tube station is still a lot quicker than using Google Maps on your phone. Humans are all about shortcuts. We have an innate ability to find the fastest way to learn something. And I don’t think you can beat the speed of analog if it’s done well. The key is: It has to be done well.

portrait of Tim Fendley
Tim Fendley’s company, Applied, is a spatial experience design group. Their work on Legible London, central London’s integrated wayfinding system is widely credited with redefining the possibilities of urban wayfinding, and has shown that smartphones and GPS can’t replace the simple efficiency of easy-to-understand maps, and clear signage.

GD: Tell me about the different maps on the Legible London panels? Why did you need two?

TF: There’s an overview map at the top and a more detailed map at the bottom, which is an analog version of a digital zoom actually. What we realized when we did the research was that some people are looking to do a bigger journey, like a 15-minute walk, while others are ‘where the hell am I’ and ‘I know it’s around here somewhere’. And so those different needs, different questions, require two maps. Originally there was a third map on top, which was basically a map of how London is laid out, but not enough people found it useful. The center of London is such a big place that it takes an hour and a half to walk from one side of it to the other. There are very few people who want to do that!

Map design examples
Fendley’s team does something uncommon in transit design: prototyping. They tested hundreds of different designs for Legible London and tested them in limited areas of the city. COURTESY APPLIED

GD: You went through 293 iterations of the Legible London panels before you came up with the final version. Can you summarize some of the main phases?

TF: Our work is very much a confluence of user interface design, product design, architecture, and information design. If you were doing designing an interface for an app or a website, you’d start with the basics of creating a wireframe, what it needs to do, how to structure it and so on, and that’s how we started too. We started with an information architecture and then we began applying graphics to that. We also did a lot of studying of London maps. We rated them all and then took the best out of those and started to design a map for people who don’t normally look at maps. Because people who are used to looking at maps, like for example people in the military, know what little clues are on a map, but we wanted the maps to work for people who aren’t used to those things.

GD: What elements do you take from product design to create wayfinding systems?

TF: The big one is prototyping. The only way to design anything good is to prototype it. Look at software. Look at the iPhone 11. The big advantage people like Google and Facebook have is that they develop a new product and test it on the market and within 20 days they know whether it’s working or not. Then they either cut it or grow it. One of the problems with transit systems, is they haven’t got a culture of prototyping. As soon as you’ve decided on a project, that’s it. You can’t prototype it…all you can do is guess whether people will like it or use it.

Station map
A man examines a prototype of a Legible London wayfinding sign in a transit center. COURTESY APPLIED

GD: How do you prototype a city wayfinding project?

TF: With Legible London we designed 19 signs and put them up on Bond Street. There was just one borough involved, Westminster City Council. And then we did an exhibition about it and told all the boroughs ‘the system is designed for all of you, but we are trialing it here in Westminster’. We showed them how well it worked, how many people recognized and used it, how much quicker it was to get to places if you used it. And then all the other boroughs went, ‘Oh, well if it looks like it may work, we want it too’. So, what we’re doing in Seattle at the moment is two pilot projects, the phase after the prototyping, and in Madrid we are still prototyping.

GD: There seem to be a lot of information systems out there that just don’t work!

TF: Usability isn’t a balanced curve. It’s a complete and utter cliff! Think about the apps or the websites that you use, the ones that are useful you keep using. But there are others that you’ve tried to use, and you’ll never look at again. And a lot of people who develop these information pieces, which can be digital or physical, only go halfway; they create something that’s almost useful. The structure of Legible London, the core architecture, is really useful.

Applied’s designs for Seamless Seattle are currently being tested around that city. COURTESY DAVID RYDER

GD: Many people complain that they don’t know how to map read anymore because digital maps have impacted on their ability to navigate. What do you say to that?

TF: The ability to navigate, to create and remember landmarks, to remember directions, is innate because it is about survival. I meet people who say, ‘I can’t read a map, I am useless at it’. And I ask them, ‘if your child was on the other side of London, in hospital and in trouble, would you be able to get there? Or would you say you are not able to map read?’ The second thing is that map reading is a learnt skill. People are out of practice, that’s all. Digital has come along and tapped into the human desire to not have to think.

GD: Why are maps not innate?

TF: Because people weren’t built for cities. They were built for wide open spaces offering views into the distance. That’s why people like being on the side of a hill and sea views, because they are tapping into that human desire for safety, to be able to see and survey. In cities you can’t see very far. We can’t change that, but we can give people the feeling that they understand cities, a feeling of confidence and less uncertainty. When people are confident in a place, they do things.

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