Sunday, October 02, 2005

Designing the Metlink style

Sometimes one hears about aspects of public transport in the most unexpected of places.

An example was last night's Right, Left or just Centred debate, held as part of Character, a series of public discussions, displays and tours about graphic design.

The discussion was about the role of the graphic designer; are they artisans who are primarily accountable to their customers (normally fee-paying corporate clients), or do they also have responsibilities as citizens to be mindful of the political consequences of their work?

One of the speakers was Steven Cornwell from Cornwell Design which did the Metlink rebranding.

By any standards the Metlink rebranding is a massive undertaking, ultimately extending to thousands of railway stations, tram routes and bus stops across Melbourne. No two locations are identical, and the number of different signs required must be into the tens of thousands.

The organisational aspects are similarly complex; rather than just one client, there were six (Connex, M> Train, Yarra Trams, M> Tram, DOI and the bus industry). The project will cost $20 million, but uniquely, the operators will be spending it doing up infrastructure they don't actually own.

Stephen Banham from Letterbox described the Helvetica font used in Metlink signage as 'incredibly predictable' and 'banal'. In the world of graphic design, each typeface carries a certain voice. For instance, you won't see 'Wide Latin' lettering on skim milk cartons. Helvetica is seen as being 'corporate', 'homogenising' and 'responsible for blanding the visual environment' and has even spawned a 'Death to Helvetica' movement of which Stephen is a part.

Of course clients will not necessarily embrace the graphic designer's idea of cool, and since the former hold the purse strings, they get the final say. This was true with Metlink whose owners used consumer testing to filter possible designs. Even though this might cramp the creativity of designers, this is not such a bad thing; signage for essential services like transport is better readable and boring than unreadable and idiosyncratic.

Further reading:

Age article

Award for Metlink rebranding

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