Communication Design in Global Transit

I recently was lucky enough to travel abroad for the first time, in which 3 of the countries I visited spoke a foreign language that I was not any more familiar with than knowing the quintessential hello, thank you, and goodbye. Without access to cell phone data, I was forced to rely heavily on intuition and signage.

I took a particular interest while abroad in the types of signage I saw regarding transportation. Living in an urban city, in an English-speaking country, it is seldom that I consciously acknowledge that my day to day job as an interactive designer requires me to not just design for fellow Americans who predominantly speak English, but for other languages and cultures as well.

I quickly understood that signs were my best friends. If you’re lucky large transportation buildings, such as airports and main train stations, will provide signs with English on the bottom. When you’re not as lucky, you’ll be following a path of arrows until you finally reach your destination. This is why basic symbolism is the easiest way to communicate a message, but to be fair, it doesn’t always create the easiest user experience.

Mastering a foreign countries’ transit system is just about one of the greatest successes a traveler can experience. Every country is a little different than the next, and it’s a maze of train lines, bus stops, transfers, timed arrivals, new sounds, and the fear of pickpockets. It’s now essential to understand where you’re going to avoid getting lost and to stay safe. So I’ve gone ahead and pointed out some pros and cons to specific train lines signage.

Signage Pros

Almost all line signage displays the same or similar attributes, such as arrows leading to a specific train platform, train line name and stop name, arrows indicating transit route and next stops, circles indicating transfer points, and sometime signs that indicate the next train arrival time – all meant to communicate an easier travel path.

Barcelona’s signage is designed really well, making it quite easy to understand. There are a few things that really bring out the successful communication design.

Following the transit pattern above, they assign a specific color to a certain rail line, and their line map has a white bar that fills in with the line color for the stops the train has already passed, a “progress bar” if you will. The stop you’re boarding at is highlighted with the line color, and there are circles indicating transfer points. This creates a clear story for an individual.


According to the image we’re waiting at “Urgell” which is highlighted red, and we’re going in the direction of “Universitat”. We know this because the color for that stop is still white.  At Universitat we can make transfers to the L2 line, and we’ll find an information desk as well. This is a great example of communication design leading to a positive user experience.

Signage Cons


However, as discussed, sometimes signage isn’t as direct as it should be, and symbols get interpreted differently, or it isn’t read correctly. This could happen due to incorrect use of icons, improper placement of text, or clutter.

Rome’s bus system is a bit more complicated than the others. The signage almost follows the same transit pattern as discussed before. Highlighting the bus line name or number, as well as an arrow showing the direction the bus is traveling. The stop name is highlighted, and transfers are shown in icons next to the stop name. So what makes it more complicated?

Often times when the arrow is facing north, someone will interpret that the bus is traveling in that direction of the street, not necessarily that it’s following that direction in stops, leaving an individual unsure of the appropriate side of the street to board the bus. On occasion, a stop might have two drop off points (2 fermate). If you’re not familiar with the language this is not clear as the drop off points are often not labeled separately. The text is also misaligned when it comes to street names that carry over on a second line; those actually appear as if they are a second drop off point, which they’re not. These elements create a disconnect in communication, which obstructs the experience between the “user” and the signage, creating poor user experience and often an added struggle in the commute.

Understanding the Importance

Coming back to America I instantly noticed things we could improve upon through our transit system to cater more towards tourists, especially to those who are less familiar with English. I also noticed things we’re doing well that other countries haven’t adopted yet. But ultimately I’ve learned communication design is situational, cultural, and global, and it’s important to understand when to design accordingly. All the bits and pieces play a huge role in the message. The wrong coloring, placement of a word, or icon use, can completely disrupt an individual’s experience, and when it comes to a commute, put them at risk for getting lost, or jeopardize their safety.

The ultimate take away for any communication design is to reduce the clutter. When you break a message down to the simplest form, clean design and basic icons, you’re creating the easiest user flow and the best user experience no matter what the situation, whether it be at home, or in a foreign country. If you’re questioning it, it’s not simple enough. Always remember your audience, and don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board.

Sophia Savino

Written by Sophia Savino

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