TTC signage system improves wayfinding for third largest transportation system in North America

Case Study by Yails Hernandez B.Inf.Des. RGD CGD and Andrew Ngui, D.PID, B.DesToronto Transit Commission (TTC)


Established in 1921, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), is the third largest transportation system in North America, preceded only by the subway in New York and Mexico City Metro. TTC operates buses, rapid transit, streetcars, paratransit, etc.

In 2013, TTC introduced a five-year “Corporate Plan and Customer Charter”, which involves upgrades to equipment, processes and culture within TTC, with the customer at the centre of the organization. As part of that plan, one of the first steps was the development of a new Signage Manual to standardize and improve signage and wayfinding throughout the system.



Wayfinding and signage is not an isolated process. Beyond the placement of signs, this process is directly linked to spatial planning and communication. Effective signage must be in the right place, point the most logical directions, and should only be noticeable if it needs to be consulted. It must be both timely and discrete and must be the right fit within the space or environment where it resides. An efficient system allows the maximum amount of information to be communicated using the minimum signal.  


In 2011, the TTC began the process of preparing and reviewing a new program, which was introduced in 2013. The key challenge of standardization lay in creating a single system capable of regulating wayfinding & signage throughout the TTC, taking advantage of the positive aspects existing in previous programs.  


One of the fundamental elements taken from previous programs was the use of pictograms as a key element in the signs. Besides being much more universal, iconography that meets international standards helps eliminate or soothe any language and / or cognitive barriers.



The colours and the typeface (Swiss 721 Md) used in the body of the signals from previous programs are also used in this new program. It is vital to remember that signage programs of this magnitude must be applied gradually, as they often must coexist with previous programs during the deployment process. Drastic changes in a new program would introduce unnecessary ambiguity in the system.


The correct interpretation of signs, especially if we're talking about a public transportation system, depends heavily on two key aspects:

  1. That the location and installation of signs is consistent across the entire network. It is easier to perceive and interpret a sign if its placement can be predicted in your mind before you actually see it.
  2. That the design of each sign is uniform with the rest of the signage system. Colour codes, pictograms, typography, nomenclature, among other aspects, must remain unchanged throughout the system. 

Public transport wayfinding and signage systems regularly interconnect at different locations and across different methods of transportation - the system is an interrelated and interdependent network. For ease of interpretation it is essential to maintain uniformity throughout the systems.


Design Process

Examples from other public transport systems, such as the London Underground, the New York City Subway, TransLink (Metro Vancouver's transportation system), and many others were analyzed as part of the review process to help identify the cornerstones for the development of the TTC's new system. One of the recurring themes in these other systems was the use of numbers to identify different lines. 


By adopting the numbered line practice, the TTC could simplify the nomenclature of the different routes and minimize the issue of language barriers, which is a major concern for Toronto as a multicultural city where approximately 50% of residents do not speak English as a first language. The reduction of text on signs also made the information appear more direct, concise and meaningful. 



Another consideration was the use of pictograms as a fundamental element of the signs. Using international standards (ISO, DOT, ANSI), made these elements easily recognizable and took up a smaller amount of space on the 'face' of the signs, reducing production costs and cutting down on other complications, like mounting time. 


For the TTC it was necessary to create a program that would fit into the architectural conditions of the stations and co-exist with the components of the existing system. Signal sizes, height and placement of signs along buildings, Ontario Building Code (OBC) regulations, emergency conditions, safety and security, construction and potential re-routing are all elements that need to be considered during the standardization process. 


From the overall picture of the organization to the specific appearance of each individual sign, changes to this kind of system needed to be applied on all levels, which can be difficult to achieve. Major updates required a cultural change within the organization, affecting senior executives, station managers, customer communication departments, engineers, and others, who all supported the transition and helped to modernize the TTC. 




The issue of accessibility is vital for the TTC. From a design perspective, this meant careful analysis of legibility and contrast, choice of font, amount of text, use of pictographs, size of sign faces, etc. A committee of experts called the Advisory Committee on Accessibility Transit (ACAT) provides a mechanism for ongoing public participation in decisions affecting accessible transportation in the City of Toronto. The Committee is comprised of volunteer members and reports to the Board of the Toronto Transit Commission. To implement the new system we worked with the committee to incorporate previous positive experiences (pictograms, colours, nomenclatures) and take into account standards from the AODA, Ontario Building Code, ADA, CNIB, SEGD, and others. 


The Map 

An essential part of most wayfinding and signage systems related to public transportation is the map of the system. Keeping in mind the precedents set by past designers (i.e. the London Underground map by Henry C. Beck and the New York Subway map by Massimo Vignelli), maps for the TTC were redrawn in some cases, or totally re-designed in others. The goal of the map is to develop a mental hierarchy of specific points within a certain distance and provide confirmation of these points over the course of a journey.  




The Manual 

The TTC standards manual, due to the variety of elements that it comprises is an ever-changing and “living document". You must always be ready to add new standards, pictograms, templates, etc. Manuals like this should be made in a way that is easy to understand not only for designers, but also for anyone who needs to interact with it at any time. They should be easy to distribute if required for a specific use, either for editing or query mode.


The manual includes three main sections. Graphic Elements, Planning Principles and Sign Typology. 


The Graphic Elements section includes the arrows, pictograms, typefaces, colours and logos, among others, which are used in the development of signs based on location, direction, points of interests, etc. 


The Planning Principles section seeks to provide guidance on a general wayfinding strategy, outlining specific rules that are applied to all TTC signage. Ultimately, this section provides information on the message required at each point to satisfy basic principles while navigating through the TTC network. It includes instructions that will answer common questions such as ‘where am I,’, ‘where is my final stop’, ‘best route to reach my destination’, and other important aspects relating to safety information, accessibility, services and additional instructions.


The Sign Typology section describes each of the signs comprising the TTC signage system, giving each a unique code and nomenclature.

The manual is still a work in progress and requires a few additional modifications before it is officially distributed. 



The Bloor-Yonge station was taken as a pilot for the implementation of the new system. Feedback was collected through client interaction and surveys. Written surveys were provided for commuters and passengers during the first weeks of the implementation period. Additionally, online surveys and comments were received via email and promoted through social media.


Overall, the feedback received was positive and very encouraging and inspiring. There were some changes proposed to be considered for the future implementation of the new program. One example is that the ‘you are here’ maps will include the ‘path of travel’, which were not included in the pilot program.


Starting this year, all new and current projects will include the new program such as the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Station (TYSSE). At this point, St George Station and Union Station have also implemented the new program.

The TTC is always open to  from users to integrate their expectations into our solutions. Responses were analyzed based on positive, negative, constructive comments and other.



  1. Considering users as the centre of the design process is the easiest and most effective way to achieve a positive result. What we as professionals see as obvious might not be as clear for the person who ends up interacting with the system we create. Gather feedback and maintain an open dialogue throughout the process. 
  2. Experiential design is a collaborative effort usually involving several disciplines. Feedback, communication and interaction with professionals in the fields of architecture, industrial design, information design, research, customer service and others is essential at most stages of this type of project.
  3. Each design is unique. Always be open to researching new technologies, trends and best practices to produce the best possible work as a visual communicator. 


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