Usability vs. A City’s Soul

Adam Gopnik rants against a new signage system in TOO MUCH INFORMATION “Worse than merely unfamiliar, though, the […]

Adam Gopnik rants against a new signage system in TOO MUCH INFORMATION

“Worse than merely unfamiliar, though, the signs are infuriating — first, because they are there for the convenience of cars, and thus violate the first Law of Civilization, which states that nothing must ever be done for the convenience of cars (the mark of a city worth living in is that there are never enough places to park); and, second, because they eclipse, as decor, the jaunty, jazz-era syncopation of the classic New York street-corner sign pair, each sign gesturing toward its own street, but with the two set at slightly different levels, so that they have a happy, semaphoric panache. ”

The city’s comissioner of transportation argues for the signs by talking usability, but I think Gopik’s rebuttal is sound on both a use and a aesthetic platform. It’s a fine reminder that a system is more than its parts, more than a single homogenous solution that fits all, it must embrace the soul of a place and the nature of its people.


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  1. 1
    Brett Lider

    I haven’t seen this NY Big Signs, but even the driver-oriented Big Signs in SF are very helpful to pedestrians, who can see the bigger signs from farther away, which lets them know if they are walking in the wrong direction. This NYer article just strikes me as fear of change.

    On a related note, I just sent out an email to friends about a NYer article, Victor has another linked on his site [], and now you have one on yours. Granted, they are three different articles, but from the same issue of the same magazine? We need some media readership diversification.

  2. 2

    The article strikes a chord with me, but I think the heart of Adam’s point is more than an aesthetic complaint.

    That is, the major streets of Manhattan are already obvious, and in fact are somewhat difficult to avoid. The reference structure of the streets is so ingrained into the culture of the city that the new signage doesn’t strike me as inappropriate, so much as unnecessary. It’s the most obvious, and least useful, application of usability: make the signs big, and obvious.

    Far more difficult, and better, to make the signs unnecessary. Manhattan’s grid layout and avenue/street system does just that.

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