SORTA Improved Advertising

Not sorta improved, quite extremely improved! I commented a few posts back on SORTA’s abuse of the concept of branding to advertise the m+. Well, either someone was listening, or I had absolutely nothing to do with it and they just got better on their own. Found pinned up in the hallways of UC’s Braunstein hall, just steps away from my little desk, I offer you Exhibit A:

poster advertising SORTA transit services

I don’t care how this looks. I don’t care about the brand colors or the consistent use of fonts. What’s great about this ad is that it tells us something. It even does it succinctly!

QUESTION: Want to go to a ballgame?
Here is exactly how you can go from where you are(UC) to the ballpark.

Exhibit B:

poster advertising SORTA transit services

QUESTION: How about a movie?
Here is exactly how you can go from UC to either of two movie theatres. Take your pick!

Yes! I do want to go see some movies! And I could take either of those buses to a movie theatre right now if I wanted to. I actually did not know that before I saw this ad1. This ad has offered me new information about my possibilities. My plans could actually change as a result of this.

Like I said, I don’t care about the graphics. What makes these ads unusually great for SORTA is that they tell you how you can use transit and why you might actually want to. But while we’re here, let’s talk about the graphics. They’re good. They’re eye-catching and dynamic. They’re succinct and to the point. They’re even clearly observing the rule of thirds! Whoever designed these, SORTA, please give them this person’s job.

Seriously, I hope this the result of a new hire or something, because I would like to see more of this kind of work coming out of the transit agencies.

Show 1 footnote

  1. In my case because I didn’t know about the theatres.
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Posted in: Ads
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The new look

Hey there, regular readers!

In case none(neither?) of you have noticed, I’ve been working on a new design for the blog and the rest of the website. I decided to pretty fully embrace CSS3, HTML5, and the full range of things possible with SVG, including, yes, a return to the obnoxious blinking red text of the early web–albeit with a much more complex implementation.

New Header

If you’re using an early-ish version of Internet Explorer, may Dog have mercy on your soul. There are free services out there that will help you get back on the right path. I will not have the brutal renderings of non-standards-compliant browsers on my conscience.

Basically, like I did to my resume, I’m ever-so-slowly turning the whole site into a transit map, perhaps eventually a transit map that makes sense as such. Its always a fun exercise to turn conceptual connections into graphic ones, and graphic connections back into new conceptual connections. When I did that with my own life for my resume, I found a four-year-long dead-end in the network that I hadn’t ever noticed before. Yikes! With the benefit of extraneous perspective let’s hope it only takes a couple months to see the connections and transfer points to be drawn with this domain. Anyway, that’s the plan for the ‘big’ website. I’m also currently working on a very basic stylesheet specifically for small devices of all sorts that should aid those of you who can’t help swiping your dirty thumbs across my lovingly illustrated pages.

I hope you’ll send me some feedback as things change if you find anything terribly annoying or counterintuitive in the layout; it’s still very much a work in progress! As always, I’m also open to topic requests and/or guest posts.

Quick post script: I want to give a huge shout out to Ian Monk who helped me enormously a couple years ago as I was just starting this website and needed to get a page up quickly to host a PDF of the Frequency Map and some information about the project. I had no idea what I was doing(still don’t!) and he donated his time to deliver a small, fully functional website for me on short notice. I’ve since butchered his markup and extended it enormously, but it’s DNA is still visibly in there in spots. Thanks Ian!! You made this project possible for me at an important moment.

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Design Facepalm

I generally try to keep things here reasonably positive(well… at least I steer clear of the ad hominem), but I was doing research for a post on the planned August service changes when I came across this little stunner on SORTA’s site:

the worst map ever

This thing warrants analysis as a work of bad design.

It hurts my eyes. This. Hurts. My. Eyes.

SORTA, I love you like a member of the family(one who happens to be a transit agency) but his thing should not have left the engineering department’s breakroom. This has no redeeming qualities as a map, as advertising for our city’s transit system, or even for simply illustrating the service changes you have planned as I assume was intended.

The only information this actually conveys is a list of lines that will go to the Glenway Crossing Transit Center, and that could have been conveyed…

…wait for it…

in a list.

Which it was:

bad awful map with list

Screenshot from SORTA’s website

So this wasn’t even a matter of really needing a map to explain something and just not having the time to do it right. This is a case of someone bad at design going above and beyond to represent their agency (poorly).

SORTA, I know y’all say you only have so much time/resources, but please consider hiring a designer and upgrading to at least the latest version of MS Paint. I know it’s hard sometimes, but you just can’t leave the house dressed like this. I was at DAAPworks this week, and I can tell you for certain that there are a LOT of very good designers(and even cartographers) in this city. Hire one.

Here’s a great example in the same general style from a graduating graphic artist:

map from a graphic design student at DAAPworks

Sorry, I really should have written down the name of the artist. I’ll go back and get it.

It’s got a few of it’s own little problems but it’s still a thousand times better as design. It makes me want to look at it. My experience at DAAP tells me this person is probably about to either leave the city for a decent job somewhere or stay here for one in food-service. Just hire them, SORTA. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get more than your money’s worth.

Now, I’m not just being a smartass here; this kind of thing is a big reason why many people don’t use transit1. They see this:

the worst transit map ever

or this:

blurry map

Also from SORTA’s website

Or this:

SORTA's government square map

again, from SORTA

and compared to even this:

google search results page for cars

There is just no competition at all. Hands down, transit loses the fight for people’s hearts. Cars are sexier. I’m saying that and I totally hate cars. I gag every time I see a car commercial but I still know they’re doing so much better at appealing to people. How could anyone ever think of using transit when it looks like it doesn’t even take itself seriously?

And just to be super fair because those are different things:

google results page for transit

I didn’t have to look far for this

Transit is still losing. If a car company ever put out a piece of design like this map/graphic/thing in connection with any of their products, I guarantee someone would get fired. Rightly so.

Transit needs to up it’s game.

It’s time for a makover, SORTA. I want to get you laid!

Sad bus in a prom dress

“The Loneliest Ride”
photo-editing credits to the lovely Jeremy Johnson

Show 1 footnote

  1. AND I think why they tend to gravitate so powerfully to simple routes like the streetcar with overly simple maps
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Posted in: Design | Maps | Talking about Transit
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Suggestions for a redesigned schedule

Transit schedules: built by planners for librarians. …that’s not right.
Transit schedules: but why does it do that??
Transit schedules: hand me my reading glasses!   Yes, I think that’s the right tagline

Generally speaking, transit schedules are an almost unmitigated shitstorm of bad design. I’m going to take a very quick stab at fixing some of their more offensive errors in our own schedules. First, let’s see what we’re dealing with.

all the schedules

Acquire ALL the schedules!

The good:

Colors: I’m assuming the limited colors(It’s only blue for both agencies) are a constraint of affordable bulk printing but I quite like the effect. Imagine if this were garishly rainbow coloured and you might start to imagine how bad these could be.

Proportion: This is nice. Lines are clean, things don’t feel like they’re hanging or sitting, either too heavy or too light on the page. I particularly like the lines and blocks around the schedule tables. They have a confidence about them. They aren’t trying to entertain us. They’re here to get a job done.

SORTA schedule table design

Branding: SORTA is doing reasonably well here. I’m actually not the biggest fan of their logo, but I will say that they have consistently applied their brand across the buses, schedules, website and everything else. It takes discipline, but the effect is stronger than the potential disorder. The brand’s colors are solid if a tiny bit oversaturated for my taste. The blue is dulled a bit in the matte schedule though, so I like it there.

Fonts: This does not displease. At worst, it stays out of the way and leaves the schedule clean and inoffensive. It’s easy to read. It’s not a serif.

TANK schedule font

Tiny 2X: How cute! It’s business card sized and no more difficult to read. Why aren’t all the schedules in this format?

The tiny TANK 2X schedule cover

I swear I didn’t cross out the “under”. It came like that. When it comes to fare increases, it’s the agency’s little personal touches that make me smile.

tiny TANK 2X schedule

Paper choice: They could all be glossy. I thank god they aren’t.

South Bank Shuttle table color-blocking: A lot better than most schedules I’ve seen, the one for the SBS has consistent times that simply extend some days. Instead of duplicating the table, TANK has clearly showed that the darker extended portion is Saturdays only. This gives us a better sense of the temporal shape of the line.

South Bank Shuttle schedule timetable

TANK schedule saturday color blocks

Vehicle cues: TANK has a subtle indicator of the type of transit vehicle on the bottom cover of their schedules. They only have one route with a different type of vehicle, but it’s a good start and a syntax that could be useful and well extended if ever their services are.

TANK vehicle distinction

The bad:

Decontextualized maps: These always get me. When I was putting together the frequency map, these maps were all I had to go on, and let me just tell you….It’s really hard to figure out where these lines actually go. Switching back and forth between this and a street map, you have to try to fit the route into the rest of the city like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

decontextualized schedule maps

This one by TANK is not only decontextualized, but pretends to geographic accuracy while substantially distorting scale in unclear ways. And where does that river go? Where is North? What in the name of cartography is going on here??

schedule map for the 2X

schedule map for the 2X

Gigantic tables: With no visible logic or pattern, these tables are good for looking up specific numbers, but don’t allow for reading at a glance or discerning service patterns, speed or frequency. We’re not able, through repeated use, to transcend the need for the table by recognizing patterns or underlying logic. Rote memory or dependence is required, never understanding.

long schedule tables

Enormous size: If the bus goes off a cliff, I’m using this one as a parachute.

massive bus schedule

The foldable poster for SORTA’s #17 measures 23.75″ x 17″.

Huge list of destinations: This is another sort of decontextualization. It really doesn’t tell us anything, and to the extent that it does, gives us another task: to actually find the place on a map and on the line. These places, if they are to be highlighted at all, should be shown in order and where they are in relation both to the transit line and their surroundings.

destination text

An alphabetical(of all possible orders) list of all the places the #1(Just for fun!) goes.

This also suffers from a problem that I see in the naming of DC’s Metro Stations: The names are way too long. Why can’t “Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden” just be “Zoo” Might we get confused by thinking it’s the other zoo?

Cereal box stars: How do schedules declare they’re new and updated? The same way General Mills speaks to the base instincts of children.

TANK star




3D ClipArt city: Need I say more?

3D future Covington

A glimpse into the bold, blue 3-dimensional future of Covington, KY, presided over by the eminent Lord Streetsign, Mighty Destroyer of Bi-directional Travel.

It reminds me of WMATA‘s awful fare cards, also co-sponsored by an ungodly partnership between the inventor of gradients and the color blue.

WMATA SmarTrip card

No, this is not from the 90’s. It’s from now.

Here are some fitful starts at a more inspiring and lucid design:

Context: Maps need to have context. What streets and neighborhoods and major landmarks and other routes do they pass? This can’t be written in words on some other part of the schedule, it has to be located in relation to the path our potential transit user will be taking.

TANK route 3 map

Here is an exemplary #3. A geographically accurate river, streets, buildings, and non-express TANK transit lines have been added for context. A more nuanced understanding than I have of the #3 might allow me to pick out particular locations that many riders are going to. It would also be good to label intersecting routes, but in this case there’s no opportunity for a connection outside of one of the transit centers. Buildings are fairly prominent in this map as the municipalities the line visits lie in (thus visibly) dense clusters among the hills. Simple routing allows for the bold labelling of streets.

new route map design for the 51

The #51 here is somewhat more contextualized by a hierarchy of labeled streets and a vague inkling of surrounding neighborhoods.The inclusion of other transit lines in this case proved ultimately confusing, and was abandoned for want of time. A more diagrammatic approach, such as a more accurate version of that taken for the frequency map could be well used.

De-emphasise useless information: Continuing with the #3 example from above, it could be made even stronger if we cleared up some of the needlessly complex downtown routing both through Covington and Cincinnati. The main part of this line is actually quite simple, and the number of useful stops outside of that portion is limited. Downtown Cincinnati for example only has two stops, and the direction of travel is irrelevant since all the streets are one-ways. Why show the routing at all? In fact, why not only show the single most important stop on a separate map? You don’t see the exact path of a subway on a map of one. You see only it’s stops because the other information will be of literally no use to you. You can’t get off elsewhere in any case without threats to the driver or maybe a pair of bolt-cutters.

TANK map of downtown and Northern Kentucky

A new Northern Kentucky-Downtown map that highlights only the most essential stops.

The elegant thing about having all your transit come together in the same place, is that you only need to remember a relative handful of stop locations. In the case of TANK’s pass through Downtown Cincinnati, only two: one for each direction. Perhaps letting the geographically accurate map cross a clear visual line on the page before sliding into diagrammatic space could be helpful. In the case of the #3, we need only mention one stop in Downtown, the one here highlighted as “To Covington”.

Temporal Mapping: This is an old idea that hasn’t seen light since the late 19th century. I’ll show it here briefly just to tantalize you and go into more depth in another post. In a nutshell, transit moves predictably through both space and time, so why only map one of those?

diagram of temporal mapping of a transit schedule

Better use of space: Smaller schedules are almost everybody’s friend. They’re cheaper to print, easier to carry, less cumbersome to unfold on a crowded bus, and easier to stock.  There’s a lot of empty space in these schedules that could be saved by shifting things around more fluidly for different size schedules. I would guess though that there may be some constraint of the program they use to build the schedules(“Trapeze” I think it’s called) that makes it difficult to rearrange things and I wouldn’t want to be the one to adjust every single schedule every single time they need to be reprinted. But the savings on ink and paper alone could justify the staff time if they print enough. I suspect they might.

In the case of lines with sufficient frequency(which I don’t think we have just yet), space can be better used, and the schedule more intuitively read by having specific times only for the morning and evening when service is just ramping up and tapering off, then listing approximate frequencies for the times in between. Chicago does this:

Chicago Transit Schedule Sign

Something to think about for the future, I guess.

Humour: I know it would never happen, but I really would love to see just a little absurdist humour every once in a while. There’s no law that says government funded things have to be all stuffy and serious all the time. That’s merely a trend.

low fat transit

I hope I’m not the only one who sees this every time I look at one of these.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

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Posted in: Access | Design | Maps | Talking about Transit
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