Last week, Ronald Shakespear of Diseño Shakespear, Buenos Aires, was in town, accompanied by his wife Elena.

Ronald and Elena Shakespear at Leslie Station, before the famed ‘Sheppard & Leslie’ wall tiles

Ronald is known for a rational and colourful wayfinding system for the Buenos Aires subway system (photos). I have quibbles with it – perhaps the choice of Frutiger leaves too many confusable character shapes, and the line colours are too hard to distinguish even by name – but it’s in another universe compared to what we have in Toronto.

On a lark, I sent along an E-mail before he arrived asking him if he would like to ride the subway for a while to get a glimpse at how the other half lives. He graciously accepted. Ronald and Elena would accompany me on a 2½-hour voyage from Wellesley to Yonge–Bloor to St. George to Sheppard–Yonge to Leslie. We dodged security cameras as we took umpteen noncommercial photographs of subway signage.

Many were the moments when I found myself alone 20 paces ahead of Ronald as he stood there and looked at everything. Ronald is much less interested in functionality than I am; he has more of an interest in affect and feeling. I took what notes I could of his observations, but to do justice to his expansive and impressionistic worldview would require notes that are much closer to verbatim than I have.

The first thing you notice about the name Ronald Shakespear is that it must be missing a letter on each half. No, it really is Ronald (not Ronaldo) and it really is Shakespear without a final E. I explained my decision, reached in exasperation long ago, to simply suspend disbelief about Argentinean names, which are never what you expect even if you expect the unexpected. (It is a pattern true all the way to the name of the sitting president of this Spanish-speaking South American nation, Néstor Kirchner, and the vice-president, Daniel Scioli.) Ronald’s great-great-grandfather, John Shakespear, emigrated from the U.K. to Argentina. “He was in charge of the railroads, of course.”

Three of Ronald and Elena’s five children are graphic designers. Note their echt-Argie names: Juan Shakespear, Lorenzo Shakespear, Bárbara Shakespear.

I thank Ronald and Elena for going on such a gruelling mission in a strange town. I don’t think even I understood just how momentous it all was. I had to have my esteemed colleague state the obvious for me: I had just had a dream come true – of riding the subway doing nothing but talking about signs.

I’d love to visit Buenos Aires, but, on two steaks a day, such a visit would leave me nothing to eat.

  • (I pointed out adjacent signs in mismatched Univers and Helvetica.) Sign typography by untrained people is spaced without thinking. The distance from a letter to a letter defines the future. It’s everything. (Mentions how important Jock Kinneir considered letterspacing. Alan Fletcher from Pentagram wrote a sign manual with a section on how to space letters.)
  • (Prefers maps to show the aboveground context, too. Ronald and Elena thought the subway maps here were much too small, also faded.)
  • Subway fonts: It’s a pity they aren’t using the tiles just to draw the letters (as in New York). It is so rich and inspirational. It’s a pity.
  • It’s important to be seen from the coach itself. (Distance between station names on the walls or straplines is worst of all.)
  • Toronto is a rich city, a high-tech city. You may be wasting a lot of money, but it isn’t on communications. (This is the sort of disregard for communications) you see in Colombia or Mexico, where nobody cares about public transportation, a very common attitude in South America. (Lance Wyman worked on the Mexico City subway.)
  • Full-size, wall-covering advertising wraps at St. George: It’s about ethics. The worst part of the story.
  • (One sign at St. George in the new style) says clearly and well EXIT. That is the most important symbol to people on the subway: How do you escape? It is unnatural to be underground in the city. When we did Moscow, it happened the same. All over Europe – Barcelona, Stockholm – the thing that people like most is to escape.
  • They have got some morphological problems indeed.
  • On “St George” vs. “St. George”: In this case you need a dot. You really need it. “St George” could be read completely differently. I don’t know why they use abbreviations. They could write the thing out completely. It’s irrational. (I explained that the actual street name is St. George, not Saint George, and that it’s even worse aboveground, as St. George St. could theoretically be read two different ways due to using one abbreviation with two expansions.)
  • On the incessant mismatching of typefaces: It’s good to see there are so many poets in your country. He wakes up in the morning liking Helvetica; when he goes to bed he’s a Frutiger fan.
  • (They’ve been working on contract to the Buenos Aires subway system since 1994.) It proved well. I love this work. I’ve made many, many mistakes, but they gave me a chance to correct my mistakes. I am very grateful for that. (The money from that contract isn’t “dependable” these days, but it’s “nice.”)
  • (He spoke approvingly of the Terminal 1 signage at the airport, designed by Entro and Pentagram.) I thought that all Toronto was as I found the airport was. I thought it was designed by Pentagram. (It was, but I told him it wasn’t. D’oh!)
  • The worst part of the story from our point of view is that people get used to things… even you and me. And the reaction changes. It’s like learning to live drinking a little bit of poison every day (like the Count of Monte Cristo). Because at the end, the poison doesn’t harm anymore.
  • Sheppard subway “main channels” along the length of the platform edge hanging from the roof: It’s the Barcelona approach. It’s better to hang the master channel over the platform (behind someone standing right in front of a subway-car door) because it can be seen both from inside the train (and outside). We tried that in Buenos Aires. It’s useful to have it over the platform. I think this is not very much useful. (I said you then have a problem of which train takes you where: If you stand with your back to one train and look at the sign hanging over the platform, doesn’t the train on the other side take you where that sign says it does?)
  • In Buenos Aires, we have a 10 cm line on the bottom of the master channel telling you what is happening – no smoking, door that way, next way out, phone this way, your destination.
  • Function works better when the affection relationship between design and people is accomplished.
  • (Signs on the B.A. subway are not enamelled steel, even exterior signs. [In one of his hospital designs, they are.] They’re very expensive and the craftsmen who know how to make them are disappearing.)
  • The B.A. transit system approved the construction of full-scale prototypes at two stations (at a cost of about a million pesos each at the time): A prototype is very useful. It proves it works. It proves to me it works.
  • The relationship between Vivaldi and Bach and Bodoni is (not) an accident. People think it’s got no connection at all. You know it well. Type was designed at a certain moment in history. It’s responding to a relationship between type and time. There’s not a reason to connect fonts to meanings. People don’t think there is a reason. I think the most important thing is empathy – if your type is working in context.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.11.04 17:14. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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