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The symbolic simplicity of Mexico City's metro signs

The symbolic simplicity of Mexico City's metro signs

Posted by Shanelle Weir on December 09, 2014

When work began in 1967, Mexico City’s metro system signified a dramatic modernisation of the cityscape. Making room for the metro meant clearing away some familiar aspects of the urban landscape, as well as introducing residents to the strange new spaces of the network’s underground tunnels and stations.

To integrate this new layer of urban infrastructure with the existing city’s pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary layers, the authors of the subway relied on a pictographic system. Lance Wyman, a New York-based graphic designer, designed icons to identify each metro station.

Instead of a name, this new geographic entity was visually connected to an existing historical or geographical feature. Thus the sign for Balderas station, where Line 1 met Line 3 in the historic centre, referenced a cannon on display in a library above-ground, while nearby Pino Suarez station was identified by the Aztec ruin that was uncovered (and destroyed) during excavations for the station.

Wyman’s pictorial system connected the surface to the subterranean. He created a visible match between the familiar spaces of the city, which were now connected to the new stations via street signs, and the far more abstract underground space of the metro system.

In the dark tunnel, each pictograph would help the traveller to connect his or her location to familiar references above ground. With Mexico City’s modernisation still a work in progress, the pictorial system also negotiated the fact that many of the system’s new passengers could not read.

Other wayfinding projects similarly use graphic elements to bring order and legibility to a chaotic system. Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground map turned the tube system into a diagram to make wayfinding easier irrespective of actual station locations. More abstract than Mexico’s system but equally iconic, this map and others like it create a total image of the city that affords both a sense of pleasure and collectivity.

Underground aside, street graphics have a much broader role in demarcating the functions of different urban spaces. We need only think of the stripes of white paint that turn a road into a crosswalk, bicycle lane or parking space.

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