Updating Nottingham’s tram graphics

Nottingham’s tram system NET is regarded as one of the most successful urban light rail systems in Europe. I commuted on it daily from its opening in 2004 until I moved away, and remember it fondly when stuck on an uncomfortable Underground journey.

Soon after its launch, I blogged about the information design of the tram’s timetable and fare posters, praising their skilful combination of clarity and information density.

Thinking about the project started what has become a deep interest in wayfinding and helped me appreciate the value of environmental graphic design: design that helps people navigate, communicates location identity, and shapes the idea of place.

Happily, the display’s designer Eleanor Seelig saw my post and contacted me recently to let me know that an update was in the works. I asked her for a few words about the project.

The first design was done a few months after the launch when the system was still very new to Nottingham. The brief focused on introducing the tram to Nottingham, but in a way that pitched the brand as higher class public transport. It was important to persuade people out of their cars and onto public transport by selling the benefits clearly. This resulted in a huge amount of information to include, which possibly became a struggle between usefulness and promotion. When I came to design the second version, the tram had just celebrated its sixth birthday and was now securely part of the landscape of Nottingham. In reviewing the existing design, it suddenly felt very cramped. Plenty of the information was out of date and, due to many small changes and the need to squeeze in yet more information over the years, not very clear.

You can see the new map in full at the NET website (PDF format). The update’s main goal has been to reprioritise information to suit users’ recent needs. The rapid adoption of the tram has meant that it is very familiar to Nottingham’s residents, with recent fare adjustments becoming of higher priority than line and geographical information. To save reprinting costs, some of the more rapidly-changing local detail has been omitted, and transport links have been rolled into the redrawn line map.

I knew the fare information was really quite complicated to communicate, with lots of ticket types and even different fares for different times of the day. So I used the coloured fare buttons to draw the viewer into to the fares that would be most relevant to them when standing at the stop – it’s a bit frustrating to find out how cheap a season ticket is when all you want to know is what it’s going to cost you today.

There were also several functional restraints to take into consideration. Each stop has its own timetable and because of the design of the system, this means that stops have between one and three separate panels of times. So I needed to incorporate some ‘filler’ information for certain stops. All in all, there are 46 stop boards, with 32 variations, so it’s a bit of a complicated job.

I was a fan of the open feel of the original version, and on a purely aesthetic level I preferred it to the more boxy and masculine update. I also think it’s a shame that the client has clearly pushed the design toward being a vehicle for promotion rather than information (the “Tram it!” campaign is somewhat ridiculous). But generally I think this is a decent user-centred update of an excellent design.

I’m happy to see that the stem-and-leaf timetable structure is still intact and I agree with the deprecation of local information. Interesting though it was, for the majority of city residents this information was simply unnecessary.

Finally, Eleanor’s copy revisions improve the instructional tone of voice, putting a more approachable face to the service.

I felt some of the information was a little too gruff and off-putting in its tone of voice, so I rewrote the ‘Using the tram’ panel to make it a little friendlier and less authoritative.

Bravo to Eleanor and NET for continuing to demonstrate how good design can make urban transport a little more accessible. I’m looking forward to seeing how NET will update its wayfinding and information graphics with the future introduction of Lines 2 and 3.

Cennydd Bowles