Wayfinding on the Metro

A project to explore the art of wayfinding within a complex rapid transit system, proposing updating maps and signage for the Washington Metro.

Project Background

Though it increasingly difficult to do over time, I am a big supporter of the Washington Metro. The beleaguered system will always hold a place in my heart as the first transit network that was part of my daily routine.

Unfortunately, it’s in an undeniably poor state. After hitting rock bottom two years before I moved to the area, the Metro has continually struggled to get back on its feet. Now, with the hiring of its most recent CEO, there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Through the intensive and disruptive SafeTrack maintenance program as well as the “Back2Good” initiative, Metro is working to stem the bleeding and get the system back to a point where it can stop losing riders.

This got me wondering, though, what comes after that? What is the next step, after these work programs conclude, after the system is expanded again in 2020? What can Metro do to start working to bring riders back, to make the system feel new again, to make it a little more welcoming?

As someone interested in design and a daily commuter for over six years, I found myself frequently observing the behavior of my fellow riders and their interaction with maps and signs within the system. Washington is a tourist-heavy city, and I have aided my fair share of lost first-time riders. It gets easier as you become a seasoned veteran, but there's a pretty consistent feeling that it’s pretty difficult to navigate the Metro.

This sentiment is fairly common, and I’m fairly sure Metro knows. For as beautiful and monumental as Metro stations are, they were not designed with simple wayfinding in mind. There have been attempts to improve this situation, but unfortunately many fixes have fallen flat, and more ambitious plans never pass the pilot stage due to the cost.

So, as a project to learn more about the art of wayfinding, I began assembling my various ideas into a larger proposal for improving the wayfinding experience without breaking the bank.

The Map

Existing Map

The core piece of improving this experience was the system map. The existing map is lauded as an iconic piece of the local identity and tricky to update without controversy, but iconic or not, it has its flaws. As the system has expanded, the map’s characteristic extra-thick lines created a fair amount of clutter, making it more difficult to locate station labels.

My proposal involves giving the map a refresh from the ground up without straying too far from the original design. Many elements that made the original iconic were retained, while others were modified for a cleaner, more readable design. The map is divided diagonally along the western Red line and the southern Green line to give subtle emphasis to the two halves of every system line. Station labels point to the left or the right depending on their position relative to this dividing line, and are given enough room to not be line broken or overlap a system line.

A major key to this design and the greater wayfinding experience is emphasizing the system's terminal stations. The orientation and shape of many of the lines of the system means that using directional signage may cause more confusion than it would fix. So while it’s not ideal, to get where you want to go on the Metro, you need to know your terminal stations. These stations are emphasized with a grey background and paired with their line designator icon to help riders identify which trains they need to look for within the station. Rush-only services are identified by a diamond icon to help distinguish their service level.


The core elements of the revised wayfinding experience are derived from the system map to help the rider remember the information needed to find their way around the Metro system, particularly the end-of-line designators. To keep the project feasible and maintain low theoretical costs, the below elements use existing facilities within Metro stations. Colors have been updated to continue efforts to distance from the "Metro Brown" in use since the 70s, reflecting the greys and blues of Metro's newest railcars and website design.


MEzzanine Information Maps

Utilizing backlit displays located just past the fare gates (which used to house pay phones), these revised designs contain a strip map to help direct riders to the correct platform below, especially in stations with side platforms, along with indicators to help locate your current station on the system map.

Existing Signage

Multiple-Line Strip Map Samples

Platform Information Maps

These displays are similar in structure and contain the same information as the mezzanine display, but the revised design contains a strip map specific to the platform on which it is located. Maps are oriented to the direction of rail travel when necessary.

Westbound Platform Example

Eastbound Platform Example

Platform Signage

These signs, located on the walls of the station vault, primarily serve as identifiers for riders looking for the correct station to exit, but in certain stations also contain strip maps to help riders determine if they are on the right platform. The updated designs keep much of the same information, but feature revised strip maps, as the existing maps are generally not viewed favorably.

Existing Signage

Fare MachineS

Metro’s distance-based fare system isn’t the best introduction to transit for new riders, and the existing design for its fare machines and the overwhelming amount of information contained don't help.

The revised design attempts to clarify the process of buying a fare card within the constraints of the existing fare machine hardware.

Existing Design