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The concept of a Legible City

Big picture, small details
The city is a large and diverse environment of people going about their business, interacting with one another in gatherings, events or simply passing each other on the street. Not one image, symbol or logo can truly represent such a diverse collection. The city is known by its name.

What can usefully be unified are certain types of information – to help people get about and find things, by pointing at things or letting people know how and when to use public transport, or by providing a consistent system of visitor information that is used by all. ‘if it works for the first-time user – then it will work for everyone’.

What people come away with from a visit to a new location is an immediate sense or experience of the place. Experiences could be pleasant or confusing, stimulating or dull, welcoming or unfriendly. These memories create positive or negative views about a place, and determine whether we return or choose not to bother.

Making a city more understandable does not provide the prime reasons for people to frequent. Retail choices, tourist attractions, day or night life amenities are our destinations. Legible Cities provide connections and information about what is already there and create positive re-assurances to people that details are cared about.

I might be a tourist trying to find a hotel, someone with a business appointment to keep, a film-goer on their way to the cinema, a cyclist going to the shops or a parent whose kids need a toilet in a hurry. What I do notice is the small details. The un-important things matter to us. If the small details are looked after then the bigger issues are being looked after too.

By concentrating on getting everyone in the city to coordinate a little bit and to focus on the experiences of people - then everyone, in the long run, benefits. A legible city initiative says a lot about a city’s vision and intentions, it can support and galvanise regeneration and most importantly it can provide a bridge to get the many and varied organisations, associations and funding bodies to work together on something that they can all take ownership from – that makes for a better city.

Guiding principles – Open, easy, connected
To create a legible city requires a multitude of projects and a great number of organisations, individuals and collaborations. Guiding principles of legible cities are open, easy and connected. They are used throughout the initiatives lifespan to focus all involved on the key aims and methods to make the city a ‘joined up’ place.

The city needs to be ‘Open’ for business, open for living, open to discover. For some at all hours of the day. But also to be open to create in the city, open hearted and open for all. No one group is to be left out of what the city has to offer.

When considering the relative choice and expense of transport in our modern age, the legible city has to be ‘Easy’ to get to, ‘Easy’ to understand and ‘Easy’ to find your way around. The environment should assist by providing help in guidance and information at the right place at the right time.

In our current cities the large mix of transport and information systems are run separately – buses, trains, car parks, shops and destinations. To make a city legible is not to run all these systems together – that would not be possible, but to provide a method of communication that allows them all to speak with a similar voice that is focused on making sense to the person on the street. People, places and movement require a degree of co-ordination. The feeling is that the city is ‘Connected’ it’s parts work together – for the benefit of everyone.

Designing with the public
To be able to think like the everyday person is the most effective way to design for public places. The users of the systems of the city are probably very different than those that design it. They have different motivations and different levels of familiarity with the city and its modes of transport.

'Putting yourself in their shoes' gives a basic understanding of the journeys that others have to make. Armed with this knowledge the design of routes and information will be suited to the traveller, more efficient and pleasurable too.

In a typical scenario, a number of characters and their journeys were imagined and visualised. A local resident going shopping for shoes, Coming in from out-of-town to keep a business appointment, a visiting family arriving on the train for a day-trip . All examples based on typical and realistic patrons of the city. With these to guide the process, a picture can be built up of providing information that is logical, straightforward and appropriate. Information has to be there when it is needed and recognised by the user. It has to build confidence and provide continuity. Above all else it must be clear and unambiguous.

Visual language – a fundamental framework

Much information in our lives is ignored and not noticed to because we either don’t need to know or we don’t necessarily trust the message. An integrated Visual language of names, colours, and type styles is a method of providing a level of trust and familiarity that a particular message is relevant and accurate.

A visual language rather than a more typical visual mark has more ability to harmonise and simplify communication of the city to the public. Languages contain a set of basic rules that allow different messages to be understood. In a similar way – a visual language can provide a coherence of information and re-assurance to the un-familiar.

Visual languages also provide frameworks for the future that are built upon. They are evolutionary and develop and grow. The progressive disclosure of the design language is important in not over-whelming the new user.

Attention to detail
Building trust with the public use of information and amenities is of paramount importance. What we all notice are the little details. We recognise when a piece of information is incorrect, we get a feeling that a piece of furniture is flimsy or robust, and we react accordingly.

When making improvements intended for mass usage, accuracy and attention to detail has to be of a standard to engender a level of trust that gives confidence. Good information in the right place at the right time is used by people. Poor information is ignored and vandalised. Usage is the litmus test of the success of any system.

Creating a Legible City
To initiate a Legible City programme requires vision and drive by its patrons. Fundamental to a programme is the co-ordinating of projects and information with a development team. Establishing a clear remit and brief for this team is the key foundation stone to make a programme of this nature effective and sustainable.

The Development team comprises a mix of skills and best-practice drawn from a range of disciplines: Urban design, social geography, environmental psychology, information design, movement planning, human factors design and place marketing. Second to the formation of a balanced and talented Development Team is to ensure that the process of development is completely thought through and logical. And, takes into account user-focussed thinking from the very beginning.

Immediate issues are mapped, desktop research is supplemented by extensive site testing and interviews with people on the streets to ensure concepts work in practice. Careful and extensive consultation and involvement to all involved party’s is essential to get the desired buy-in. The use of user-scenarios at an early stage sets the scene for the focus of the solutions later on. The design process is always iterative, improving and adding to basic concepts until the finished article matches the vision in terms of quality and appropriateness.

Sustaining a Legible City
A Legible City programme is for the long term. Sustainability is paramount to its success. For the original vision to be remembered, and the quality standards upheld a number of tools and processes need to be implemented. From design guidelines to allow alterations, web based knowledge tools and the maintenance of the development team. This team will evolve in different phases of the programme, learning from earlier work and developing the philosophies behind newer projects. For the Legible services that are supplied, such as a sign system - support systems to ensure up-to-date-ness and cleanliness are as important as the original product.

With these issues covered a Legible City programme can be effective in connecting parts of the urban environment together. Effective in re-energising lost areas and in making an image of the city that rests in people’s memory. A lasting legacy.

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