is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
From the age of five to the age of seventeen, I lived in the D.C. metropolitan area, where I spent a lot of time riding the Metrorail subway system. In retrospect, I have to credit the repeated exposure to the system’s beautiful modernist architecture and typography for influencing my design sensibilities. It featured a distinctive pylon-based signage system that was originally designed by Vignelli Associates, though it had already been somewhat corrupted from its original form with additional wall signage by the time I was riding it. (I actually found the wall signage helpful, I must admit.)
Over time, through the inevitable process of accretion at the hands of less inspired designers, the original, Vignelli-produced design system has only been corrupted further, sadly. Every time I return to D.C., I note with a wince some added layer of incompetence. In fact, I just came back from a day trip to the area yesterday, and snapped this photograph of a Metrocard vending machine.
What a mess. I half expect to be able to buy lottery tickets and an international calling card from that machine as well as subway fare. Compare that visual disaster to this (miraculously) still-standing vending machine which allows passengers without sufficient fares on their Metrocards to top them off before exiting the turnstiles.
I’m not sure if Vignelli Associates were responsible for the design of this Exitfare machine as well (I’ve never seen them take credit for it), and with the unintuitive positioning of step one it’s clearly not perfect, but it still reflects some real design skill. There’s at least some modicum of intellect and reason at work here.
Having actually lived in Washington, D.C. for a few years in my twenties, I know as well as anyone that the city has been through its share of hard times, and it’s certainly not in the clear even today. Still, they had a gem of a design system there to complement their largely excellent subway system. And they’ve let it go to waste. It’s a shame.+