Return to Basics: Redesigning Taipei's Metro Map

Return to Basics: Redesigning Taipei's Metro Map
Photo Credit: Memphis Sun

What you need to know

How can we improve the current Taipei Metro map? A Taiwanese graphic designer lays out his analysis and detailed steps in redesigning the map for better user experience.

Written by Memphis Sun, translated by Lin Ying-jen

After more than 20 years of development, Taipei’s MRT map has become increasingly complex. How can grid systems, colors, fonts, and other elements be applied to improve the map’s reading experience, restoring the map to its essential task of information communication? 

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
en

As the core means of public transport in the city, the Taipei Metro has served billions of passengers over the past twenty-odd years. The route map, based on geography, was originally designed to reinforce people’s understanding of the urban landscape. As the map continues to develop and expand, however, this geographical basis has come to serve as an impediment to reading efficiency.  

Through this redesign project, I try to combine past user experiences with what I’ve learned in recent years to analyze, reorganize and enhance elements in the graphic. Approaching the map from a different angle, I create a Taipei Metro route map that increases reading efficiency and maximizes its utility in communicating information. 

Motivation for the design of the metro network map

Hydrological information was first added to the Taipei Metro map in its 2009 edition. It aligned the originally simple route structures with the directions of river flow, which resulted in complex curves that adhere close to the geographical reality. During the time when smartphones were just beginning to become more common (the smartphone penetration rate in Taiwan only exceeded 50% in 2013), the metro network map served as a simplified version of the map of Greater Taipei, assisting citizens in understanding the relationships between different locales within this area. 

Eleven years later, the Taipei Metro network encompassed nine lines and 144 stations from the five lines and 80 stations in 2009  (see note). With the volume of information more than doubling, the map became ever more convoluted and thus decreasingly functional. Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the advancements in mobile internet and mapping technology. All kinds of maps are available through various apps. Is it really necessary that the metro map reflects Taipei’s topography? Or, are we willing to allow the topographical representation to diverge from reality in an extreme way for the sake of clarity?

The numbers of lines and stations are counted according to the content of the official map. Those calculated are not limited to routes run by the Department of Rapid Transit Systems of the Taipei City Government. In the old edition, neither single-station branch lines nor commuter trains count for one line. In the new edition, a single-station branch line doesn’t count for one line, while Maokong Gondola, Taoyuan Airport MRT, and the Danhai Light Rail each count for one line. The two commuter routes of the Zhonghe-Xinlu Line are combined to count for one line. 
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Taipei Metro Map (Left: March 2009; Right: January 2020)

Based on the considerations outlined above, I spent some time deconstructing and reassembling the elements and the large amount of information in the current Taipei Metro route map. Taking passenger reading efficiency as my paramount objective, I made an original edition of the map. The following sections explain the reasoning underlying the decisions made, pointing to the advantages of this new map. 

What are the problems with the current map?

The most irritating aspect one notices while reading the current map is the zigzagging visual movements one has to make as a result of the inconsistent positions in which station names are placed on the map. To keep distances between different station icons the same, the station names are awkwardly squeezed into the adjacent space, forcing the text to align inconsistent patterns. 

In addition, English parts of the station codes appear repeatedly, which to some extent reduces the readability of the numerical parts. This can be perceived as an accommodation to those who are color-blind. However, in comparison to the highly complicated network of Tokyo Metro, Taipei Metro’s structure is relatively simple. One can find English station codes quickly by following along the extension of each station marker. Whether this visual bombardment of information is necessary will be discussed below.  

A further problem is that there is not a clear hierarchy of information, letting the reader know what is most important. Both the Airport MRT and the Danhai Light Rail have been lightened and shrunk. Perhaps the segmentation is made to indicate that the operators of Taipei Metro, Airport MRT and the Light Rail belong to different companies, but from a user’s perspective, the appearance of these alternatively highlighted and diminished lines seems really awkward.

Lastly, let's address the hydrological information displayed. During the initial operation period, when there were only a few routes, presentation of the hydrological landscape along with the layout that reflected topography helped travelers gain an understanding of the geography of Greater Taipei. But as the network has expanded, this virtue has been overridden by the visual chaos created by the background colors of the rivers.  

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Existing flaws in Taipei's current metro map

Now that the problems have been identified, what about the goals of the revision?

The metro network is a system that is rapidly developing. It is likely to expand and upgrade every half year, or even seasonally. In response to the protean nature of the system, this project aims to create a set of “guidelines” rather than a one-time image that is aesthetically pleasing yet unable to be extended and expanded. It also attempts to be in accord with the famous design maxim: “Good design is durable.”

Prior to starting production, I came up with six criteria by which to repeatedly assess my own work.  They were, “Easy to Understand”: one can understand without referring to the instructions; “Methodical”: elements of the same class share the same visual logic; “Readable”: reading flows smoothly with no restrictions; “Universal”: friendly to all users; “Identifiable”: one can grasp the key points quickly; and “Extendable”: there are rules to follow for future development.     

How do we prioritize the passenger's reading experience?

Once these criteria were established, my first step was to set up the main feature of the map: route structure. First of all, the Airport MRT, the Light Rail, and Maokong Gondola, all of which are similar in nature, have high transfer rates, and short distances between stations, are elevated to the same class of information as that of other Taipei Metro routes. Since I based my thinking on the concept of a local network, I made a division between the Taipei Metro on and HSR and TRA, which have longer distances between stations and serve to connect with areas outside of Taipei.    

To maximize reading efficiency, the route structure in the new edition no longer attempts to accurately represent topography. The number of twists and turns is reduced as much as possible, and space for showing station names is reserved. Thus, there is a uniform distance between station icons, and station names being placed to the right of and above the icons. Because this new design does take the current version of the map as its model, it would not appear strange to users. Besides, the relative geographical positions and directions remain in keeping with common sense. 

The circular station icons echo the round-corner elements in turns in route lines. Aside from making the difference between regular stations and terminals clear with icons of different sizes, transfer stations with higher passenger flows are presented as hollow icons, which makes them stand out more on the map. Regarding the station codes, English letters that appear repeatedly are removed, while numerical parts are kept. Presented in different colors, these elements have enhanced the user’s reading efficiency.   

There were several difficult choices to make at this stage. After consideration, some elements and contents were eliminated. Detailed explanation of why certain parts were removed is conveyed below. 

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Left: route structure / Right: station icons

Hints Between The Lines

Words can most directly provide information on a map that contains many different messages. In this particular situation, although the existence of words is not quite a matter of life and death like the font usage of signages in airports and highways, it still plays a key role in influencing one’s reading efficiency.    

The use of Cera Pro as the font for the numericals in station codes coincidentally compensates for the flaws resulting from the small size of numerals and their presentation in multiple colors. It also possesses the benefit of a distinctive structure. This prevents the awkward situation of being unable to differentiate between 3, 6, 8 and 9 from happening again. In response to shifts between solid and hollow icons for regular and transfer stations, two weights are selected to pair with each other to reduce the visual differences caused by altering the thickness of the text.   

I chose AR UD JingXiHei for Chinese station names and FF Clan for English station names.   The counter of the former font is not as vast as that of the sans serif font previously used. Nevertheless, the composition of its appearance helps identify the contents. Its complete character set is also beneficial for developing special versions for different languages in the future. Compared with the current Helvetica, the latter has a greater x-height and an easily recognizable double-storey g, which provides improved readability. 

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Font applications and their features

After the main elements are defined, what about the details? 

In the current edition, the yellow line is too bright, which makes it uncomfortable to look at directly. The blue and green lines, on the other hand, suffer from a coloring that’s not bright enough, and are hard to distinguish. This makes the thin lines in their transfer station icons more difficult to recognize. Consequently, in the new version, both brightness and hue of the route colors are slightly adjusted to make the reading process more comfortable.  

According to Wikipedia, each route has its own designated Pantone and HEX color codes. But since the purpose of this redesign project is not to replace the official version, I didn’t abide by these guidelines.  Besides, the designated color codes have yet to be clearly identified. 

In addition to changes in appearance and color, icon sizes increasingly contract in accordance with their levels of priority as one moves further down the information hierarchy. The relative relationships between large and small are used to provide visual hints for users to make it even easier for them to capture the information needed.  

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Left: adjusted colors for the routes and icons / Right: the relative relationships between icon sizes

Can the map legend be explained in a logical manner?

The Legend in the current version is rich in information yet lacks a systematic classification schema. The operation mode (a term used by the Taipei Metro roughly equivalent to route, but with more information like connections to commuter services) occupying the central spot fails to explain its own meaning, while no clues whatsoever can be found in the main picture. Captions for station icons are inconsistent as if they were haphazardly tossed up onto the map. Instructions on out-of-station transfer, passage, and landmark, etc. are together stuffed into “miscellaneous”. Although it contains large amounts of information, its sloppy presentation seemingly evokes a nonchalant attitude of “since all the instructions are here, take your time searching.”  

In the redesigned version, different means of public transport are included in the same section. Illustrations of stations and passages are conveyed in a way that tracks closely to how they look in the main picture. Elements are not individually torn out to amplify the user’s comprehension. Landmarks and operation mode, however, are removed on account of their logical incoherence. 

A route map’s value to users should lie in enabling them to look up how to ride from Station A to Station B rather than in communicating different service ranges or tourist attractions. Although these are not entirely irrelevant, compared to the alternative of letting them take up space but provide lower value, it is more suitable for this kind of information to be placed on the single route map in physical stations and carriages.  
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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Information classification between the old and redesigned versions

How does the route map turn out to be after the changes have been made? 

The step-by-step analysis below shows the contrast between the new and old Taipei Metro route maps. It is clear that the route structure in the new edition is directionally concise and consistent. One can swiftly shift their visual focus between different routes and not feel puzzled. Because the station names, which are parallel to routes, have not been shrunk, reading the map is a smooth process. The change to hollow and enlarged icons allows each transfer station to become more quickly identifiable among the other stations. After station codes are slightly enlarged and their font changed, in the same view size, their readability is enhanced.        

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Comparison between the current (left) and redesigned (right) maps

How to choose between competing options

As described in the first part of this article, during my production process, I was faced with several situations in which A needed to be abandoned to achieve B. It was only after mulling over these questions for a while that I was able to make the decisions about the appearance in the finished draft. There are no standard answers to these questions, and the results are simply the decisions I made in accordance with the level of complexity of the current network. Two of the most difficult decisions are discussed below.

1. Should English letters in the station codes be kept?

This is a common issue that arises in similar design cases. To accommodate users who are color blind or otherwise visually impaired, station codes are provided for ease of reading. Without a doubt, station codes should be listed in detail on maps of extremely complex systems like the Tokyo Metro. But the Taipei Metro is a system that is relatively concise. One can easily find the marks at the end of each route, while the numbers can help determine the sequential order of the station stops. 

2. Should the real distance or a streamlined route structure be reflected?

In the new map, there are two sections in which distances between stations are clearly longer, including Minquan W. Rd.—Daqiaotou—Zhongshan Elementary School on one hand, and CKS Memorial Hall—Dongmen—Guting on the other. The triangular area formed in the latter is probably the most unnatural part of the whole picture. While arranging the route structure, I’ve sought out comments several times from my friends and colleagues in the design industry. Yet the feedback from both sides is quite polarized with each camp on the distance representation question having roughly the same number of people, such as “It’s going to cause distances between stations to feel far”, or, “A smooth visual experience is more important.”    

My final decision on the question was made with a sense of following the lesser of two evils principle. Compared to the distortion of distance which goes against the user’s underlying understanding, using X or Y fonts which are out of place in the whole design lexicon to deal with that area to shorten distances between stations causes much more turns and complicates the picture. Hence, I believe that maintaining equidistant but geographically inaccurate station icons is the more acceptable shortcoming. 

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Perspective comparison between regular users and users with total color blindness

Advantages and Evaluation of the New Edition

At the closing of the article, the benefits and drawbacks of the redesigned Metro route map will be summarized in brief.

Benefits

The picture is clear and concise with no redundant elements, while visual movements are smooth, and follow the reading logic. It returns to meeting the original needs to present information about the metro network. It also efficiently provides a search function of “How to ride from Station A to Station B”. It is suited for metro users with or without the aid of apps like Google Maps. Furthermore, the design applies a uniform grid as well as size and color standards, which serves as helpful information for future route map updates.

Drawbacks

Geographical relationships, including distance, relative positions, etc., are distorted. Besides, the absence of elements such as hydrological information, directions, and so on, prevents a simplified Greater Taipei map from being properly deduced from this particular route map, and thus further prevents it from being used to arrange self-driving, long-distance walks and other means of transport. The lack of those elements is also hardly conducive to the map serving as a guide on means of travel other than the metro itself.

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Photo Credit: Memphis Sun
Extended version of the redesigned metro map


Memphis Sun is a graphic designer graduated from Tatung University. The original article in Chinese can be found here, more details of the redesign can be viewed on Behance

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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