WalkNYC Pedestrian Wayfinding
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Case Study By

January 2012–June 2013


New York City Department of Transportation

Project Title

WalkNYC Pedestrian Wayfinding


Pentagram: Graphic Designers

  • Partner: Michael Bierut
  • Senior Designer: Tracey Cameron
  • Senior Designer: Hamish Smyth
  • Designer: Jesse Reed
  • Project Manager: Tamara McKenna

City ID: Lead Designers and Wayfinding Specialists

  • Design Director: Mike Rawlinson
  • Senior Designer: Harriet Hand
  • Senior Designer: David Gillam
  • Project Director: Jason Smith
  • Project Manager: Sam Coultrip
  • Designer: Liam Randall
  • Designer: Stacy Zung
  • Designer: Matt Jephcote
  • Information Planner: Jenny Janssen
  • Specialist Advisor: Rachel Abrams

Billings Jackson Design: Industrial Designers

  • Partner: Duncan Jackson
  • Partner: Eoin Billings
  • Partner: Paul Leonard
  • Senior Designer: Aidan Jamison
  • Senior Designer: Dale Newton
  • Senior Designer: Simon Kristak

RBA Group: Engineers and Contract Managers

  • Senior Engineer: Jackson Wandres
  • Contract Manager: Chris Lucas
  • Resident Engineer: Klaus Weidemann
  • Engineer: Kevin Ballantyne

T-Kartor: GIS Developers and Cartographers

  • Key Account Manager: David Figueroa
  • Project Manager: Matthew Archer
  • Project and Design Coordinator: Wendy Bell
  • Information Planning and Coordinator: Charu Kukreja
  • Field Operations Manager: Rich Perkins
  • Cartographic Field Analyst: Michael Schlerf
  • Cartographic Field Analyst: Subutay Musluoglu
  • Cartographic Finished Artist: Kathryn Green
  • Cartographic Finished Artist: Jeff Vonderheide
  • Cartographer: Thilda Garö
  • Cartographer: Hanna Lindahl
  • Cartographer: Ingrid Mårtensson

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

WalkNYC is a new program of pedestrian maps introduced by the New York City Department of Transportation that makes it easier to navigate the city streets. Placed on a system of dedicated kiosks throughout the city, the maps are designed to encourage people to walk, bike and use public transit, and help guide them to major landmarks and subway and bus stations. The kiosks present two maps, one of local streets and the other of the area in relation to a larger section of the city.

The maps use an innovative “heads up” orientation in which the compass directions (north, south, east or west) are rotated to correspond with the direction the user is facing. The maps were developed in collaboration with a consortium of designers who worked closely with DOT, the city’s local Business Improvement Districts and other institutions and agencies. The design was extensively tested with pedestrians, who found it easy to use. The graphic language utilizes a customized version of Helvetica called Helvetica DOT and features iconic New York landmarks rendered as detailed, evocative line drawings. The brief included the WalkNYC identity, which is used to endorse any maps that use the graphics as official city maps.


Finding one’s way through the streets of New York when coming out of the subway or walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood can be confusing, even for the most seasoned New Yorker. WalkNYC is a new program of pedestrian maps by the New York City Department of Transportation that makes it easier to navigate the city streets.

Placed on a system of dedicated kiosks throughout the city, the maps are designed to encourage people to walk, bike and use public transit, and help guide them to major landmarks and subway and bus stations. A range of kiosk and signage types were designed for the various urban environments and locations around the city; the maps were also installed on the kiosks of the CitiBike bike share program. The maps and kiosks were developed in collaboration with a consortium of industrial designers, graphic designers, wayfinding experts, engineers, urban planners, cartographers and geographic information specialists who worked closely with DOT, the city’s local Business Improvement Districts (BID) and other institutions and agencies.

As NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan explained, “Well-designed wayfinding can unlock even more of New York’s boundless potential, transforming our streetscapes in subtle but very tangible ways for residents, visitors, and businesses.”

In addition to the primary goal of improving people’s journeys around the city, PentaCityGroup and NYC DOT defined a number of related goals that included:

  • Creating a visual identity that is appropriate in all environments, all neighborhoods and at all journey stages;
  • Building data and design resources that can work across multiple communication channels including digital and printed media;
  • Developing a family of products and placement guidelines that reflect and can be readily applied to the city’s urban structure;
  • Creating an information concept that could be integrated within transport environments;
  • Designing wayfinding products that have a lightness of touch within the context of the city’s streets and that achieve beauty through form and function.
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WalkNYC is a new program of pedestrian maps that makes it easier to navigate New York City streets. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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The kiosks are designed to encourage users to walk and take public transit. The structural design echoes the forms of the city’s architecture, while the graphics complement the language of the subway system. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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The kiosks present two maps, one of local streets and the other of the area’s location in relation to a larger section of the city. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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A range of signage types has been designed for the various urban environments and locations around the city (at intersections, mid-block, in plazas, etc.) (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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The orientation of the WalkNYC maps use “heads-up” mapping, in which north, south, east or west is rotated to correspond with the direction the user is facing. The design was extensively tested with pedestrians, who found it easy to use. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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Map detail. A variety of information is layered into the map, including icons of landmarks. Subways are indicated by tabs that resemble station signs. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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Map detail. The maps also provide an estimate of walking time to points in the neighborhood. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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A unique system of icons was created for the maps, including drawings of landmark buildings. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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Custom icons designed for the program. The icons were drawn to match details in Helvetica DOT, the custom version of Helvetica developed for the program. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)

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The maps are installed on the new CitiBike bike-sharing kiosks. (Credit: PentaCityGroup)


The need for consistent wayfinding solutions was recognized by the city and supported by Mayor Bloomberg and the Commissioner of New York City Department of Transportation Janet Sadik-Khan.

In a city with diverse boroughs, districts and neighborhoods, the challenge was to create a universal design that would be applicable to all environments within the city, and supported by all stakeholders in order to provide consistency and familiarity and build trust with residents and visitors exploring the city.

After a competitive public bid process, PentaCityGroup was appointed in 2011 to develop the system. The design consortium comprises wayfinding specialists City ID as lead designer, industrial designers Billings Jackson Design, graphic designers Pentagram, RBA Group providing engineering, urban design and project management and T-Kartor as GIS database developers and cartographers.

On a day-to-day level, anyone can understand why this project matters. Even born and bred New Yorkers sometimes get disorientated when they exit a subway station or are looking for a new restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

For new visitors the city can be a very confusing place; in 2011, 27% of visitors surveyed admitted to getting lost. Being lost, fear of getting lost or simply lack of knowledge leads many people to use private or public transport when walking or cycling may be a more suitable option. NYC DOT’s business case stated that tourism contributed $34.5 billion to the city’s economy, highlighting the importance of wayfinding in supporting a stress-free experience of the city, ensuring that tourists can navigate the city and encouraging them to visit again.

WalkNYC gives confidence to people who choose to walk and cycle around the city. That, in turn, contributes towards public policy agendas aimed at encouraging more sustainable movement habits and creating more active streets and spaces.


This project is: A retainer relationship
Source of funding: Client


The brief was explored through a series of workshops with the client and stakeholders in order to define the goals of the wayfinding strategy and design approach. The long-term goal was to develop and implement a coherent wayfinding system in New York City that works across transportation modes—forming a more consistent intermodal journey experience with walking and cycling at its core.

At the heart of the approach was an assessment of user needs across the whole journey experience—identifying the various factors that shape people’s understanding and experience of the city, including streetscape and transit systems, with supporting information overlaid that helps to bind together the user experience.

The approach was based on inductive rather than reductive thinking. The system evolved from best practices to create a New York City-specific model and unique wayfinding system that is grounded not just in functional terms, but in the spirit and DNA of the city itself. The approach was to provide a system of elements that can be fixed at a citywide scale, creating a sense of consistency and unity.

This wayfinding approach helps connect and glue the city together, reveal the city to its citizens and visitors and reinforce the image of the city in a way that positively empowers people to explore.

The approach was designed to work across multiple communication channels. This meant that content on maps used on-street could be selected to reduce the risk of obsolescence in the ever-changing city, whilst printed and digital products could be designed to support the on-street system with richer content related to specific interests, activities or events.

Following early workshops, the design team quickly commenced a series of user research and testing activities to gain an understanding of how people read, understand and navigate the city. A user-centered approach, balanced with best practices and the extensive knowledge of the design team, was essential in order to test and validate ideas during the fast-moving design phase.

An aspect of this testing was size and placement of the maps within the streetscape, as they would be vying for valuable and often crowded sidewalk space. These early tests determined the scale and height of the maps, which in turn informed the size of the physical product. The product itself needed to be slim, modern and unobtrusive, all while able to withstand the onslaught of abuse a city can serve. The product reflects its surroundings, just as the map does. Its steel and glass structure was informed by the team’s experience within New York City.

Because the audience for this project is vast and diverse, a user-centered design approach was undertaken to establish and respond to users’ needs. This included regular user research and testing activities to test ideas, validate design choices and identify opportunities for improvement. A technical advisory committee, including local Business Improvement Districts and stakeholders, was established to help guide the project


NYC DOT commissioned formal research at an early stage that supported the need for a citywide wayfinding system. The case for wayfinding was strengthened further by best practices from other major cities such as London where early evaluation of pilot schemes suggested the number of pedestrians getting lost on a journey fell by 65 per cent.

From the start of the project PentaCityGroup worked in an open studio environment allowing the team to benefit from the extensive knowledge of the client and its partners.

User research was a key part of the design process to test all elements of the products. To understand the public’s perception of space, the team carried out a mental mapping exercise with the public in a number of locations around the city. Scenarios were given and the public would respond by drawing their locations in relation to the wider city space. The results of this exercise revealed many people could not orient themselves and often had a poor understanding of the wider city around them. Generally people could navigate their well-trodden routes but had little knowledge of their neighboring environments and transportation options.

The results heavily influenced the concept development and map content categorization. User testing strongly supported the innovative “heads up” orientation in which the maps are rotated to correspond with the direction the user is facing. Full size mock-ups of the final design intent were thoroughly tested with great success.


One of the charms of New York City is that it is a walkable city. Bringing the wayfinding concepts that helped New Yorkers and tourists navigate the subway systems onto the streets seemed like a natural evolution.

After considering various design directions, it became clear early on that the graphics should mimic the iconic and recognizable NYC subway signage created by Unimark in 1970. By using the existing signage as a foundation we avoided the need for users to learn a new set of icons, and could tap into the equity of the subway signage so our maps were immediately seen as official and authoritative. Our decision to mimic the subway signage also provided a self-imposed constraint, helping to dictate the placement and use of typography, layout and color, such as white type on a dark background.

New York City itself presents a host of design constraints, which were the driving force for how the product took shape. We considered everything from vandalism, weather, accidental damage and dogs to visibility within the often visually intense urban landscape, though these were not meant to drive the design from an overtly practical stance, lest the design look like an armored truck. From these constraints we agreed upon design principles including legibility, reliability, robustness, maintainability and adaptability, and a material manifestation that was neutral in its conception and simply beautiful.

The final form was not meant to impose itself on the streetscape, but rather feel like a natural extension of it. In this way, the final form is not very different from the initial idea, insofar as the information (maps and graphics) is meant to be the hero, and all other aspects of the design were to support, not compete with this primacy. To that end, the totems are comprised of: a map panel with the information graphic adhered to the back side of a glass panel; two stainless steel columns that frame and support the map panel on either side; a porcelain base panel that connects to the natural materials of the sidewalks; and a transparent beacon atop the totem to reflect sunlight during the day and ambient light at night.

The graphic language of the maps utilizes a customized version of Helvetica called Helvetica DOT and features iconic New York landmarks rendered as detailed, evocative line drawings. Helvetica was chosen to complement the iconic graphic language of the New York City subway system. The palette is inspired by the colors of the city: the yellow crosswalk lights, green parks and bike lanes, white crosswalks, and grey streets and sidewalks.

NYC DOT and other constituencies refined the product development during the process, but throughout the development of the graphics and physical aspects of the project, the team was able to forge a unified approach, which allowed for considerable collaboration and innovation from start to finish.


Working in city environments involves many departments and decision makers, occasionally with competing goals and objectives. This brings a wide range of challenges. However, a close working relationship was maintained between the design team and the end client in order to overcome issues as they arose. This relationship led to rapid design development and a carefully managed approved process at every project stage. There were many pressures on the client and design team during this period, leading to a tightly coordinated design process and frequent deadlines for testing, artwork production, manufacturing and installation.

New York City’s sidewalk structures –as they are often very shallow and filled with utilities— bring a number of engineering challenges. The engineers developed a solution to combat these restrictions and worked with the installation crews to combat these restrictions and ensure adherence to a strict methodology.

The WalkNYC identity was developed during the course of the project to address a difficult question—how should NYC present itself? Before defining the design direction, the design team researched the graphic identities prevalent within the city and how recognizable each was to visitors and residents. The WalkNYC graphic language subtly builds on existing transportation identities, evolving a look and feel that is familiar and trustworthy. The identity includes a customized version of Helvetica called Helvetica DOT and features iconic New York landmarks rendered as detailed, evocative line drawings.

With a myriad of different information providers across the city, it is important that WalkNYC stands out above the noise. The WalkNYC system logo was developed as a mark of authenticity, to endorse any information products developed with NYC DOT and its partners as “official” and authoritative.

Many different data sources provide vast amounts of city information to filter and layer in order to build the master database. In the dynamic city environment, parks, plazas, bike lanes and buildings are constantly being added and are not included in existing data sets. The field analysts visited every corner of the city to verify and collect data to conform to the mapping specification.


The results of the initial round of user testing highlighted clear wayfinding challenges that visitors and long-term residents were experiencing. Before the first signs were installed, extensive testing of eight full-size mock-ups in four neighborhoods had been given a 98% satisfaction rating and gained overwhelming support for the rollout of signs across the city.

So far, the WalkNYC system has been implemented in four neighborhoods and 330 CitiBike stations. The feedback from a wide and varying demographic has been enormously positive. The program of user testing throughout the design process allowed the designers to respond to the needs of visitors and residents and the system is therefore tailored to their needs, providing the right information in the right place and at the right time. As the system continues to expand this will further stitch together the city and expose the movement networks.

The design development has continued to expand into other parts of the city network. Design guidelines have been developed, allowing city departments to continue with this development. Official WalkNYC print maps are in circulation and other city partners are developing their own maps working with the design team, expanding the system and tailoring the maps to their individual needs and uses for various events and campaigns.

The success of the design has been recognized by other city agencies. NYC DOT partnered with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to bring the mapping to the exit maps in the subway system. The design was developed to work in low light conditions.

An essential element of the mapping style is the use of forward facing “heads-up” mapping. The orientation of the map matches the view in front of the person for that particular location. User testing revealed an 84% preference for the heads-up mapping over traditional north up or grid north formats.

More recently the first prototypes for the Select Bus Service real-time information product has been installed. During the final stages of the design process a full-scale mockup of the product was presented to passengers at various SBS bus stops. People interviewed strongly supported the implementation of this product. In this sample group, 96% said the product could help plan their journey easily and 87% said it could help them easily plan their onward journey to connecting services.

NYC DOT is pursuing a process of formal evaluation, but informal feedback has been extremely positive. Quantitative results will be completed over the next year in order to support further rollout of the system. Measures of success will include visitors’ awareness of the system, usability, satisfaction and the number of people who get lost. Longer-term analysis will reflect on the value of the system to local businesses and economies and positive changes in peoples’ behavior and habits.

The New York City Street Design Manual is the city’s comprehensive resource for street design standards, guidelines and policies. The manual provides details about the ongoing effort to support higher quality streets and more street activity. WalkNYC wayfinding system is now a key component of this manual and works alongside a range of coordinated street furniture.

The project has gained praise locally and from around the world and is fast becoming a benchmark for other cities.

Juror Comments

“There’s something beautiful and refreshing about superbly executed way-finding systems. I, for one, believe these types of assignments are as hard to solve as complex technology problems. This system succeeds because the information is beautifully art directed, carefully presented and appropriately articulated.” —Dana Arnett

“This entry was easy to mark “Justified” This system of maps does exactly what it should do. For starters, it fits into the larger New York City Metro area transportation design system. On each map, the display is attractive and easy to use. Too often maps of this size simply display information without being directly helpful to the viewer. This design takes the overwhelming area of Manhattan and makes it approachable to locals and visitors alike.” —Kate Aronowitz

“A refined design aesthetic from typography to physical form is carried through to the smallest detail creating a sophisticated and welcoming engagement with New York City.” —Cameron Campbell

“This was a huge crowd pleaser.” —Joe Gebbia

“The trouble with a winning entry that sets itself so clearly apart is that you don't get to talk about it much. WalkNYC simply and unanimously set the bar for Justified 2014.” —Jennifer Kinon

“The city was made better by the installation of this elegantly executed, contextually aware design program, delivered at a large scale that solves a real human problem.” —Jeremy Mende

“New York City is distancing itself from nearly all other American metropolises in its commitment to civic design. Pentagram’s pedestrian wayfinding system is another leap forward in that direction. Extending the iconic design language of the NYC subway system, the slender black pylons are iconic in their own right. Their elegance gives no hint of the myriad of practical considerations the system satisfies, and the information is presented with a clarity that belies its depth and complexity. It’s an infinitely flexible signage program with a material, aesthetic and conceptual durability that should endure for generations.” —Christopher Simmons

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