Signage on Beijing Subway

While staying in Beijing, you will spend a lot of time travelling around by subway. The signage at the stations and in the subway cars is well worth discussing from an information design perspective.

Beijing takes the same  approach as most other major cities – with dedicated tracks for each line. Transfers between lines requires a walk to a different set of platforms.

When you come down the steps to a platform, the name of the end stations is the first thing you notice. This helps orient you to the correct side of the platform.

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As you walk along the platform and look up you see the name of the station, and the ones immediately preceding and succeeding it are shown along the platform, along with an arrow indicating the direction of travel.

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This tells you where you are and where you will go. Note that the preceding stations are greyed out to de-emphasize them. The remaining major stations (transfer stations and landmarks) and the end station is marked.

This is a typical use of focus + context. You see the nearby locations, and the overall picture, without being overburdened by details. The complete map of the network is also available on the platform and on the back of your travel-card.  If you need help planning your journey, a red-armbanded helper is nearby to assist you.

Once you get on the train, the travellers task switches to keeping track of where you are, and when to get off. Inside the train is a map above each door, that tracks the current station and the direction of travel. These update in real time.

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The red dots indicate visited stations. When travelling between stops, the corresponding dots between stations are half red and half green.

When you arrive at a station, the station name is visible on the pillars outside, and the next stations is also shown underneath in smaller type. Along with the route map inside the train this helps you maintain your own map of the network.

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It is re-inforcing the direction of travel and giving you extra context. Context you need if you are going to push through the crowd to reach the door in time.

Despite the helpful markings on the floor indicating where to queue and where to let out passengers, getting on and off the train requires a hefty shoulder and a good push to get out.

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I’m guessing that a lot of these signage upgrades are a result of the Olympics, but whoever is responsible has done a really nice job with the information design. It helps keep travellers oriented and helps them maintain their internal maps of the subway system. These information hints will become more important as the network grows in size and complexity.

The Beijing subway is growing quickly – it has doubled in size since Fay left a few years ago. A new line opened just in the eight months since our last visit in April, and it is on route to become the world’s biggest subway system by 2020.