new pictograms with station signage

After asking the public last year for input on pictograms to identify new Link stations from Angle Lake to Northgate, Sound Transit revealed them in its Northgate project update last week. The new pictograms will appear on redesigned signage in stations and on board trains later this year in advance of U Link’s opening. Sound Transit provided me with a document describing their design approach and a report of community input. While it does not show or explain the final pictogram designs, you can see the process that led to them.

In lieu of an official description from Sound Transit, here are my interpretations of each station pictogram, from south to north:

  • Angle Lake is represented by a rainbow trout, which can be caught in the lake. The shape of the fish also resembles the shape of the lake itself. It is the official state fish and the state stocks the lake with it. Expect to see people with their fishing gear on the train when the station opens later in 2016.

  • Capitol Hill is the rainbow ‘Pride’ flag, honoring the neighborhood’s association with Seattle’s LGBT community. Although the actual flag is commonly seen with six colored stripes, the pictogram is rendered in monochrome as part of its signage program, ST spokesperson Bruce Gray told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.

  • University of Washington is a mortarboard cap with the UW’s block ‘W’ logo. This is the most obvious of the pictograms, at least to this Husky. The mortarboard represents academia and is worn in the commencement ceremony which the UW hosts in Husky Stadium, whose parking lot the station is situated. The university and the medical center is the block ‘W’ logo. The logo is trademarked and I assume ST was told me they got granted permission to use it ST was given permission by the UW to use it.

  • U District is a stack of three thick textbooks, possibly referring to the nearby University Book Store which has anchored “The Ave” shopping district for more than 90 years. The books also represent education, which is why the neighborhood exists.

  • Roosevelt is a Bull Moose, a nickname for the Progressive Party founded by Theodore Roosevelt, who is the neighborhood’s namesake. The neighboring street and high school are also named after the 26th president. At first glance, it could be seen as a Roosevelt Elk but people who know their moose from their elk can tell them apart.

  • Northgate is a dragonfly. It mimics the Green Darner Dragonfly artwork to be installed in the station, which can be seen from the platform and mezzanine. Dragonflies are commonly found in the recently daylighted Thornton Creek near the station. The dragonfly is also the state insect.

While I think the symbolism and intent of having pictograms are great, they are just not implemented very well. Here are ST’s requirements for effective pictograms, from last year’s questionnaire:

  • Simple in form, and are an easily recognizable symbol
  • Readable at many scales; including signage, print material, online and mobile devices
  • Are individually distinguishable and read as a family

Cameron Booth, a professional graphic designer who writes the Transit Maps blog, criticized the existing Link pictograms as “overly detailed” and “reproduce terribly at small sizes.” He cites Mexico City’s Metro “bold and simple” station icons as a good example that ST itself used as an example but instead did “the absolute opposite”. I can apply Booth’s critique to U District’s book stack and Capitol Hill’s rainbow flag.

U District’s book stack is not readable (pun not intended) on a dark background. SODO’s anvil is most similar to the books in design and perspective but functions better because it is a single object with a recognizable shape and minimal ink within the pictogram itself. The books, however, just look like a square blob.

Capitol Hill’s rainbow Pride flag is a case of completely changing the meaning through loss of detail at small size. The rainbow flag turns into a white flag of surrender or a black/blue flag of many things, because the keylines that separate the bands disappear when shrunk. It still looks like a flag, big or small, so it works in that respect and perhaps I am overthinking this.

A rainbow, which was an overwhelmingly popular suggestion at 48, would have been visually clearer and just as, if not more, inclusive and representative of the neighborhood. The arc shape of the rainbow is also reminiscent of how many legislative chambers are arranged (not Washington’s), the dome shape of capitol buildings, and a hill. Many of the adjectives suggested in the questionnaire like diverse, vibrant, fun, etc. could be symbolized by a rainbow, without the added layer of a flag.

86 Replies to “ST Unveils New Link Station Pictograms”

  1. Two things I wish ST would do:

    (1) Fewer words are always simpler. The word “station” doesn’t need to be part of the station name, particularly it doesn’t need to be printed on all the signage and especially on displays with limited space. Just call it Angle Lake and Capitol Hill etc.

    (2) Stop using scrolling displays on Link. Make everything fit on the display. Shorten when needed. SeaTac Airport. Westlake-Seattle. Angle Lake. Univ of Wash. Make it fit on the display and make it static. Next: Stadium. Next: Mt. Baker.

    1. Those are the two biggest things I want. Although the word “Station” is OK outside the station entrance. Where it’s not OK is on the platform or onboard signs. Most other systems say just “BEACON HILL”, why can’t ST? People know that everything a train stops at is a station. It’s not “Beacon Hill Cauliflower” or “Columbia City Aqueduct”, it’s a station. The platform shows that it’s a station.

      1. There are a couple of cases where it is helpful to use the word Station, but those are particular cases.

        For example, you have University of Washington station that really isn’t that close to the University of Washington. You have several dozen bus routes that go through the campus and stop and multiple stops before they actually get to the University of Washington Station.

      2. Of course if you’re somewhere else that’s not the station, you will call it x station. We’re talking about when people are inside a station or on a train. It is superfluous.

        It has to be because of the way stations are announced. Link says “next stop Beacon Hill Station”. SkyTrain would say “the next station is Waterfront”. CTA would say “Fullerton is next”, which is all that needs to be said.

        +1 to both of Carl’s wishes.

    2. Bravo, Carl. I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, these two things were the very thoughts I had the other day while in the tunnel.

  2. I understand this is a state requirement specifically for light rail systems. But why don’t Tacoma Link or the Seattle Streetcar have them? Technically they are light rail systems also. Why did the state even step in on this issue in the first place?

    1. I thought it was a federal requirement for ADA.

      Tacoma Link may not have it because it’s not a regional system, so you’re less likely to end up twenty miles from where you intended. The Seattle Streetcar lines doesn’t have icons either.

      1. As far as I know, there’s nothing that specifies how extensive the light rail system has to be before pictograms are required. Why then doesn’t Tacoma Link have them? If MAX were extended to Vancouver, would they be required there too?

        This all seems rather arbitrary and it’s a very strange requirement for the state to impose. I know of no other transit system in North America that uses pictograms except Mexico City.

      2. Was Tacoma Link in place before the law went into effect? As I read the law, they would have had to add a pictograph to the station signage for the new station they built a couple of years ago.

      3. I’m sure we have some smart, reasonable legislatures, but as a body, our state legislature is shockingly stupid and petty.

      4. Tacoma Link is a streetcar line; it’s not light rail, by any reasonable definition of the term.

      5. @RDPence It’s called “Tacoma Link Light Rail”. ‘Light Rail’ is nothing but a marketing term to begin with, which makes the fact it’s coded into law without being defined even more confusing.

  3. Capitol Hill is the rainbow ‘Pride’ flag … the pictogram is rendered in monochrome

    Thanks for the laugh. Something is really whacky about a process that leads to this. It really doesn’t matter, but this is ridiculous. I’m sure the folks that suggested the rainbow flag (a very worthwhile suggestion) didn’t realize it would be rendered without the rainbow. That’s kind of the key point.

    A rainbow (even in monochrome) would have been better (as you suggested) But why not Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the most iconic building in the area? A rendering could easily be misconstrued as the Capitol Building, which would work as well. Perhaps they want to avoid religious symbols.

    I do like the Angle Lake symbol, though. In general it is hard to find decent symbols, but that is a good one.

    1. There are six stripes on the rainbow flag. This has either five or eleven stripes depending on the interpretation. ST fail!

    2. Reads like they lumped together the rainbow and rainbow flag together. Yeah, I would have picked the dance steps which were next down.

  4. The blue-and-white “rainbow” flag just looks ridiculous. It’s like a monty python sketch.

    1. It doesn’t look ridiculous; it just looks like a flag. And it’s somewhat reminiscent of the US flag, in fact, though it doesn’t have the canton of stars – which isn’t too out-of-place for Capitol Hill.

      1. Or at smaller sizes, a sold color. Maybe the black flag of anarchy? Also suitable for Capitol Hill.

      2. It looks kinda like a US flag, which suggests government, which suggests Capitol.

      3. That was my first thought, too – Capitol – simplified version of US flag. And then I read that it was a pride flag and thought to myself that this was obviously designed by someone savvy who was aiming to give a nod to that community while at the same time making sure It had a neutral or hidden meaning for those not in the know or those who might be offended or take issue otherwise.

      4. It looks ridiculous for a “rainbow flag”. Not for a “flag”, but for a “rainbow flag”. It’s not even greyscale (blue scale), it’s monochrome. Why pick a symbol that literally cannot be rendered in the medium you are using?

      5. @Andrew — Yes, I agree, which is why it is hilarious. All the colors of the rainbow. Wait, not the colors, but the shades. Wait, not that either. OK, the same number of colors as a rainbow flag — except, maybe not. Well, it is flag. Use your imagination, people.

    2. The LGBT community is fairly common outside of Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, LGBT folk are getting priced out of Capitol Hill to scatter all over the city than ants do when an aardvark shows up.

      Today, people seem to often go to Capitol Hill to drink — whether in or out of the LGBT community. Maybe use a beer stein or martini glass instead?

    3. When I first saw this, I figured Capitol Hill and a flag were connected because of the name of the hill. I didn’t make the LGBT connection until I read the description in the article.

      Maybe it’s just because of all the Confederate Flag over a Capitol Building in Certain States stuff that has been in the news recently that made me think that way.

    4. ST has a guide to the current pictograms at

      I’ll be honest that I had no idea the shape meant anything – that the corners of the pictograms corresponded to points of interest around the station. I imagine most people didn’t know that.

      I also don’t understand most of them. Why is Beacon Hill a kite? Or Rainier Beach and Columbia City birds? Why is SeaTac not an airplane?! Maybe the pictures are helpful to some people, but I don’t see how. So since a deer is so seemingly unrelated to Othello (the guide says the last deer left the Othello area in the 1950s) I won’t quibble about whether Capitol Hill should be a grayscale flag or a grayscale rainbow.

      1. It’s what the neighborhoods wanted. The Beacon Hill kite symbolizes being on top of a hill and children and families and recreation. The Columbia City dove symbolizes peace and reversing the valley’s gangbanger reputation.

      2. The dove symbol for Columbia city is also because “columba” is Latin for dove. Columbia is derived from the same word.

  5. There are some things that I think just aren’t worth too much worrying about — I think these pictograms are one. I don’t think anyone has ever been like “these pictograms make Link more confusing” — there are bigger fish to fry like the station naming, which is what people actually do care about. For example, how did we get to “University Street”, “University of Washington” and “U District” ?

    1. Don’t worry, now that the State wants to force us to name UW station “Scot White Station” we can have an even more confusing experience.

      Looking for the UW? No its not University station, its Scott White station. Sorry tourists.

      1. Is that like the Gov. Rossellini Floating Bridge? Otherwise known as the Evergreen Bridge, Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, or 520 Bridge (which is what I usually hear nowadays).

        Then there’s the 12th Avenue/Jose Rizal Bridge…

      2. It’s not the whole state – it was Seattle State Rep. Rueven Carlyle who added that provision. Really annoying that our own rep is so disengaged.

    2. It would have probably been more appropriate to have a husky silhouette for the UW station. The station will get more use for sporting events than it will for graduations (cap and gown events).

    3. One good thing, it’s clearer which station is the university. Just head for the graduation cap.

      (Just don’t get confused by the graduation cap sculpture at Othello though. Not your station. No schools there.)

    4. I agree but don’t get me started on the U station names… I’ve been against them from the beginning.

    5. “how did we get to “University Street”, “University of Washington” and “U District””

      University Street came first, of course, when everything beyond the DSTT was far in the future and defined no further than a concept corridor without specific stations. The station was always ambiguous because the 71/72/73X went to the actual university.

      ST’s original names for the other two were “University of Washington” and “Brooklyn”. But one U-District activist agitated for “University District Station” instead and collected petition signatures, and 3/4 of the total feedback was for a University District name in spite of the similarity to the adjacent station. Said activist was unimpressed that Brooklyn was the previous name of the neighborhood, or that northeast Seattle is like a borough in the overall geography; he really wanted a name related to the post 1960s Ave culture, and a lot of merchants and residents apparently thought the same.

      Other names for the official UW station revolve around Husky or Medical or Montlake, but ST didn’t seem interested in any of them. Never mind that the U-District is closer to the heart of the campus and its culture than the corner of the Montlake highway is.

      1. I think U-District is fine. If you asked most people, they would say that is the area. The “U” stands for university, so it all makes sense.

        The other station should be called Husky Stadium or just Husky Station. Show a husky. Pretty obvious to everyone, really.

      2. Exactly, Ross. Husky Stadium is a major landmark and has been there for nearly 100 years. If you need to make it clearer than that, call it “UW-Husky Stadium.” Likewise, U District is the defacto name of that neighborhood, and has been for as many years as I can remember (and I’m not exactly the youngest poster on this board).

        (additional random comments–the rainbow flag is specific to a single group; the pictogram should have been a rainbow, which is a symbol of inclusiveness and many other things–plus is recognizable at a glance. Also, a big YES to removing “station” from trains and any signage actually within a station!)

  6. These remind me of Windows icons, which, as you know if you’ve ever tried to make one, can have very rich detail that gets blended up into a unique look. Maybe they came right from the Photoshop editor to the signage.

    Still I like the overall idea of an abstraction mapped to a station (although I had thought text names). Still, these images can suffice. They really don’t have to “look like” anything, so long as, to the eye-brain, they look different enough that they can be associated to the station-place.

  7. I hope that we get some better directional signs on platforms out of the signage upgrades. ST obsesses about icons — but doesn’t appear to care when new riders end up on the wrong platform side! Why is that?

  8. I also think that ST should take a cue from Metro and announce major landmarks at each stop. For instance, at Westlake, buses will announce Westlake Center, Monorail, and other buildings. Why doesn’t Sound Transit?

  9. What I don’t really like in this set is the UW stadium logo. It feels too complex. What ST should have done is either the cap or the W, not both.

  10. Northgate Mall should get in the spirit of the dragonfly. Then it would really be a symbol for the neighborhood and easy to remember.

    1. I can kind of forgive their thought process on most stations, although as this post suggests the pictogram need to simplified in certain cases.

      With that said, the Northgate one to me is the worst. I’ve been going to northgate most of my life since I was born and raised in Seattle. I have friends who grew up in North Seattle, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. Never once have I heard of this “dragonfly” story or the background around it. I’ve never associated Northgate in any way to a dragonfly. It seems like someone at Sound Transit had to come up with something, and decided to stretch it really far for lack of anything better.

      My suggestion? Just make a simple gate pictogram and be done with it. That or a shopping bag since both of those would have more meaning to everyone than a dragonfly.

  11. Is there anything in the law that prevents numbers from being used? Maybe connect the numbers with an underline or something so that they form a single character if necessary?

    If only two digit numbers are used, it would be easy to remember, and the stop ID and the pictograms could be the same thing.

    Virtually everyone the world over uses the Arabic number system these days. So, it seems to me this would give the same function as the pictograms. It’s not like the train lines have publicly identified numbers like New York does.

    Have they already taken down the old pictograms?

    1. When I was in Atlanta all the MARTA stations had a direction and a number, so S3 was the third station south of the downtown transit center. The more recent schedules online don’t seem to have the numbers so they may have jettisoned the system, although Wikipedia still has the numbers. It was useful for visitors like myself because it avoided the need to count stations, you could just subtract the numbers, or add them if you’re going through the transit center.

      1. I always like the Atlanta enumeration! I did think that they gave them up though. It was a little confusing after the branching began, though.

      2. The problem with alphanumeric is that you couldn’t use it as the stop number for the departure display. You might as well have an identifier that can be used for other stuff.

      3. Last year, at least, the alphanumeric names were still on the station signage and on the strip maps on the trains. I rather liked them as well, although with MARTA rail there is a single station (Five Points) that acts as a good central point to “number” from, plus the system basically extends in the four cardinal direction from there so it makes some inherent sense. IIRC after the north line branches the next stations were something like N7 and NE7, so still easy to keep track of.

        I thought it was easy at a glance to determine how many more stations there were until the one you wanted. Although commuters already have that ingrained, I suppose, wayfinding is really for the casual, infrequent or new rider.

      1. 0 in Atlanta was the Five Points crossroads station. The numbers helped everyone know where the train transfer point is.

  12. Capitol Hill Station should be represented by a Craftsman single-family house, representing the unique character of the neighborhood that must be preserved. So should Northgate Station, Roosevelt Station, U-District Station, Beacon Hill Station, Mount Baker Station, Columbia City Station, Othello Station, and Rainier Beach Station.

    1. How would the icons be distinct then? Would one have a chimney, another a bay window, another a larger porch, …?

  13. Has any thought been given to sign color in the context of the newly announced line color? It looks like the new stations are stations on the “Red” line but with ST’s standard blue background. So if I was looking at a map with no other cues I’d start looking on the blue line.

    This understandably creates a problem with shared stations, but perhaps a color bar or block on the sign to help orient people?

  14. How much staff time and taxpayer/grant money was wasted on the visioning process and design of these pictograms? This is a wasteful extravagance when our region is in such dire need for better transit NOW.

    1. It may come out of the 1% for art budget, which is mandated by law, part of an initiative mandate from a more progressive and financially stable era. And the icons are required, so they have to be designed, so it’s better to do so with public outreach rather than just dictating them from on high.

      Although it is amusing and sometimes annoying that while the station art budget may be 1%, the amount of time it gets in the outreach is more like 50%, as if what we’re building is half a subway network and half an art gallery.

    2. It’s a state requirement, bro.

      I do hate this constant refrain, “why are you doing X when you can be doing Y?!” when large organizations can, do and have to do parallel things all the time.

    3. In the grand scheme of ST’s budget, it’s a drop in the bucket. As mediocre the results are, wayfinding is important and essential to the customer experience. People need to be able to find their way around the system. Getting lost is no fun.

      1. It’s amazing if you spend only 15 minutes at Westlake Station, the amount of both tourists and locals who have no clue where to go for the Link. They are really confused once they reach the platform because of the buses. There’s even a sign on the mezzanine for the Link that has has an arrow pointing straight into Westlake Center, and on several occasions I’ve seen people go through the doors, back into the mezzanine and into Westlake Center again looking dumfounded.

        Our signs need a MAJOR improvement.

    4. Hey, don’t you find the importance of “wayfinding” worth some money? What is wrong with well planned stations?

      1. 1. The outcome of this program has not been “way finding”. Not even for the linguistically impaired. Doubling down on a faulty idea will not miraculously make it succeed.

        2. ST’s stations are, objectively, not well planned. So while it may be glib to treat an entity as inherently incapable of succeeding at parallel tasks, the evidence of ST’s ability to perform any of its tasks well is not in abundance. When ST gets a single station right from an access, area integration, intermodal connectivity, or simply base-freaking-logic standpoint, people will likely go easier on them for inconsequential crap like this.

      2. Sadly, I have to agree with you on point 2. Many of our stations don’t seem well-planned or logical, and certainly don’t offer convenient and time-saving paths for riders, nor good bus integration. Even the new ones that were designed in later phases. No learning or just don’t care about rider convenience.

  15. They should have used a leaf or stem of broccoli for Capitol Hill, as there are some killer vegetarian restaurants up there. The flag works, too, though.

    I, personally, think the pictogram thing is pretty dumb. Mike Orr mentioned the MARTA system with the Letter-Number (example: S-3) system, and I love it. This makes it easy to follow. I think colored lines, once East Link is open, would also help. The letter-number system is identical to the Skytrain and Metro in Bangkok, where the streets are filled with people of many cultures and languages, primarily business people and tourists from throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas. There were no pictograms. Audio station announcements gave only the Thai name, and signs were printed in both Thai and a phonetic translation to the Latin alphabet – NOTHING in Chinese or any other Asian alphabet, despite the huge numbers of Asian tourists and business people. If a very simple Latin letter-number system works in Asia, it certainly would work here in the US, no?

    1. Or simply display piles of money on fire. The further from Seattle, the larger the pile.

  16. Who was it exactly that thought icons were necessary? I know it was State legislator, but does anyone know which representative?

    The idea of icons for non-English speakers and those unfamiliar with transit probably sounded good in the first five minutes. But icons shouldn’t be used. Maybe instead, a numbering system? For example, Westlake (1), University St (2), Pioneer Square (3) . . . Capitol Hill (1N), U of W (2N), U-Dist. (3N). . . Rainier Ave (1E), Mercer Island (2E), S. Bellevue (3E) . .. and so forth.

    1. Perhaps they thought about it for more than 5 minutes and heard from relevant experts, like legislators usually do?

      1. Is this supposed to be sarcasm, Zach? I don’t trust our legislators to think about every detail of a bill for >5min and consult with experts after checking they’re really experts.

      2. The intent appears to be to help people whose native language doesn’t use the Roman alphabet.

        Bill Analysis for HB 1090.

        If there’s a way to get a transcript of floor debate, I can’t find it. The TVW video archives for those days are missing, too. Best I can get is the House Daily Journal which only says which legislators spoke on a bill and whether they were for or against.

      3. Yes, that was the intent. It was discussed some months back.

        However, because Arabic numbers are so vastly easier to use than anything else (try doing long division with Roman numerals sometime) they have been pretty much adopted the world over.

        That’s one reason doing something with the station number would be nice.

  17. My understanding is that Mexico City decided to create icons for their rail stations because a lot of people couldn’t read, or couldn’t read Spanish. Presumably this is less of an issue in Seattle, though really clear icons (like Angel Lake and the fish) can contribute to wayfinding.

    1. Given all the complaints about station naming, maybe the icons could become real identifiers for stations. Instead of telling someone to get off at Angle Lake, tell them to get off at fish. Or mortarboard for UW Station. Or moose (elk?) for Roosevelt. Stack of books doesn’t sound quite right for Brooklyn station though.

    2. I don’t think these symbols have anything to do with way finding. They don’t show up on station naming boards outside the stations. And in downtown Seattle, most station entrances are so well hidden, the symbols wouldn’t be useful even if they were there.

      I still think that University Street Station should be renamed, to eliminate the obvious confusion with the two stations coming near the UW. And while we’re at it, please change the silly opera glasses icon! Benaroya Hall is a symphony hall and has nothing to do with the opera. Seattle Opera plays at McCall Hall a couple miles north on Mercer Street; that’s the opera house.

      1. Agreed! How about renaming the station “Benaroya/Financial District” and change the pictogram to a cello?

      2. There will be no confusion. Or no more than that Roosevelt Station is nowhere near Roosevelt High School. University St. Station is on University St. People can understand this. In New York there are hundreds of stations with the same street names. This is a non-issue outside this blog.

      3. Huh? I’m not sure where you get the idea that Roosevelt Station is nowhere near Roosevelt High School. It’s a block away.

      4. Station names mean little to us locals who use the system every day. But a first-time visitor headed to the University of Washington could easily step off at University St. Station, thinking it must be close by (as it was 115 years ago). We can easily reduce the potential for confusion, so let’s.

        Roosevelt Station not near Roosevelt High School? You do need to get out more.

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