Each Link light rail station has a pictogram as a secondary identifier intended for people with limited English language proficiency. However well intentioned, the pictograms are poorly implemented and lack a logical system underlying their construction.
The last time we wrote about pictograms was five years ago when Sound Transit unveiled the pictograms for U-Link and Northgate Link. With nineteen new Link stations projected to open in 2023 and 2024, it is near time to evaluate whether they are fulfilling their purpose and whether other methods are more accessible to all users.
One alternative is station numbering. Each station is assigned a short code consisting of a symbol representing the line and a number representing the station. Countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand use it for aiding visitors unfamiliar with local names and the non-Latin alphabet.
The benefit of the standard pictograms used in many airports is that people only need to learn them once. Familiarity and repeating patterns are reassuring. In contrast, each station pictogram is unique and non-obvious. As the system grows, the mental load of memorizing multiple pictograms becomes a burden on the user, beyond ten digits and a few letters.
Unlike pictograms which require a lengthy design process for each station, codes are more straightforward to construct and interpret. Such codes can easily be used as shorthand in various written mediums. It is difficult to describe a pictogram if you cannot communicate in the same language. Even if the person does not know the Latin alphabet, “S10” is less linework to remember than a deer when asking for directions.
There are two common approaches for station numbering. The simplest would be to start at one end of a line and count to the other end of the line. Prefix the number with the line’s letter or number and you have a station code. This works well if you do not have too many overlapping lines or lines that are not regularly extended on both ends. In Seoul, the 9th station on Line 1 would be numbered 109.
Another approach would be to designate a central hub station, say Westlake, as the zero point and count up in each direction. Each spoke would get a letter, typically corresponding to a cardinal direction. So Northgate, the 5th station north of Westlake, would be N5. SeaTac/Airport, 14 stops (present and future) south of Westlake, would be S14. Notably, Atlanta’s MARTA used this system in the past.
Many of Sound Transit’s answers justifying its decision to number the Link lines instead of using colors or local themed names can be applied in the discussion on secondary station identifiers. It appears that the pictograms only exist to meet a legal requirement rather than being a useful tool for wayfinding and communication.