Taipei MRT’s new in-car signage sucks

photo of the new-style video screen above the door of the Taipei MRT (subway system).

For the past few months, one can occasionally spot trains along the Taipei MRT’s blue line (aka the Ban-Nan line, for the Banqiao–Nangang line of the subway system) sporting a new style of above-door announcements. (Perhaps some of the other lines have these as well; but I’m not on them as much and haven’t spotted new signage on those yet.)

The MRT has signs above the doors to let people know what the stops are coming soon. Or at least that’s what the signs are supposed to do, what they need to do in order to help passengers. Alas, that crucial function appears to have been overlooked when designing the new signs, which are all bling-bling and little useful substance.

In fact, they’re so bad that I’m almost surprised they don’t feature cutesy cartoon characters — something that would make the disaster complete.

The photos in this post of the new signs were taken from the seat with the best vantage point of the video-screen sign. Some zoom was used to get the important part of the image to stretch from one side to the other of the photos. In short, the parts of the sign passengers need to read likely appear even smaller in real life than they may look in the photos. Of course, I could have positioned myself immediately in front of the signs and gotten better photos. But the point of signage isn’t what can be seen if one is standing close to and directly in front of it; rather, good signage needs to work for viewers from farther away and at an angle as well. So the proximity and angle represent a compromise on my part rather than the farther vantage point from which many riders will experience the signs. In other words, for many riders, the signs will look even smaller and less clear than shown in these photos.

And, as we’ll see, smaller is definitely not a good thing.

Here’s a close-up of the above sign, rotated slightly and showing the size of the text as a percentage of the screen height (approximately).

photo of the video screen with the size of the text shown as a percentage of the screen height

The screens themselves are large. But what about the information they need to convey? The names of the stations, the most important information, are small: just 19% of the screen height for the Chinese characters and only 6% of the screen height for the Pinyin. I suppose one could add another percentage point or even two if the descenders are counted as well rather than just the cap height. But even 8% would be utter madness! The Pinyin text is absurdly tiny — and as such is close to useless. How is anyone supposed to read that?! But there’s plenty of space on the screen to make the Pinyin larger, especially if it is given separately rather than in combination with Chinese characters at the same time.

The video screens do cycle through different information, with one screen providing station names in Pinyin and English without any Chinese characters. But it’s almost as if they’re trying to make the signage unreadable. Here’s an example:

photo of a video screen on the Taipei MRT, showing the station names on the blue line in English/Pinyin in small text.

Again, the English/Pinyin names are too small to read — needlessly so. And it doesn’t help the cause of making text large enough to read that the Taipei MRT has some needlessly wordy station names.

But there is one new feature I actually like: listing how many minutes before the next stations. (Note the numbers along the bottom right of the screen.) This is nicely done — if only one could read the names of the stations.

And still more space could be saved if those nicknumbers (e.g., “BL17”) were removed. I have yet to hear anyone ever even mentioning them, at least not in a positive way. And to think the MRT system spent NT$300 million (about US$10 million) on that!

And let’s not forget that Taiwan is projected to become a super-aged society by 2025 — which means an especially large number of people who don’t see as well as they used to. Thus, it is all the more important that the letters are large enough to be read by people with less than perfect eyesight.

Alas, there’s more. The signs, as bad as their design is from the standpoint of the size of the text, have another significant flaw: their use of color.

detail of the above image, as described below

Look at how the name of the next station is presented: in light-blue-gray against an off-white background. There is little contrast between the text and the background, which makes the text very difficult to read. I would have thought that this problem, like the problem of size already discussed, would have been painfully obvious to everyone involved in the design process. Yet for some reason this wasn’t corrected long ago on the drawing board but has instead made it all the way to signage on the MRT itself! That light-blue-gray against off-white makes me just livid.

Another important aspect of color for the MRT is the assignation of colors to the different transit lines. Identifying different lines by color is actually quite useful, and many people refer to the various lines by their color. So how well do the new signs handle this? If you’re familiar with Taipei, try to ignore the names and placements of the lines for the moment. Just this once — because the actual station names are so tiny and damn hard to read on these video screens, and because I’m hoping you’ll try to let your knowledge of the MRT avoid interfering with your objective judgment on this — I’m asking you to refer to the numbers for Taipei MRT stations, stupid though they are.

The lines that intersect with the blue line are marked by vertical bars of color. OK, now look at the image below and answer a few simple questions. You’ll probably have to click on the photo one or more times to achieve the extreme magnification needed to view the sign well.

photo of video-screen signage above the door of a car on the Taipei MRT's blue line, this one showing stop names in Chinese characters and with colored lines to show different line transfer points

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the red line?

A: BL12.

OK, that was easy. Now another.

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the green line?

A: BL11.

Simple enough. But how about these?

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the brown line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the orange line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the yellow line?

Why the MRT thinks passengers need a regular reminder of what car number they are in is beyond me. Note, too, how those numbers are larger than the station name in English/Pinyin.

The answers are, respectively, BL15 & BL23, BL14, and BL07 & BL08.

How’d you do? And could you even tell that BL15 and BL23 are supposed to be the same color, and that color is supposed to be brown?

Here’s a look at what the current/old signage looks like.

Next : Zhongxiao Xinsheng BL14

  • The style is basic but effective.
  • The letters are large enough to read.
  • The space before the colon is wrong.
  • The contrast between the color of the text and the color of the background is strong, making the text easy to read.
  • The addition of “BL14” is an unfortunate distraction (sometimes less is more); but it’s nothing that the new signs don’t repeat.

In short: By the most important measures, the old signs are better than the new ones. And they already exist, so keeping them won’t cost taxpayers and farepayers anything, unlike putting in expensive new video screens that make navigating the MRT worse.

Meanwhile, the MRT system has still not corrected errors in the Pinyin for the names of some stations.

Shanghai considers deleting Pinyin from street signs

The Shanghai Road Administration Bureau is considering removing Hanyu Pinyin from street signs in the city.

Typically, the bureau’s division chief, Wang Weifeng, seems to be confused about the difference between Pinyin and English. He also justifies the move by claiming that larger Chinese characters would benefit Chinese citizens, ignoring the high number of people in China who are largely illiterate.

“Of course we will keep the English-Chinese traffic signs around some special areas, such as the tourism spots, CBD areas and some transport hubs,” Wang said.

A German newspaper article notes:

Ob sie die Umschrift wortwörtlich „aus dem Verkehr“ zieht, will Schanghai angeblich von einer „Umfrage“ unter „Anwohnern“ abhängig machen, ebenso vom Urteil nicht näher genannter „Experten“. Dies ist eine gängige Formulierung, wenn chinesische Regierungsstellen ihren einsamen Entscheidungen einen basisdemokratischen Anstrich geben wollen.

[Google Translate: Whether they literally “out of circulation” pulls the inscription, Shanghai will supposedly make a “survey” of “residents” depends, as of indeterminate sentence from “experts”. This is a common formulation, when Chinese authorities want to give their lonely decisions a grassroots paint.]

This is a situation all too common in Taiwan as well, such as in Taipei’s misguided move to apply nicknumbering to subway stops. “Experts” — ha!

Shanghai’s survey on Pinyin use and signage is of course in Mandarin only, with no English. The poll ends on August 30 (next week!), so add your views to that soon.

So far, public opinion seems to be largely against removing Hanyu Pinyin from signs. But that doesn’t mean this might not happen anyway. After all: Shanghai has its “experts” on the case. Heh.

If Shanghai really wanted to help the legibility of its signs, it should consider using word parsing even with text in Chinese characters. For example:

  • use 陕西 南路, not 陕西南路
  • use 斜土 路, not 斜土路
  • use 建国 西路, not 建国西路

That would also permit the use of superscript on the generic parts of names (e.g., “南路”) to save space. This could also be done with the Pinyin/English, with the Pinyin in large letters and the English “Rd” etc. in superscript.

Thanks to Michael Cannings for the tip.


Mind the line

Line breaks are an interesting but little-discussed aspect of typography. That’s a shame, because they can matter, especially in signage.

Book covers are another place where line breaks can matter. I’m especially concerned with those because I’m involved in a company that publishes books about Taiwan, China, and other places in East Asia. I wish I could take credit for Camphor Press’s book covers; alas, though, I have no talent in that area.

Here’s a good example of a line break making a difference in a sign. This ends up being not unlike a typographical crash blossom. I took this photo last week at a Costco in metropolitan Taipei.

sign in a Costco seafood section that reads 'HOKKAIDO COOKED HAIR [line break] CRAB'

For those who are curious, NT$987 is about US$29.60.

Anyway, here’s the Mandarin text:
Běihǎidào shú dòng máoxiè (lěngdòng)

(I don’t know what that first “dòng” is doing there, given that this ends with “lěngdòng.”)

For maoxie, the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary gives “small crab; baby crab.” But I’m not sure that’s quite right.

If the translator had gone with the more common form of “hairy crab” instead of “hair crab,” the adjective would have alerted readers that they needed to keep going. On the other hand, use of another common translation, “mitten crab,” wouldn’t have helped much, though I suppose that


is slightly more palatable sounding than


And at least they didn’t use the sometimes seen translation of “hair crabs,” which could conjure up altogether the wrong image.

Pinyin font: the Brill

Some of the Pinyin-friendly font families I provide examples of on this blog are fun but not exactly the sort of thing you’d want to use in a book or other serious project. Others, though, are solid examples of the subtle and exacting art of type design. Today’s entry belongs in the latter group.

Brill — a Leiden-based publisher of work in the humanities, social sciences, law, and science — has released “the Brill,” a new font family designed to support the Latin and Greek scripts “to the fullest extent possible.” IPA and the Slavic parts of the Cyrillic range are also covered. This can handle the needs of just about any romanized script, including Hanyu Pinyin.

As someone with Brill explained to me:

Instead of limiting the fonts’ character set to known characters and character-plus-diacritic combinations, we chose a dynamic model in which, using OpenType GPOS features, any base character can carry any diacritic above or below it, and in which diacritics can be stacked as well—not forgetting all the precomposed characters that are already present in the Unicode Standard, of course. Finally, a huge assortment of punctuation marks, editorial marks, and other symbols known to occur in Brill publications were added to the spec.

In total, the Brill contains more than 5,100 characters. And that already immense range can be extended through combining diacritics, as noted above.

Even better, the Brill is free for non-commercial use. You can download it after agreeing to the End User License Agreement license. (See the bottom of that page and then the bottom of the page that follows.)

The Brill is available now in roman and italic styles. Bold and bold italic versions will be released later this year, probably before July.

The Brill is considerably different than Brill Online, which has been available for some time and was aimed at helping users of Brill’s online reference works. Brill Online is based on v. 1.00 of the Gentium family of fonts. The glyph set was extended to support some very rare characters, such as Aegean numbers. “In essence it became a hybrid Latin-Greek-Cyrillic-IPA and ‘pi’ font family.”

Thanks to Lin Ai of for the heads up that this had been released, and to Dominique de Roo and Pim Rietbroek of Brill for patiently helping me with my questions.

Pinyin font: Linux Biolinum

The highly useful and Pinyin-friendly Linux Libertine has a companion font family: Linux Biolinum.

Biolinum is designed for emphasis, e.g. of titles. You can also use it for short passages of text. For longer texts a serif font such as the Libertine should be used for readability. The Biolinum has the same vertical metrics and visual weight as the Libertine, so that it fits perfectly to the Libertine and can be also used for emphasizing within the body text.

Linux Biolinum Capitals and Linux Biolinum Keyboard don’t presently work with Pinyin. But the other styles do, as this sample of Linux Biolinum with Pinyin text shows.

Pinyin font: MarkerScript

If you need a font for Pinyin graffiti, one possible choice is MarkerScript, which is donationware. The dots over the i’s can resemble tone marks even when they’re not; but with the material best suited to this sort of font there’s probably not much chance that people won’t know just what you mean.

Shei zai haipa Ai Weiwei?

additional sample