Travel and the experience of being a beginner

Museum typographyMuseum typographyMetro map designMetro mapBikes in Paris
Hotel light switchToiletsDoorLondon EyeCustom lettering
Les JacassesVersailles map designMichael JacksonThe butchersFrench 2.0

On a recent vacation to Europe I promised myself that I’d put my new camera to good use by documenting as many examples of typefaces as possible. With only a week of travel time I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to accumulate the desired collection of new and modern trends that I’d hoped for given that I was dedicating my travel to the olde parts of York, London and Paris.

I captured some old and new typefaces but came to a more profound realization that traveling is like being a beginning user. As designers, we try to put ourselves into the minds of beginners through observation in research but this can be only partly successful. Research doesn’t beat the real thing and there’s no better way to do that than throwing yourself into another country. I should disclaim that I spent 18 years of my childhood in England so it’s not a completely new experience, and I’ve been to France many times also. Being away for so long is a good way to completely forget old experiences and see new design innovations for the first time.

The photos

I’ve included a collection of photos from the week, and I’ve also summarized some of the highlights below.


This typography looks to be part of the museum’s brand identity.


The Centre Pompidou museum showed off some of the best typography I saw all trip.


One simple push of a button for your desired location and the board (shown on the next screen) lights up. Simple and marvelous.


Each location is represented by a light. The route is lit up by the multiple adjacent ending at the desired location. Simple and marvelous.


These bike stalls were located across Paris and were a fantastic way to travel across the city. Unfortunately, my credit cards wouldn’t work with their machines.


The dreaded hotel key slot for the room electricity.


I could guess at what the difference in button size represents, but I know one thing for sure: I’m not going to ask for help.


The door entry system looked like it was losing its face and with no bevel affordance it looks like the buttons could soon be hard to understand. I wonder what that slot is too?


My first time on the London Eye was a wonderful experience. Seeing the city from a different perspective was awesome.


The small streets of York are filled with quaint custom lettering on many shopfronts.


Some phrases just don’t "translate" well.


The map design at Versailles featured simple watercolor illustrations with a minimal 3D perspective, which was supported by simple, clear typeface design.


When visiting an historic location like Versailles, it’s preferable to imagine yourself in the era of the time. It’s especially difficult to do this when an artist’s work (in this example featuring Michael Jackson) is smacked in the middle of a room. The idea was creative but the visitor’s experience suffered.


Another custom lettering in a York shopfront. Some town high streets still house small grocery stores or butchers but they’re a dying breed even in England.


On a small side street I was confronted with this myspace graffiti. Just a short reminder that it’s hard to leave the internet at home, even when losing yourself in a city like a happy naive tourist should.


Taking the train is far different from air travel

For the first time, my wife and I booked train travel from London to Paris the weekend after the disastrous channel tunnel fire, and we had prepared to cancel our trip to France altogether. But the confidence of a Eurostar customer service phone representative convinced us to take a risk a mere two days after the fire had been extinguished. We feared a long delay. Upon arriving at Kings Cross station we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a dozen or so representatives on hand to answer questions from concerned travelers. In this chaotic time, Eurostar did something no airline would ever consider: Make themselves as available as possible. Our train was full, but no one was delayed, people were calm and the ride was quick, smooth and very comfortable. We saw much countryside from our seats also. We arrived in Paris an hour earlier than scheduled. And the best part was no baggage surcharge.

Some basic amenities require too much thought

Whether it’s a hotel room, toilet or elevator, you’re sure to experience something that’s a little wacky. We stayed in one hotel where our room electricity wouldn’t activate until we placed our hotel card key in the light socket near the door. Saving energy is a noble task but it came at a cost. I managed to lock myself out many times because the key wasn’t in my wallet. We also found ourselves fumbling around in the dark until the key activated the lights. I never did misplace the key though!

Those foreign toilets are a puzzle too. What do the two buttons really mean? I guessed that one was for “number one” and the other for “number two” but I could never really figure out which was which? I resorted to flushing both to experience the difference but couldn’t really tell. With so much variation in toilet button design you’d think that manufacturers would make the button sizes more distinct or label them or something.

Then there was the hotel elevator for a six floor building. It was no 60 floor Manhattan office skyscraper (where I’d seen this design once before). You press the floor level in the lobby and it informs you which elevator to take. This sounds efficient but I’d mostly press our floor and then drift into a vacationer’s daydream before realizing that I had no idea which elevator was ours. Plus the anxiety of being in an elevator with no buttons was too much for me.

The simplest and oldest of designs can be marvelous

A wonderful metro map in Paris showed us the best route to take from our current location to our destination by simply pressing and holding a button. I contrasted that to an iphone app, sfmunitime, which is riddled with challenges. Admittedly, I’m comparing two vastly different resolutions of information display size but simpler is usually better when you’re new.

1 Comment

Melanie Burke
Hey Nick Nice post, it's interesting to see what stood out for you as a foreigner in the UK. Incidentally, the toilet buttons are for a short flush or a long flush with the larger button for the longer flush, although there didn't look like there was much distinction between them from your photo. These two button loo's are everywhere here in the UK as they supposedly save water.

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