Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


A Design Wishlist for Metro Los Angeles

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

A few months ago, I made a wonderful discovery: that Metro Los Angeles has a Creative Director. For more than a decade, Michael Lejeune has been leading a group of 20 people creating all things visual for Metro. When I first heard that at KCRW's mobility event last May, a light bulb turned on in my head. Here's the guy who would know what to do with all the things I wish my ride on the Metro had, so if you're reading, Michael, here goes:

Dear Michael,

I've been in Los Angeles for about four years now. In that time, I've taken the Metro a lot. I use it regularly to get to downtown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown. I'm a pro at it, by now, but I know the experience could be better with simple graphic solutions that your team could create. Here's my wish list for the Metro. Is there a way to make some of it come true?

Tell me if I need to hurry to catch the train

The first thing a rider always wants to know is, "Am I going to miss my train?" Train stations usually have tiny televisions with equally tiny signs telling you what time the next train is departing. Because they only give you the time, I would have to find a watch and glance at the time to figure out if I have to sprint, or if I can simply saunter to the platform.

Can we have a current time included in the signage? Or, better yet, can we adopt what is already in place at some stations: simply telling people how many minutes are left before the next train departs. Below is a photo I took at one Red line station. I think it was Wilshire/Vermont station. I haven't seen any more roll out.

Big signs that tell people how many minutes to go before the next train comes. It's more useful than simply displaying the exact time a train is set to arrive. 

More prominent railway system graphics

The Metro goes everywhere. One complicated lit sign proclaims that. The problem is, the system graphic doesn't help the tourists and locals. It's too complex to untangle in the few minutes one has to wait for the next train to arrive. Yes, there's a simpler graphic of the train's route, but it's tucked to the right and below of other "more important" messages, where hardly anyone notices them.

You've got the right idea, Metro. Display the route where these trains will be going in simple graphic terms, but put it up somewhere prominently and at eye level.

This is the graphic of all the Metro's Bus and Rail system, which no one has time to figure out.

The small graphic on the bottom right hand corner is the most useful graphic in the Metro, but first-timers usually don't see it because the lit sign distracts them. 

Big bold signs and train differentiators

There have been more than one occasions where I've stepped into the wrong train, especially when I'm at the stops where the Purple Line and Red Line share tracks. Tired from a long day out on the field, I step into a train, only to find later on that it the Purple Line. Once again, I've mistaken one twin train for the other.

Who can blame me? Every Metro train basically looks the same. Only a small lit sign outside of it tells people, which direction it's going and which train it is. It's a tiny, subtle sign on the side of the car, which is a problem.

The Red and Purple trains both look like this. The red stripe only makes me think that I'm taking the Red Line, even when I'm not.

I wish, it would be easier to tell what train I'm stepping into, even before I step on it. Could we have big bold stripes of red and purple wrap around the train instead? Instead of tiny lit signs that one can hardly read while behind the yellow line, could we make the font bigger and bolder?

Signs inside the train

Once you step into the train, no other sign tells you which way you're going either. Only an announcement over the speakers confirms the train's direction. By the time the speakers turn on, it's usually too late to step back out of the train. I've often asked strangers "Is this train going to Union Station?" just to make sure I'm going the right way once I actually get into the train car. Wouldn't it be great to have signs inside the train cars that tell you where they're going?

There are no signs that tell you which direction this train is going once you step into the car.
Show me my next stop

Because of the way the Metro stations are constructed, my marker is often not the terminal point of train is, but where it is in relation to Union Station. It may not seem like much of a problem, but whenever I have to transfer to the Gold Line from Union Station I'm always confused. I can never remember which train goes to Little Tokyo or Chinatown, both of which are one station away.

Apart from actually showing me a simple, graphic such as the one available for the Red/Purple Line, can the signs also tell me where the next stop is? Currently, the signs only say Northbound to Pasadena and Southbound to East Los Angeles, but since Little Tokyo and Chinatown are so close those mental markers don't do me any good.

I can't tell if this train's going to Chinatown or not via Follow My Bliss.
Those TAP vending machines can be simpler
I know you guys have redesigned the screen options on the TAP vending machines, but I still often encounter people who have trouble with the machines. I think the confusion lies in the option to buy "Metro fares" or "Add fares." For riders, it's the same thing. Most often, time is wasted because people choose to go down one tree and have to backtrack again. I haven't given this part much thought, but based on the minutes people take at the Metro vending machines, I'm sure we can do much better.

One of my favorite things to show tourists to Los Angeles is that you can get around L.A. on the Metro, but making the ride smoother and less daunting without outside intervention would make my case even better. I hope you can help me with that. Thank you!

That's my Metro design wishlist? What's yours?


Parading Los Angeles

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, I've heard about the Big Parade, a crazy (at least to non hikers like me) 35-ish mile walk through secret stairs, pedestrian walkways and passages throughout the city led by author Dan Koeppel.

When I first heard it, the couch potato in me said, "No way!" Eventually, I realized my instinctive reaction was like the first spray of cold water hit your body on a sweltering summer day. It was shocking, unpleasant, but exactly what you needed.

Grand Park's water feature is cool in the summer.
This year, I resolved to wake up and get myself to the hike. With my knee problem, I knew I couldn't make it through all 35 miles, but I could at least see how far I could go. It turns out, it was a lot farther than I had thought.

I walked only 5 miles of the route, from Grand Park to the Japanese American National Museum, through El Pueblo, Chinatown, past Dodger Stadium up to Lincoln Heights, but the little bit I experienced was exhilarating.

An opportunity to photograph these gates!
Thien Hau, a Taoist temple I've never noticed.
Every few steps, the city around me changed. The familiar Little Tokyo facades gave way to golden dragons of Chinatown, then brick buildings of El Pueblo, and eventually a more industrial Lincoln Heights. The streets that I blithely drive by took on new life, when savored slowly, step by step.

Freeway entrance and pedestrians walking by.
It was hot, yes (thank goodness for sunblock), but the ever-changing city before me was a good distraction. Before I knew it, I looked behind me as we trudged up a hill to see downtown Los Angeles's skyscrapers spread out under me. "I climbed that far!" I thought. "Wow, I did that."

Downtown Los Angeles laid out before me.
There were more than a hundred hikers that came out that day, petering in and out as their schedules dictated. Though, I knew one friend, Patricia, would be around, what I didn't realize was that I'd have the chance to get to know more people as we plodded the city.

Friends (old and new) on the hike. 
Just in that five-mile stretch, I met John, who flew from Berkeley to walk in the parade; Dean, whose brother helped developed the Klingon language; David, who came from New Mexico; Steve, who administers a running newsletter of more than 500 subscribers; and Harvey, who is working to increase awareness of New Deal projects around the country. Everyone I met seemed to be involved in something intriguing. Each new conversation was a tantalizing glimpse into someone's passions.

In his 2010 article for Backpacker, Koeppel writes:
As I explored L.A. on foot, something happened. I found myself falling in love with the city in a way I'd never imagined. I saw it as a backpacker sees an endangered wilderness--on the brink of ecological disaster, yet full of potential. I wanted people to see the hillsides as I do, with a sort of X-ray vision that could peer through the houses and development and expose the naked chaparral. I wanted them to see the stairways as I did, not as artifacts, but as arteries. Their number and health increase the city's quality of life, which I'd begun to measure, more and more, as directly related to how much foot travel is possible, and beautiful, and enjoyed by many. I wanted people to see the city as a hiker might. To see a city with a future. 
Not only did I see a city full of promise, but people sharing in that optimism. I didn't have enough muscle strength this year to do the whole run, but there's always a next year.


Monument Valley: Escher-inspired mobile game

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I am not a fan of mobile games, or many games at all actually, so when two friends tell me separately that I should check out Monument Valley, I listen.

Their instincts were right. Made by UK-based company ustwo Games, Monument Valley is a relaxing, addictive puzzle game experience. It doesn't pack in the action like Temple Run. It's also not as mindless as an Angry Birds session. What it is is a beautiful experience that delights with surprise.

In Monument Valley, you play Princess Ida who goes on a mysterious quest through interlocking castle-like mazes that reveal a new facet each time a section is turned or manipulated, much like an M.C. Escher graphic. By turning a lever, stepping on a platform, or swiping across a section, an almost new landscape is revealed.

My husband downloaded the game a few nights ago and I found myself hooked after only a few levels. The game is only meant to be good for an hour, but I've been eking out all I can from it by playing a few sections at a time. Instead of ramping up to finish the game, I savor it like a good scoop of ice cream.

I'm about halfway through the game (I think), but I can already tell this is one of my favorite mobile games so far. It's uniquely suited to an indifferent casual gamer like me. It offers a beautifully rendered environment of surreal landscapes. It employs a pressure-free environment sans time limits and score keeping, which results in a real serene experience.

Most intriguingly, the game only means to be nominally challenging. Neil McFarland, director of games at ustwo says "The puzzles were accessible and solvable: hard enough to be rewarding, but not so hard that people drop out. We found that it’s really easy to make a hard puzzle, but much harder to make one that gets that balance right." In other words, the game isn't a marathon of a mental exercise, but a pleasurable stroll in the park, perhaps with a little sprint thrown in here and there. 

If you're looking for a good break this weekend, this might be worth a shot. 


Wondering about winter

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

The Santa Ana winds are blowing through Los Angeles right now and it's hot. Of course, that made me miss the cold winds of Colorado up in Telluride. A few months ago, I got to see a different state set high up on the mountains.

In Telluride height is everything. It offers highest elevation fine dining at 11,966 feet, the highest commercial airport in America at 9,078 feet, plus regular trips including breathtaking views from its free gondola system. I loved it all.

The best part was that there were no chain restaurants or coffee shops to be seen anywhere in Telluride. Despite having a world-class resort and nature sights around, Telluride has managed to project a simple local flavor.


Owning the Street

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

It doesn't take a lot to make use of public space. I found this out a few hours ago while walking home. Though the Valley heat was in full swing, this lady put ingenuity to work by setting up a mini-picnic blanket under the shade of an overgrown tree in Encino.

She was a mother waiting for her child to get out of the elementary school across the way. She figured that she might as well get some sun lounging and reading done while waiting for the bell to ring.

Isn't that a great idea? Her small act reminded of urbanist Walter H. Whyte's quote: "The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center." Imagine if more people hung out under the sun by the sidewalk. It would turn a street bare of life, into a happier place to walk. I know I walked away smiling after chatting with her for a time.


Shigeru Ban's apartment only has six pieces of furniture

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Whenever my parents visit my apartment, they always ask me when my husband and I intend to buy furniture. Our answer? "Maybe someday," which in my mind translates to "Never, if we can help it."

My husband and I have ascetic tendencies when it comes to our domestic environment. We believe in doing more with less, even when we're not forced by space constraints to be economical. When we moved into our new place, we deliberately made room We like our space, it turns out so does Shigeru Ban.

A CNN slideshow recently revealed the inside of Ban's apartment in Tokyo. "He lives with no objects at all except four chairs, a table and a simple bed," says curator Francesca Molteni. "It's just light and trees." Molteni has curated "Where Architects Live," an installation recreating the apartments of eight renowned designers like Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield, and Daniel Liebskind for this year's Salone del Mobile.

Shigeru Ban's living room via Metropolis. Courtesy Hiroyuki Hirai.
Ban's apartment more severe than mine, but I can appreciate the calming effect of having almost no possessions in your home. In a world transfixed with objects, the spartan nature of his living quarters reminds me that there is more to life than having the most, collecting the best, or acquiring the finest. The most important things in life are often those beyond the material.


Hooray For Easy-to-Read Parking Signs!

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

When you live in Los Angeles, the question you often need to ask yourself as you drive around the block for the Nth time is, "Can I park here?"

Last week, I was once again confronted with this question as I drove around the Santa Monica area. Parking meters were full and residential streets were inexplicably packed. I finally found a "magic" spot squeezed in the middle of metered parking and a parked car. The signs were stacked one on top of the other. There was even a directional arrow to further confuse things!

Filled with self-doubt, I checked out the cars in front and behind me to see whether they had permits. Not satisfied after my inspection, I finally ended up waiting in my car until the metered space in front of me opened up. Better safe than sorry.

If this drama of uncertainty has plagued you more than once, you're not alone. Designer Nikki Sylianteng has faced the same problems and has paid for it with parking fees. It's why she finally picked up and old grad school application portfolio project and refined it to her latest project "To Park or Not to Park" -- one that could potentially save a lot of drivers a sweet sum in parking fees.

"To Park or Not to Park" redesigns those byzantine parking signs designed to confuse into a clean, easy-to-read sign. From something like this:

Nikki has designed something like this:

Redesigned parking sign by Nikki Sylianteng
It's not a perfect system yet, which is why she needs your help. If you see one of these problem signs, take a photo and submit it to Nikki. She'll send you a revised version, which you can put up and test in your neighborhood. Or, simply submit to help her account for all the weird possibilities of parking signs. Either way, you'll be helping a lot of clueless drivers out. Our checkbooks will thank you.

Check out Nikki's latest re-designs over at "To Park or Not to Park."

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