For some of us, memories of Toronto's Union Station are filtered through the smell of Cinnabon that wafted through the corrall of passengers in the Bay Concourse's nauseatingly yellow labyrinth. And while the cinnamon scent didn't proliferate through the whole station, a sense of disorientation and clutter did. With much of the station still under construction, in many places it still does.

Yet, as the curtains gradually come down on Union Station's extensive renovation, an evolved user experience is emerging. On Front Street, a new plaza has brought a sense of place—and a wildly popular summer food market—to a previously neglected landscape. Bookending the station, declarative and selfie-friendly new signs read 'UNION STATION,' contributing to an iconic cultural stature that has arguably eluded the historic building throughout much of its recent history. 

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRUnion Station, image by Marcus Mitanis

Entro Communications, the environmental graphics company behind the zinc-toned 'UNION STATION' signs, is also responsible for the station's new wayfinding strategy. Designing the signage that will guide users through the new spaces, Entro's wayfinding program has now been implemented across phase one of the renovation, with the York Concourse now outfitted with clear, uncluttered, and easily readable signage. The new signage is coming to replace a variety of disparate wayfinding elements, many of which—installed individually by transit providers—competed for attention with both advertising and their own counterparts. But how important is the change?

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA 'UNION STATION' sign, image by Marcus Mitanis

Compared to the NORR Architects-led revitalization, and Osmington's PARTISANS-designed retail plan, a wayfinding program might seem like a minor—almost inconsequential—detail. Hearing the Entro team describe the strategy's goals, however, it's clear that a lot of thought goes into efficiently guiding passengers from Point A to Point B. In doing so, it's also clear that good wayfinding can—implicitly—accomplish much more. 

In shaping passenger movement, signage and wayfinding shape experience and quality of space. The way we move through a space influences how we perceive it; how we feel being there. For transit hubs such as airports and rail stations, the conspicuous presence of clear, readable signage is particularly crucial. "These are large, complex spaces that see lots of first-time visitors," Entro co-founder Wayne McCutcheon explains. "People want to know where they're going, and they want to feel certain they'll be able to get there." 

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORROne of the new installations in the York Concourse, image courtesy of Entro

For most first-time visitors, the old Union Station was—to say the least—not the easiest place to navigate. Under construction, the revamped facility targets a streamlined user experience. "Obviously, the layout of the building has a huge impact," Randy Johnson (Entro's Principal Associate) adds, "but clear, effective signage is also an important factor in how the space is experienced." 

Since the revamped Union Station is envisioned as both a transit hub and a retail destination, the wayfinding system also serves a more diverse set of purposes. While the train platform level and much of the Great Hall and concourse level is designed to facilitate efficient passenger movement, much of the 140,000 ft² of retail space—profiled in our earlier story—encourages visitors to linger.

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA plan of the completed Union Station, image courtesy of PARTISANS

Like an increasing number of modern transit hubs, the new Union Station will double as a revenue-generating mall, providing food and retail to thousands of transit users and nearby employees. Found in the B1 and B2 levels below grade, the central commercial area is separated from the corridors above, avoiding conflict between retailers (who hope to draw people in) and efficient passenger flow.

From a design perspective, the new signage is unobtrusively integrated into both the historic and modern structures. As the project's Design Director, Aleks Bozovic explains, "we didn't want to try to replicate the historic character with faux-heritage installations." Instead, the signage fronting the 1927-built station features bronze framing on an otherwise modern form (below), subtly referencing the bronze accents seen in bannisters and decorative elements throughout the heritage building.

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA pair of new wayfinding towers front the station, image by Stefan Novakovic

Surrounding the Great Hall, the more recently built concourses feature a slightly different aesthetic. For the newer parts of the facility, the signage is framed in zinc (below). Throughout the recently re-opened York Concourse, the new signs now dot the new facility, while temporary signage is framed in bright orange. It's here that the fruits of Entro's wayfinding plan have become most fully apparent, with standalone obelisks and suspended ceiling installations giving the signage an obvious—albeit harmoniously integrated—presence. 

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA close-up view of a wayfinding installation, image courtesy of Entro

While the signage includes individual logos for each transit agency and service (including TTC, GO, UPX, and Via), a clean and relatively minimalistic aesthetic is maintained. The simplicity of the signage allows for easy navigation, with large, clear lettering (and logos) making for a streamlined experience. Seeing the York Concourse in person, there's an obvious and deceptively simple logic to the displays. Yet, as the Entro team explains, there's a lot that went into it.

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRVery simple, legible numbers front the transit bays, image courtesy of Entro

"I don't think we've ever been engaged with such a complex project," McCutcheon chuckles. "First of all, each of the transit operators in the facility want to bring attention to their own services," he notes, explaining that individual priorities of GO, Via, UPX, and the TTC were difficult to combine into a single system. "All of them wanted their logos in the signage," says Johnson, adding that integrating the individual logos—which will include a brand for the retail area—into a single legible system required a very careful approach. 

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA variety of logos are carefully integrated, image courtesy of Entro

The number of stakeholders goes beyond just the transit agencies, though, with parts of the building owned by either Parks Canada or the City of Toronto, with Parks Canada overseeing the heritage elements of the building, and the City in ownership of the modern components. On top of that, Osmington's retail program comes with its own priorities. Each stakeholder had input on the size and placement of signage. Meanwhile, combining efficient wayfinding with ad space—without having the two compete for attention—brings yet another element to the mix.

"With every major project, there are also changes that happen throughout the construction and design process," Bozovic adds. "This means that signage often has to be moved," he explains, "which means we then have to reconsider how the sign works with the space around it, as well as the other signs."

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORRA closer view of the new signage, image courtesy of Entro

Notwithstanding these challenges, determining how people move through space formed the locus of Entro's initiative, figuring out how different users—ranging from daily commuters to first-time travelers—could move through the station's many access points in an efficient manner. Conceptualizing traffic flows and layers of users—some of whom will wish to linger in the Great Hall's new restaurant while others rush to their trains or head out the city's nearby attractions—required extensive studies. While the wayfinding program is distilled into a collection of simple installations, the placement of each sign draws on myriad factors. It's a simple system that takes into account an incredible degree of complexity.

Buildings exist in bricks and concrete, but places also live in the imagination. Through small but significant placemaking gestures, signage, branding, and wayfinding can contribute to the feeling—and the experience—of a place. Combining the station's many identities into a central framework, the signage also contributes to creating a sense of place. While the imposing 'UNION STATION' letters that front the station serve to denote it as a landmark, the signage inside quietly shapes the perception of the place.

Union Station Revitalization, Toronto, by City of Toronto, Metrolinx, NORREast of the station, image courtesy of Entro

In connecting one space to another, it also contributes to a more cohesive user experience, and a stronger sense of place. In other words, good signage doesn't just tell us what's over there, it also reinforces the idea that this is here, that it's somewhere.

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As Entro's wayfinding system gradually takes shape throughout the station, work continues on the Bay and Via concourses to the east, with substantial completion of the Union Station Revitalization project expected in 2018. We will keep you updated as construction continues, and more of the station is revealed. In the meantime, more information is available in our dataBase file, linked below. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space below this page, or join the conversation in our associated Forum thread.