B is for bus, but designers prefer pictograms for NSW transport signs

''Do we really want to see Sydney covered in alphabet soup?''

''Being from Melbourne, T is for Tram.''

''If implemented it will be, in my humble opinion, an unmitigated disaster.''

These are just some of the views of the country's leading designers when asked about Sydney's new public transport signs, which indicate the presence of buses, trains, ferries and light rail by letters: B, T, F and L.

The signage system, first introduced last year at some train stations, bus stops and ferry wharves, is part of a new scheme said to be aimed at making it easier for residents and tourists to navigate Sydney's complex transport web.

But the changes have not gone down well with designers, many of whom are annoyed at the way the signs dispense with internationally-recognised pictograms for letters.

Design Institute of Australia president James Harper said he had been contacted by members keen for the organisation to pass judgment on the changes. He said the institute would not do that, but agreed to survey members on what they thought.

More than 90 per cent of the 30 respondents to Mr Harper's request for comment, six of whom were in the Design Institute's hall of fame, were opposed to the changes.

Many of the explanations stressed the difficulties the changes could cause for tourists.

''For the first-time user (which is the single-most important user in this type of system), it is problematic as there are no real clues as to what the random letter means,'' one of the respondents wrote. ''To me it looks like I am stand 'T' or zone 'F'.''

When Mr Harper wrote to Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian to tell her of the designers' concerns, he received only a cursory response.

''Your members may be assured the NSW government is working hard to ensure customers can access transport information across all modes in the way that most suits their needs,'' Ms Berejiklian wrote.

John Holt, an industrial and graphic designer with many years of experience working on signage, said replacing pictograms with letters was particularly a problem in a city such as Sydney with many visitors from Asia.

''If people come from Japan or China and see a T, what does it mean to them? It doesn't mean anything,'' Mr Holt said.

''It needs an Australian/Asian solution, not an Euro-centric one.''

A spokesman for Transport for NSW said the experience of cities such as Paris, Berlin, New York and Barcelona showed letters could better help people navigate from one mode of transport to another, and that letters were easier to recognise from longer distances than pictograms.

But Mr Holt said in cities such as Paris, the letter ''M'' was merely a short version of the widely-used word ''metro'' - it was not installed in place of a pictogram.

''Most people would understand a train pictogram but few would understand what a 'T' stands for,'' he said.

Another decorated designer with experience working on transport signs, Harry Williamson, agreed the changes would make navigation harder. ''You do wonder why they're making such a radical change and what advice they have received that they can base this method on,'' he said.

He dismissed the comparison with the way New York's subway lines used letters and numbers.

''The New York underground does use the alphanumeric system, but that system isn't used to differentiate between methods of travel,'' he said.

''The thing there is that recipients of that information have already chosen to go by train; the information they are then looking for is which train, which platform.''

The Transport for NSW spokesman said the department was making the public transport system as simple as possible, "because in the past it had been too difficult, even in the centre of Sydney, for those not familiar with the system to find major public transport facilities, such as train stations".

The spokesman said a trial of the new system showed that the number of customers who thought the signs were easier to understand increased from 21 per cent to 64 per cent; the number who thought the new signs made it easier to change modes of transport increased from 31 per cent to 69 per cent; and the trial led to journey time savings of up to eight minutes.

Fairfax Media has requested a copy of the full trial analysis and results.

This story B is for bus, but designers prefer pictograms for NSW transport signs first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.