Breaking through the clutter in New York is no easy task.
Despite the challenges of navigating New York’s subway system and much-needed infrastructure upgrades, the design vocabulary and signage directing riders continue to endure. Massimo Vignelli’s visual map has been a subject of typography and design enthusiasts for years. And it is as timeless today as when it was launched in the early ’70s.
In recent years, due to Hurricane Sandy-related subway construction, outdated mechanics and a population boom in certain neighborhoods, various water taxis and ferries have become an alternative way of travel. Since the NYC Ferry’s launch on May 1, 2017, more than 10 million riders have used it for travel. Additionally, ridership has blossomed from an average daily count of 10,520 in Q2 2017 to over 20,000 in Q2 this year. A hallmark of the service is a design that stands out and takes cues from New York’s subway system, despite not being affiliated with the MTA.
The design, led agency I&CO founded by Rei Inamoto and Rem Reynolds, had to retain a level of simplicity. It was critical to design an entire visual identity system for something that could communicate information in a simple yet impactful way.
Achieving that simplicity is not as straightforward as one might think. It needed to fit within the existing fabric of New York and be universal and timeless, something that could—much like New York’s subway system—last for decades. Additionally, it was incumbent for the agency to separate the NYC Ferry from other operators like the New York Water Taxi and NY Waterway.
The service, originally called the East River Ferry, has become the de facto leader in the waterway due to continued expansion to 21 landings from 13 in 2017.
Inamoto and his team discovered that most transportation organizations use a profile view of the transportation mode (taxis, buses, trains). I&CO opted for a logo depicting the ferry from the front instead.
For this new system to stand out—and against—other ferry services, the team looked for more of an integration with its look and feel. Working with NYC-based Ruckus—which led NYC Ferry’s overall branding including the overall advertising plan, website design and development, and more—Inamoto and I&CO looked to the past for inspiration, specifically, the city’s subway system.
Douglas Davis, chair of the BFA in communication design at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, noted that the ferry’s visual system’s nod to the past was evident immediately.
“New Yorkers are so used to navigating the organized chaos of information underground, and then you look at the NYC Ferry identity system where the colors are different, but you get the concept immediately,” he said.
Instead of bright, impactful colors on black signs like the subway, the NYC Ferry design uses softer tones, evoking emotions felt when on the water.
“Traveling on a ferry is distinctly different and less stressful than a claustrophobic experience, [like the subway],” said Inamoto. “Our team definitely had to create something distinctly similar to what came before us, but also something fresh.”
“It reads quick and easy with the color-coding and is executed consistently,” added Roger Bova, svp and head of design at Deutsch New York.
While the previous design for the system wasn’t necessarily bad, according to Inamoto, it served its purpose in a “descriptive” way. “What this transportation system needed was an identity—both visually and verbally—that was iconic, timeless and memorable,” he said.
The NYC Ferry, which is privately run, has served over 12 million people since its launch. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is looking to invest nearly $650 million in the network in the next three years, expanding to Coney Island and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.
According to a New York City Economic Development Corp. spokesperson, “We are very pleased how this has become an integral part of the NYC transportation system, and the branding has been critical in making the integration a success.”
While there is positive feedback, Bova believes that it will take some time for the design to truly enter the conversation.
“I don’t think [in its current iteration] it will be considered iconic, like the New York City Parks Department or MTA,” he said. “Maybe after some time has passed, its colorful playfulness can evolve as its core identity.”
That said, designing for such a large audience, and transit, in general, is a challenging brief. Time will tell how it grows from its initial foundation.
“What we did hopefully will become permanent and iconic within the fabric of the city for many decades to come,” said Inamoto.