Tutorial: Station Labels Using the “Core Type Area” - Part 3: Angled Labels
While it’s true that I don’t really like the use of station labels that are angled — being very much in the Erik Spiekermann camp that believes horizontal labels aid comprehension and create a cleaner looking map — I do realise that there are times when their use is necessary.
If you do use angled labels, then I strongly advise that you keep the number of angles used to the absolute minimum required — type that reads from many different directions is always going to cause headaches. This is one thing that the Sydney rail network map (both the new version and the previous one) has done well: it only uses labels angled in one direction, reading from the bottom left to the top right.
Once you’ve decided that you absolutely have to use angled labels, the rules for their placement are exactly the same as in the previous two tutorials, except that you rotate everything 45 degrees around, using the placement rules that used to apply to one type of route line to the other.
The first image shows what it looks like if you take labels that were used for a route line angled at 45 degrees from top left to lower right and rotate the lot another 45 degrees counter-clockwise. Use the corners of the Core Type Area to determine positioning. It’s pretty easy to see how this would also work if your labels were angled the other direction. The same technique would also apply to a vertical route line, but exercise common sense here — there’s even less reason to angle a label on a vertical route line!
The second image shows a vertical route line that’s been rotated 45 degrees clockwise to show how angled labels for a 45-degree route line should look. Use the edges of the Core Type Area in these cases.
One more post in this series to come: labels where route lines intersect!
Tutorial: Station Labels Using the “Core Type Area” - Part 2: 45-Degree Angled Route Lines
Following on from last week’s tutorial, here’s how to use the Core Type Area to make your station labels align perfectly and consistently when you’re applying them to 45-degree angled route lines.
If you use the edges of the Core Type Area when you’re aligning labels to horizontal and vertical route lines, then it should make perfect sense that you use the corners of it when you’re labelling angled stations. The first GIF shows the defining setup — using the bottom right corner for labels above and to the left of the route line and the top left corner for labels below and to the right of the route line. I’ve shown this setup first because it always looks right: there’s always a capital letter in the former, and the bottom right edge of a lower-case letter in the latter.
The second image shows what happens when you apply the same rules to the opposite angle. That is, using the top right corner for names to the left and below the route line, and the bottom left corner for names above and to the right. When the route line is angled like this, it can be harder to see that you’ve got the placement right, because the letterforms are more varied.
In the first instance, the last letter of a word could be an “n” (as we have here) or a “d”. We need to allow space for the “d” to fit comfortably, hence the use of the Core Type Area, which shows us exactly that. Whatever you do, don’t nudge labels without a final ascender up until that letter aligns with the station marker: this is what leads to uneven and inconsistent baselines as seen on the recent Sydney Trains map redesign.
Labels to the right and above aren’t quite as bad, but there’s still some variance: the first letter could be a “T”, “B”, or “W”, all of which have a different visual relationship to that bottom left corner. Remember to use the Core Type Area — the box that defines the maximum size the label could take up — and not the letterforms themselves to align text to markers and you should always be okay.
The last image shows a mistake I see quite often when designers try to align their labels to 45-degree lines by simply moving the label sideways from the marker, instead of across and up/down an even amount. I personally prefer not to do this, as I think it creates uneven spacing, but it can look effective and interesting when done right.
However, be aware that labels that sit on the lower side of the route line need to hang from the top of the Core Type Area (by their cap height) or they’ll end up being too close to the route line, as shown in the image. Type that sits on the higher side of the route line can sit on its baseline.
Tutorial: Station Labels Using the “Core Type Area” - Part 1: Horizontal and Vertical Route Lines
A lot of transit maps that I’ve seen and reviewed on this blog are badly let down by their labelling. Sometimes it seems that the labels have been applied without much forethought or planning, or just slapped on at the end and placed wherever they will fit. But labels are arguably one of the most important parts of a transit map: it should always be immediately apparent which station marker a label belongs to, and labels should be applied according to a consistent set of rules.
My first common rule is to make sure that there’s enough space between the route line or station marker and the text: I see way too many maps where the labels are jammed right up to the line (often in a vain effort to save a little bit of space).
That said, let’s take a look at how I like to approach labels on my maps. The first image shows a sample label: I chose the name “Washington” simply because it has a good mix of letters that work well as an example: importantly, it has both ascending and descending letters. I’ve marked out the four main vertical typographical elements: these are the cap height, the x-height, the text’s baseline and the descender line.
Behind this, I’ve shaded an area in pink that I like to call the “Core Type Area” — the height from the baseline up to the cap height. I use this Core Type Area to determine how to align labels to other elements of the map. I discount the height of the letters below the baseline simply because sometimes a word doesn’t have any descending letters at all. This becomes important when setting up labels that sit above a horizontal route line, as we’ll see below.
The second image is an animated GIF that shows two different ways to align labels to station markers on a vertical route line. It shows magenta guides indicating the Core Type Area and thicker cyan guides that simply indicate that all the labels are a consistent difference away from their station marker. I’ve shown the two most common types of station marker: dots and ticks.
The first and third sets of labels centre the type vertically using the baseline and the x-height, while the second and fourth use the height of the Core Type Area. Both of these approaches produce good results, although I personally believe that the Core Type Area method looks slightly better regardless of whether the label is to the left or the right of the line.
The last GIF shows how using the Core Type Area gives consistent results when placing labels above and below a horizontal route line. As you can see, the cyan guides are the same length each time, but though we align labels beneath the route line to the cap height (the top of the Core Type Area), we align labels that are above the route line to the type’s baseline (the bottom of the Core Type Area), not the descender line. That’s because a lot of words don’t have any descenders in them: in these cases, the label would look as if they were too far away from the station marker in comparison to labels that are below the line. The trick here is to make sure you’ve got enough space between the descender line and your station marker/route line to ensure that they don’t touch or overlap.
Next time, we’ll tackle labels on diagonal route lines.
Tutorial: Multiple Strokes on One Path
This little tip is thanks to RG, who left a comment on the site asking:
“Can you comment on how you make the 2pt of white space between lines show when you have lines cross over each other?”
On most transit maps, route lines will cross over each other at various points. Most of the time, an interchange station exists at that point and the symbol for that covers up the lines as they cross. However, sometimes the route lines will cross without any interaction between them — maybe there’s a bridge, or the lines are in separate tunnels — and it’s a good idea to visually separate them to make that as clear as possible.
STEP 1 above shows the set up: the Red and Blue lines cross over the Yellow and Green lines. As in the last tutorial, these are 8-point-thick lines set on a 10-point grid: I’ll use this a lot, just because it makes the maths easier to follow.
As you can see, the resulting 2pt gap between the Red and Blue lines allows the Yellow and Green lines to butt right up to them and show through the gap — neither of which is desirable. The quick and dirty approach to this problem might be to copy the Red and Blue lines, Paste in Back (Cmd/Ctrl-B), change the stroke colour to white and make these new strokes thicker. This does work, but it’s not the best approach in my eyes. It makes moving or editing those paths further down the track a two-step process (move the coloured route lines, then move the white lines that were underneath them), or a very fiddly single step: selecting objects behind other ones can be a real pain.
So I like to take advantage of a little-used feature of Adobe Illustrator — the fact that one path can have multiple strokes applied to it.
In STEP ONE, I’ve selected the Blue Line and made the Appearance palette visible (Window menu > Appearance or Shift-F6). To add a second stroke to the existing Blue one, simply click and drag that stroke down to the “Duplicate Selected Item” icon at he bottom of the palette as indicated. You can also just click on the stroke, then click on the icon, but I find it more satisfying to drag for some reason. If you really want, you can use the little flyout menu at the top right of the palette and choose “Add New Stroke” or “Duplicate Item” while you have the stroke selected in the main palette.
Bingo! The path now has two strokes, both of which are identical. Fortunately, the palette gives you everything you need to change the new stroke, as shown in STEP TWO. Use the little colour selector to change the second stroke in the palette (which is the stroke that’s behind the other one: the palette displays the stacking order of the path’s elements) to white, then change its stroke width.
The maximum amount you can increase the stroke by is twice the gap between your route lines — in this case, that’s four points (twice two), for a maximum width of 12 points. Any more than this, and the white stroke would start overlapping the Red line next to it. Normally, this amount is exactly what we’re after, so it’s not really a concern.
STEP THREE simply shows the result of performing the same steps on the Red line. Done! The advantage of this technique is that both strokes — being on the same path — can be moved or edited at the same time: there’s no need to fiddle around with two separate paths, one on top of the other.
And if you’re really smart, you’ll make Graphic Styles of these double-stroked lines, so that you can apply them again in the future with just one click.
Tutorial: Working with 45-Degree Curves in Adobe Illustrator
I got an request from an anon last week which asked:
"Hey! Could you do a video tutorial on how to bypass Illustrator’s annoying round corners effect in case of 45 degrees? It would be a lifesaver!"
Now, while you’re not going to get a video tut out of me — I don’t have the resources, time or know-how to produce one of those — I can and will share my battle-tested personal approach to this problem.
As our anonymous friend says, the “Round Corners” effect in Adobe Illustrator is essentially broken when it comes to making transit maps. Because of the way it measures the “radius” of curves, it produces unexpected (and useless) results on curves that aren’t a bog-standard 90 degrees. I wrote in depth about this problem on my design blog a while back: I suggest you head over and read the article if you want to fully understand the issue at hand here.
The other problem with the effect is that it applies the same radius to every curve along the entire length of the path, which isn’t always what you want: a route line might be the outside line (a larger radius) at one corner, but the inside curve at another (a smaller radius).
So I’ve long since given up trying to fight the inadequacies of the “Round Corners” filter, and instead generate all my curves manually from a “master set” of curves that I create at the beginning of a project.
STEP 1 above shows a pretty standard initial set-up: four concentric circles that are aligned to the grid that’s being used by the map. Here, we’ve got a 10-point grid, and the four circles have radiuses of 10, 20, 30 and 40 points. The line thickness is 8pt, so there’s a nice 2pt gap between each route line. When you’re setting up your master curves, be sure to create enough circles to account for the maximum number of adjacent route lines you’ll have on your map. Often, it’s only two or three, but for my map of TGV Routes in France, I had to set up a staggering eighteen!
STEP 2: From here, it’s a simple matter to use Illustrator’s Scissor tool (shortcut: “C” key) on the existing anchor points in each circle to split them up into four 90-degree segments. I’ve moved one set of 90-degree curves away from the others so you can see what you should have. Keep this set for when you need 90-degree curves, then duplicate it so we can use what we’ve already created to create a new 45-degree set.
STEP 3: Draw a line using the Line Segment Tool (shortcut: “" key) that passes through the centre point of all the circles and crosses all the paths at a 45-degree angle. (Hint: start at the centre point and hold down the Option/Alt key — to extend the line equally in each direction from that point — and the Shift key — to constrain the line to 45-degree angles).
Use the Rotate tool to make a duplicate of this line that’s rotated 90 degrees. Select both lines and press Cmd/Ctrl-5 to turn them into guides. Make your guides visible (Cmd/Ctrl-;) and turn on Illustrator’s Smart Guides (Cmd/Ctrl-U). Then use the Scissor tool to cut each of your route lines where it crosses these new guide lines. The Smart Guides will help a lot by giving you feedback when you’re positioned correctly over the guides: a little “intersect” tool-tip (just visible in the STEP 3 screenshot at top right) will appear near the cursor. Click to cut when you see this and you’ll be golden. Repeat for each line you need to cut. You don’t need to have any paths selected to cut, just position your cursor, click and Illustrator is clever enough to work out what you need. You only need to cut these 45-degree points because we already cut the 90-degree points in STEP 2.
STEP 4 show the result. Again, I’ve moved one set of curves away from the others to show you what you should have: eight complete sets of 45-degree curves, ready for use on your map!
STEP 5 shows a common scenario where three separate routes go around a 45-degree curve together. Draw them so the separate segments for each line touch, but there’s absolutely no need to join the lines at this stage.
A note: If Illustrator took a leaf out of CAD software and included a “Fillet” effect, we could forego this entire workaround. You’d simply select each segment of a route line, invoke the filter, set a curve radius (an actual, proper radius!), and the software would then create the curve accurately and join the lines seamlessly for you, each and every time. After 14 versions of Illustrator, I’m really not holding out hope for this functionality any time soon, however…
Another note: decide which of your curve radiuses represents a “standard” curve and always use that curve when a single route goes around a corner. Then, decide what happens when you have two curves: do you use the next size up or down for that curve? And so on for each combination of curves. Always apply your curves according to the rules you set here — this is what gives your map consistency and visual flow. Don’t cheat and use a smaller or non-standard curve to make things fit!
Here, I’ve decided to use the three largest curves for my three route lines (I often feel that the smallest radius can be a bit tight and look ungainly, so I only use it when I really have to), and I’ve pasted in the appropriate curves from my master set (I’ve changed their colour to magenta to make them easier to see and place correctly).
STEP 6: It’s always easier to align the curves to the horizontal or vertical line segment first. Again, this is easier if you have Illustrator’s Smart Guides on. Drag the curves over by one of the left points, holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key as you do. This ensures that Illustrator provides you with the correct visual feedback that things have aligned properly. Be warned: sometimes, Illustrator reports that things are aligned when they’re not. Be sure to zoom in enough and check things out if you suspect things aren’t quite right.
STEP 7: Now align the right points of the curves with the 45-degree segment, by holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key and the Shift key (to constrain the movement) as you drag across. Again, Smart Guides will give you feedback when things are aligned.
STEP 8: Now that the curves are in the right place, you simply have to align the end points of all the line segments with the end points of the curves, then join everything together. Fortunately, Illustrator’s Join command s a lot less finicky than it used to be. You can now just use the “black arrow” Selection tool to select each segment and hit Cmd/Ctrl-J to join them all together in a logical progression. You used to have to select individual end points, two at a time, and tell Illustrator to join just those segments!
An approach I like to use is to leave all this curve work until the routes are substantially laid out. Then I place all my curves, delete the original straight line segments, and simply join all the remaining curves together. Because they’re positioned accurately, you know you’re going to get nice straight lines between each and every one of them! And it saves having to tediously move end points around until things line up before you join things together.
That’s it! If anything’s unclear, drop me a line or leave a comment and I’ll try to clear things up for you.
STEP 9 shows the finished result: beautifully nested 45-degree curves with no unnecessary additional points. Perfectly executed and reproducible across the entire map!
Technical Review: New Sydney Trains Network Map
It seems that the draft Sydney Trains map that I posted about the other day is the real thing: printed timetables featuring it have been seen and scanned. So, I started looking at it again in order to write a proper review, when I started to notice a lot of little technical things that — as a designer — I found jarring and inconsistent.
I opened the PDF file in Adobe Illustrator and began to poke around. I thought it might be interesting — and perhaps instructive for designers who are interested in making their own transit maps — to show you what I found.
First, apologies for the four separate images: it’s an attempt to get around Tumblr’s maximum 1280px width for pictures. For reference, lets call then NW, NE, SW and SE.
My biggest problem with the map, and what I noticed first, is the wildly inconsistent positioning of labels. The one that really caught my eye was Lindfield on the North Shore Line on the NE map: it’s waaay out of place. St Marys on the Western Line (NW map) is also pretty bad. But, really, almost every label is poorly placed.
To show just how poor, I created cyan guides that are offset a small distance out from the route lines: this seemed to me to be about the right distance away for optimum placement of station labels. Then, for each orientation of label, I created an L-shaped magenta guide that shows both the baseline and the correct alignment (left or right) for the type. I then copy-and-pasted these guides to almost all the labels on the map, being sure to always keep them in the same position relative to each station maker.
As you can see, things are pretty horrific. It’s pretty obvious that there’s no common baseline for labels relative to their stations, nor are they a consistent distance away from the route lines. It’s almost as if each label has been placed individually and then nudged into position, rather than setting up a master set of label positions and applying them as required. Illustrator’s Duplicate function (Command/Control-D) makes this kind of thing so simple: place once, copy elements the required distance to place the next station, then Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate until all the stations are quickly and consistently placed.
It can be seen on the North Shore Line (NE map) that even the station dots are inconsistently placed — I’ve put a magenta dot over the top of any station that wasn’t where I expected it to be if things were placed mathematically. Possibly the worst culprits here are Merrylands, Guildford and Yennora stations at the bottom of the NW map: Guildford’s dots aren’t even at the correct angle to each other, and the label placement is completely different for each station. The huge gap between Yennora and Fairfield stations is also pretty ugly: it definitely should be possible to evenly and smoothly space the stations all the way down from Merrylands to Campbelltown.
Some route lines aren’t actually constrained to 45-degree angles: the worst offender is the East Hllls line from Riverwood to Holsworthy (SW map); others are also shown with an overprinting magenta line.
The distance between parallel route lines is inconsistent across the map: this is shown with a little measuring line. The black lines show my base measurement, while the blue lines show inconsistently spaced gaps, which may also be inconsistently spaced with each other! Again, spacing between elements can be controlled easily in Illustrator by entering precise values into the Move dialog box, so this type of thing is very frustrating to see.
The under construction South West Rail Link route is drawn differently to the North West Rail Link: it has no curves where it changes direction and the angled part of the line is too thick. I’ve rotated and overlaid the NW Link on top of the SW Link in cyan to illustrate the difference.
Why is the Macquarie University (NE map) station label set in bold “Interchange” text, but has no interchange ring around the station marker?
Finally, the nesting of curves where parallel routes change direction is very poor throughout the map. Look especially at the City Circle, where huge gaps open up between the route lines at the 90-degree corners. The corners on the orange Bankstown line there aren’t even a consistent radius, being much wider than they are tall.
You know, I really want to like this map. I don’t have any huge attachment to the old one, even though it’s competent enough. Sydney has regularly changed the look of its system map, so we certainly don’t have the same attachment to it that London has to its Tube Map, for example.
This new map is nicely simplified and streamlined, properly full of promise for the new timetabled services. It’s even looks quite friendly and cheerful! However, as a designer, I find it very difficult to look past glaring technical errors like the ones that litter this map, and now I can’t help but see them every darn time I look it.
NOTE: The PDF I edited is slightly older than the one now posted on the Sydney Trains website, but almost every error I talk about is still present in this final version. North Strathfield’s label no longer intersects the T7 Olympic Park line, which is an improvement of sorts.
Map design involves a great deal of technique and precision. Though nowadays programs largely automate this century-old craft, keeping a well-organized workspace will increase your efficiency. Jump past the break to see the three tricks you can use to streamline your workflow.
A great set of transit map-related Adobe Illustrator tips. I’m absolutely kicking myself that I didn’t know that graphic styles can be applied globally to a layer — a huge time-saver!
See also my own tips for designing transit maps.
There’s a few tools in Illustrator that can help you work effectively with 30-degree angles. The Smart Guides can be changed in Preferences to multiples of 30 degrees, instead of the usual 45- and 90-degrees, so they’re a great visual aid to getting things right.
But the best thing to do is to just use the Move dialog box and enter all your values there. With an object (or a subset of points) selected, hit Enter to get the Move dialog. Enter your values in the part that I’ve drawn a red square around, with the appropriate Distance and Angle values for what you’re trying to do. Turning Preview on helps a lot.