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Thanks in part to the work Metro Design Studio is doing, more and more people in the single-occupancy-vehicle capital of the world aren’t taking the freeways. They’re taking the subway or the bus. On a recent Friday afternoon in the Hollywood/Highland station, for example, artist Oren Goff hopped on the Red Line subway after a day of “shopping and gallivanting.” “I own a Range Rover and a Honda but I take the Metro every chance I get,” he said. Restaurant worker Christine Montaro doesn’t even have a car; she commutes via subway from Downtown L.A. to Hollywood. “A car would add stress to my life,” she said. “I might use it on weekends, but it’s not really necessary.” And some tourists aren’t renting cars. Allison Watt of Ottawa, Canada, and her three kids took Metro Rail to every destination except Disneyland on their one-week itinerary. “This is our first trip to L.A.,” she said. “We went to Universal Studios, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and a Kings’ game at Staples Center—all on the subway.”

A subway in L.A.? Is that a late-night talk show joke? Not any more. Metro Design Studio is making sure everyone in Los Angeles County knows all about the subway and three light rail lines that run on 73 miles of tracks between the San Fernando Valley and Downtown, and from Hollywood to Long Beach. And about the nation’s largest fleet of clean-air buses that run on compressed natural gas. According to the agency’s statistics, more than 2.5 million of L.A. County’s 13 million citizens are taking Metro’s trains and buses. This sea change is the result of more than smart urban planning and transportation engineering. It can be attributed to a “never compromise” commitment by Metro’s chief communications officer Matt Raymond to hire top design, advertising and photographic talent, and to give them every opportunity to do great work and a $5.6 million production and media budget to do it with.

“Los Angeles has the largest image-conscious population in the country,” Raymond maintains. “We needed to break through the clutter with great creative.” In 2002 he reorganized the then-disjointed communications department, taking advantage of “underutilized creative talent” throughout the agency. Maya Emsden, then director of its notable public art program, was appointed head of creative services. “Talent attracts talent,” Raymond muses, “and Maya assembled one of the top creative teams in the country.”

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Michael Lejeune, former project director at KBDA, a hip West L.A. design firm that specializes in corporate branding and annual reports, was hired to run what might be the country’s top design studio/ad agency that’s part of a government agency. In an office tower in a downtown plaza adjacent to Union Station he and Neil Sadler, a London-trained information designer and veteran of Landor Associates and MetaDesign in San Francisco, oversee 17 employees and interns, a Web site that gets 35 million hits a month, and 3,000 projects a year.

A typical project is the “2006 Federal Legislative Plan,” a brochure beautifully produced by senior designer Melissa Rosen, which features striking double-page-bleed photographs intersected by headlines that ask Congress to appropriate $200 million in federal funding for such projects as a light rail extension for East L.A. Four years ago, if an official needed such a document, he or she would go up to a window, ring a bell at a counter and fill out an order form. The designer would cobble together layouts using clip art and images from stock photo CDs.

Today, Rosen and the seven other designers at Metro follow identity guidelines based on a proportional grid of wide horizontal bands that organize words and images so, as Sandler explains, “everything inherently works together.” The color palette has a West Coast vibe yet corresponds to various levels of service: “Rapid Red” identifies the 25-percent-faster Rapid Line buses; “Business Blue” is the color of rush-hour commuter service on the freeways. Representing two intersecting roads, the “M” identifier on every piece signifies the two aspects of Metro, transportation planning and transit service, Sadler points out, and it suggests travel and destinations. The main font family, FF Scala, was chosen for legibility as well as its friendly, non-institutional qualities. The maps, recalling Massimo Vignelli’s iconic 1972 New York subway map, are easy to read, with clean white backgrounds, primary colors, bold black rules. “You get tired of doing design to sell things,” says Sadler. “This is design with a purpose, design that moves people. It can impart information and still be bright and engaging.”

Perhaps most engaging are Metro’s billboards, bus shelter ads and posters, with their “larger-than-life, better-than-reality” photography. All over the 4,000-square-mile county, they continually remind citizens how much they could be doing—especially these days of the $60 tank of gas—for themselves, their communities and the environment by taking public transportation or carpooling. A smiling young man holds a piggy bank over the headline, “Fill your bank, not your tank.” “We’re in the neighborhood,” asserts a poster showing a shiny orange and silver bus parked in the driveway of the kind of two-story, tile-roofed house that fills in developments all around Southern California. Four women in sunglasses riding in a red convertible with their bowling trophy remind drivers that “Friends don’t let friends drive alone.”

Most of the ad shots are by David Zaitz, a corporate and travel photographer known for quirky, color-saturated images. The cityscapes, portraits, scenics and industrial shots are the work of staff photographer Deniz Durmas and a team of interns who are out every day shooting everything from tourist destinations to rail yards. Coordinated by senior designer Elizabeth Bain, a Carnegie-Mellon graduate who came to Metro via April Greiman’s office, the in-house photo group creates 20 to 30 images a week.

You get tired of doing design to sell things. This is design with a purpose, design that moves people. It can impart information and still be bright and engaging.” —Neil Sadler

Although Lejeune writes many of the headlines and everyone at Metro Design Studio contributes to the creative product, the “marketing guys next door,” a seven-person team of PR and communications professionals headed by Warren Morse, act as account executives, make media buys and collaborate with the designers to develop the creative briefs and the copy. The clients—the 1,000 people in the building and the other 9,000 Metro employees around L.A. County who are responsible for transportation planning, construction, service, repairs and safety—participate in a process that’s as professional as if they were working with any top design studio or agency. Not only do they not ring a little bell at a window any more, they’re shown presentations with a half-dozen or so fully realized creative directions. Displayed on the bulletin boards in the Studio’s well-organized, 3,000-square-foot space, in addition to produced work, are comps of dozens of concepts that never made it, each of which could have been an equally effective part of the campaign to convince people to get out of their cars and “Go Metro.”

“How do you keep 13 million people moving?” is the question Metro tries to answer every day. The answer goes way beyond grids, colors and typography. While designers in other firms might be choosing a shade of Pantone orange, for example, here they’re working with transportation safety experts to figure out how to put blinking lights on Orange Line buses so that distracted motorists talking on cell phones can’t help but see them.

The September, 2005, “Grand Opening Communications Plan” for the Orange Line, designed by Sharleen Yoshimi, is typical of the complex projects that address the kinds of issues that make the axiom “Good design is good business” seem so last century. Here, good design is good citizenship, advocating for social change, connecting with huge, diverse audiences, and maybe even helping save the planet, or at least reduce the smog in the Los Angeles basin. This 28-page document outlines every aspect of promotion for “The bus that acts like a train,” which runs from the West Valley to North Hollywood in a dedicated surface-street lane. There are mockups of press kits, banners, billboards and informational materials that show people where to park their cars along the route and how to use the new bike path: ride their bike to the station, put it in a special locker, then take the bus. It even outlines plans for grand-opening events, such as the VIP breakfast hosted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who proclaimed in his 2006 State of the City speech that he wants Los Angeles to be “the greenest and cleanest big city in America.”

Transforming the smoggiest and most freeway-snarled city into the greenest and cleanest might be one of the most difficult public relations tasks ever undertaken. Giving the process a solid start are the information-rich “Metro Briefs” ads designed by Theresa Renn, a 15-year veteran of the studio, that appear bi-weekly in 75 newspapers in English, Spanish and seven other languages. These ads feature a message of the month related to the current ads and posters around town and local news like announcements of community meetings about area bus service.

“Everything we’re doing is working,” Lejeune says. Transit-oriented development is a new watchword in L.A., and stations like the one at Hollywood and Vine, just down the block from the Kodak Theatre, sit at the nexus of shopping, new housing developments, dining and entertainment. “People live, work and play here,” Lejeune points out. “And the Red Line is underneath it all, connecting you to the rest of the system, and the city.”

Citizens can also stay connected to the system through its vast Web site, www.metro.net, which provides them with everything from route maps and a trip planner, to listings of weekend events, to agendas of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meetings. The site is the responsibility of Joe Simpson, formerly in corporate identity at UNISYS and Chrysler Corporation, and assistant Webmaster Kevin Woo, who are as concerned with content usability as they are with juicing up the Flash module at the top of the homepage that reminds visitors that “Connecting to LAX just got easier.”

Los Angeles has the largest image-conscious population in the country. We needed to break through the clutter with great creative.” —Matt Raymond

All print projects are coordinated by production manager Carolynne Clifford, previously a video game package designer at Microsoft and Disney. At Metro she’s got 120 active projects (“a new one every single day”) for which she coaxes remarkable quality out of printers selected via competitive bid. “This is a public agency and we’re not allowed to deal directly with vendors,” she explains. “The public can protest how much printing is costing each taxpayer. That was a big change for me. When I started here, my friends would say, ‘Oh you’re working for a county agency, that must be terrible,’” Clifford admits. She sees her job, though, as the opposite of terrible. It’s a challenge, exhilarating. “Every morning I recharge myself, ‘What comps are due today? What final art is due today?’”

As employees of Los Angeles County, Metro designers enjoy benefits beyond the dream of most graphic designers: excellent health benefits, child care, pension and retirement plans, even four weeks of vacation to start. They and their family members also get to model for the ad shots. But they’re not here for the perks.

“Everything we do ends up out there,” says Lejeune, indicating the sprawl of Los Angeles (which he predicts will be more clearly visible, more often) below his office window. “We have a direct dialogue with the public, and that’s really different from spending months on an annual report that reaches a comparatively tiny audience of shareholders. We love it when citizens call or write, ‘I saw that ad, or can you send me a copy of that great poster?’” Adds Matt Raymond, “There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing patrons gather around a new map, smile at the latest ad, or comment on the look of the new buses. Our customers deserve good design. It enhances their experience and attracts new riders. Metro’s numbers bear it out. We’re experiencing the highest levels of customer satisfaction and new rider growth in history.”

Not everyone is so moved—yet. Paul Martin, a music licensing entrepreneur who likes to hang out at the Starbucks on Main Street in Venice, claims that he’ll never take public transportation: “When I had $158 in the bank, I could pull up at the Beverly Hills Hotel in my Porsche and the doorman would say, ‘Good evening, Sir.’ It’s all about perception, and that won’t happen if you get off the bus.” Lori Banks, a life coach who joined him for a latte, agreed that it’s hard to get people out of their BMWs and Hummers, but thinks Metro could pull it off with targeted marketing initiatives: “They’ve got to market packages to all the cool people,” she advised. “Maybe a singles bus that optimizes people’s time and takes them to places like Urth Caffé and Elixir Tea on Melrose.”

“No matter what we do—right now we’re working on putting WiFi in the buses and trains so people can work on their laptops—we’re not going to get everybody to give up their cars,” admits Lejeune. “But every time we design something that convinces one person to try Metro, we have a direct impact on traffic, air quality and quality of life for everyone who lives here. And that’s a pretty great mandate for a design studio.” ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. She is the designer of Alphagram Learning Materials, a tool that helps all children learn to read, write and spell, and the author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Simon & Schuster) and more than 200 magazine articles and posts about visual culture.


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