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As the Worm Turns: A Designer's Concept of What Muni Could Be 

Wednesday, Feb 5 2014

Derek Kim sees chaos and he must instill order. He sees sloppiness and he needs to organize it. He sees haphazardness and he has to bestow regularity. He sees Muni — and he's gotta change everything.

So he did.

Kim is on the shorter side, with jet black hair pulled back into a bun, a ready smile, and sleek, handsome features. He looks even younger than his 27 years. "Fixing Muni" has been a San Francisco obsession since long before his birth, predating even the days Herb Caen suffered through ordeals on "The Muniserable bus." Mayor Willie Brown vaingloriously claimed he could do the job in 100 days. He didn't — Lord knows he didn't — but he certainly did prove there's plenty of money to be made running a transit system poorly, if you're so inclined.

That's not Kim's focus. Nor are Muni's pricey, breakdown-prone vehicles; its slowest-in-North America average speed; or a labor situation about as amiable as Little Bighorn.

Rather, Kim takes issue with The Worm.

It's a bold move to suggest altering the one element of Muni enjoyed by even passengers trapped on soiled vehicles in which the ratio of sane to crazy riders has tipped perilously toward the latter: the uniquely goofy, trapped-in-amber, 1970s-era logo. A gloriously outmoded emblem emblazoned on the side of every municipal vehicle in town is a comforting sight in a city in flux. It's a powerfully nostalgic symbol for those with deep San Francisco roots, but also warm and welcoming — a readily accessible signifier of this city even for people who haven't lived here for decades. It makes you smile in the same way as a Sly and the Family Stone tune coming on the radio, even though they're both similarly dated. Because of it, in fact.

Trendy is fleeting. Dated is forever.

Kim, however, is neither tentative nor nostalgic. He saw inconsistency and needed to create consistency. He saw irregularity and craved uniformity. And it was not a choice entirely of his making. "I have to do this," he says, smiling sheepishly. "My OCD is telling me, 'Make the logo-type uniform.'"

So he did.

Kim's obsessive-compulsive disorder has compelled him to do great work in his job as a designer. In addition to his full-time work, though, he toiled long hours crafting a "Muni Rebranding Concept." Starting with The Worm and trickling down into driver uniforms and station signage, it's an aesthetic reboot of a system with a general design concept that looks as if it was made up as it went along.

Because it was.

Don't get Kim wrong — he loves The Worm. But love doesn't mean accepting something warts and all. Warts are inconsistent. Warts are not uniform.

So, while Kim loves The Worm, he must change it. The thinner and thicker lines on the logo's top and bottom? Gotta go: "It makes it look like the logo has bell-bottomed pants." In Kim's version, every stroke is of equal weight. Everything is proportional. The "i" is of a consistent stroke style with the rest of the logo. Consistency. Uniformity. It's something Muni has precious little of. But Kim's just getting started. In his blueprint, the buses and trains are now one color. Rather than the hodgepodge of vehicle colors — burgundy, tangerine, white, metallic, duct tape — Kim favors cherry red. This, he says, "is an 'ownable' color most transit systems don't use." Combined with his snow-white new Worm, the vehicles look a bit like mobile Target billboards; they're nothing if not striking.

Doing away with the jarring brown-and-orange uniform template, Kim has designed five sets of mix-and-match driver's outfits (white tops, gray pants, black ties, and red trim — with sensible black vests). And, not unlike a baseball team's loud Sunday uniform, Kim also threw in a flashy red top resembling a Day-Glo Mao jacket.

Derek Kim may be obsessive, but he's not unrealistic. Atop his illustrations of what Muni could be is the following disclaimer: "This exercise isn't meant as a rhetorical call to action for SFMTA. [It] would be unwise of the agency to spend money on such a thing rather than improving their service."

You may like the Day-Glo Mao jacket and you may not (your humble narrator thinks it's kind of great). But it's hard to question Kim's fiscal sense.

His work has received a good deal of buzz within the design community and, also, within Muni. His concepts have been forwarded around the agency and Muni employees have reached out with compliments. But there's no money for cosmetic redesigns, and everyone knows it.

In fact, the demands of function chip away at Kim's fine form. His concepts for buses and trains would have to be rejiggered to allow for adspace on the sides. Muni buses have specifically been painted white to reduce costs following body repairs and enable panels to be interchangeable. "You may remember, the older GMC coaches were red," notes a longtime Muni hand. "Everyone hated it enough to change the paint scheme to something that took less effort to look clean."

As for the driver uniforms, a veteran Muni manager reveals that "at the warehouse on Quint Street there are hundreds of uniforms in big boxes just sitting for years — some new, some used, but a lot of money [wasted] either way." Operators, he continues, aren't uniformly fond of wearing uniforms — and that would apply to a cherry red Mao jacket, too.

You likely don't know who Walter Landor is. But you're familiar with his work. He designed logos for Bank of America and Coca-Cola. He also designed the Muni Worm.

Kim doesn't aspire to supplant Landor. "It's not about fame. It's about contributing to society," he says. "It would be a huge honor for me to be responsible for helping improve the city's image."

That day may yet come. In the meantime, Kim has created an organized, consistent, and professional motif for a system lacking all of these elements. It would require a heavy dose of utopian thinking to believe that cleanliness and efficiency in design would, somehow, translate into cleanliness and efficiency in execution. But the reverse is undoubtedly true: Muni's sloppiness and inefficiency is reflected in its disorganized, slovenly appearance — and, more substantively, its woeful on-time performance.

Kim's rebranding concept will inspire an argument or two on the web. But, in the real world, it'd be hard to claim that Muni isn't saddled with the branding it deserves.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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