New York City streets have changed a lot in the five years since Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed Transportation Commissioner. We have more bike lanes, more pedestrian zones, and more signage. Unfortunately, thanks to gruesome statistical logic, we also have more traffic deaths. Rather than blame pedestrians, drivers, or NYPD officers, Sadik-Khan’s office is waging a quiet proxy war against a more insidious type of danger: distraction.
Last week, Sadik-Khan and her federal counterpart, Ray LaHood, unrolled a design-savvy campaign that sends a simple message to New Yorkers: LOOK! Installed on crosswalks all over the city and plastered to buses, the bold Helvetica slogan (complete with googly eyes) attempts grab the attention of smartphone-gazing, chicken-playing pedestrians. Sticker versions of the message will also be installed on the inside of all 13,000 New York City cabs, warning passengers to check if they’re about to door a cyclist (similar stickers have been the standard in other cities for years). A print campaign shows snippets of eyes (DOT and Pentagram employees, actually) looking left and right. ”Mom was right. Look before you cross the street.”
The ads were designed by a Pentagram team led by partner Michael Bierut, who spoke to Co.Design about the challenging design problem of affecting deeply ingrained behaviors with only a split second to work with. It’s one thing to add a crosswalk to an intersection. It’s quite another to get pedestrians to pay attention to it. “We were impressed by the 2011 Curbside Haiku project [the DOT] did with artist John Morse,” Bierut says, referring to the funny poems the DOT installed streetside last year. “That seemed to point the way towards using unexpected tactics to capture the attention of busy New Yorkers.”
“We knew we needed a really simple solution, and that it would need to be visible and memorable despite its ubiquity,” he explains. “LOOK! really appealed to me because it seemed like a solution that a second grader could have come up with. Some of my favorite designs are like that.” Pentagram’s concept was accepted by the DOT almost on the spot. “The exclamation point makes it a little more assertive,” he adds. “And New York-y: Look here, buddy!" Bierut says he hopes LOOK! will end up as an iconic New York symbol—a “Mind the Gap” for Manhattan.
Bierut and Sadik-Khan are helping to pave (sorry) a "third way" in New York’s current hot-button topic. Step out onto a Manhattan street today, and odds are you’ll see a couple cyclists, drivers, or pedestrians hurling insults at each other. Hell, a driver who cut off a cyclist incited a mass riot earlier this month. Which puts the DOT in a tough spot: how do you change dangerous behavior, without seeming prescriptive or biased?
The answer seems to lie in design, and to a certain degree, a sense of humor. Like John Morse’s Curbside Haikus, which made fun of everyone involved:
Two crash test dummies
Like the haikus, LOOK! is a clever way to remind us of basic standards of civility we learned as kids (and seem to have since forgotten): Be nice to people, don’t take yourself too seriously, and please, look both ways.