This spring, 6,300 redesigned signs will replace Manhattan’s notoriously confusing parking signage.

The signs were designed by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, who worked with the Department of Transportation to simplify and clarify both the content and design of the signs.

The new messages are no longer than a tweet, at 140 characters--a nearly 50% reduction in text.

Bierut chose a classic transit typeface: Interstate, designed in 1949 by Tobias Frere-Jones for the Federal Highway Administration.

Red type is for commercial vehicles and green works for private cars.

The design team tested the effectiveness of their designs on focus groups of average New Yorkers.

Co.Design

Pentagram Redesigns New York’s Inscrutable Parking Signage

“You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in parking signage to understand where you are allowed to leave your car in New York," said one city council member.

Parking in New York is a famously expensive, famously shady, and famously dangerous affair. It also usually involves some guesswork, due to the city’s parking signage, which tends to be maddeningly inscrutable.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan knows it. “New York City’s parking signs can sometimes be a five-foot-high totem pole of confusing information,” she said at a curbside press conference this week. “It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. in transportation to understand these signs," quipped Council Member Daniel Garodnick.

That’s all about to change. As part of her mission to make New Yorkers safer on their streets, Sadik-Khan enlisted Pentagram to redesign the signs earlier this year. On Monday, the team was joined by city officials in unveiling the fruits of the collaboration in Midtown, where the first new signs are installed. Over the next few months, 6,300 old signs will be swapped for the new. “The days of puzzled parkers trying to make sense of our Midtown signs are over,” said Garodnick, who is described somewhat hilariously in a DoT statement as a “longtime supporter of syntactic clarity.”

The new signs may be simple and clear, but the process of making them so was not, according to Pentagram Principal Michael Bierut. “Like most New Yorkers, I knew the signs were complicated,” he says, speaking to Co.Design this week. “I had no idea how complicated until we started this project. There are so many variables. What are you driving? How long do you want to park? What day is it? What time is it? Using tools like typography and color to help people parse all these overlapping factors was a real challenge.”

They began by working with the DoT to whittle down the content of each sign. The new messages are no longer than a tweet, at 140 characters--a nearly 50% reduction in text. When it came to reimagining the signs themselves, Bierut was drawn to changing the size of the placard, but quickly realized that economies of scale and materials in the DoT workshop made that impossible. The sign sizes would stay the same.

Instead, Bierut focused on typeface, size, and color. The team pared down the number type sizes to two, and changed the background colors to white. Red type is for commercial vehicles, and green works for private cars. They left-justified the text and chose smaller font sizes to reduce the visual clutter of the old signs, creating a basic hierarchy of information that makes an incredible difference. According to the Observer, they toyed with using Helvetica, which would have been a nod to Massimo Vignelli’s MTA signage. But after rounds of iterations, the team settled on a classic transit typeface: Interstate, designed in 1949 by Tobias Frere-Jones for the Federal Highway Administration.

One of the difficult things about information design is that the designer already understands what a sign is trying to convey, which makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of a particular idea. Bierut and his team solved the conundrum by testing their designs on average city dwellers. “As we developed different versions, they were shown to various groups of New Yorkers who were generally given a simple quiz,” he explains. The subjects were shown a sign and asked whether, say, they’d be allowed to park there at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. “By testing variables, DoT was able to help us establish hierarchy and even word choice."

This isn’t Pentagram’s first collaboration with the DoT--you might remember their pedestrian awareness campaign, LOOK!, from last year. “The commissioner and her team have been great supporters of good design across the board,” says Bierut, who hints that in the next few months, Pentagram will unveil a long-term DoT project aimed at helping pedestrians find their ways around neighborhoods. At this rate, you could call them the unofficial graphic designers of New York City infrastructure.

[H/t The Observer]

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17 Comments

  • Chris Calabrese

    While this redesign is certainly a welcome change, I feel that the signs
    could still be made clearer. I am a user experience and graphic
    designer.
    In January I had a couple days of downtime and decided to take a stab
    at redesigning these signs. Check out my design and read about the
    logic behind my
    decisions:

    http://catalystgroup.tumblr.co...

  • chris loco

    First thing that strikes me is how the rivets are not taken into account. Would make more sense to me to increase the margins to accomodate the rivets.

  • zorven

    Interesting but would have been appropriate to show some before and after images.

  • Lawson Lovell

    I found it interesting to find out how the went about testing drafted infographic design and the variables that they had to consider. However like others have mentioned previously it would have been even more interesting to compare current & previous signage to see how much it has improved. One thing for sure the new signage looks very clear and concise.

  • krzystoff

    interesting graphic design.  an example or two of the current signage would be useful for a comparative point of reference -- I'm sure most of your readers live outside NYC, and thus not recall or know what the local signage currently looks like.

  • Mancave5948

    Shouldn't those be en dashes? Tsk, tsk. Pentagram ought to know better. 

  • Peter

    Pentagram also redesigned the NYC Parks logo and all their signs and branding. Spread across 40,000 acres of parkland and 1700 parks, the Parks' "Maple leaf" logo is the most visible logo in the city, furthering the assertion that Pentagram is the unofficial designer of new york's public space.

  • Adriano Farina

    In such an international city as NY, symbolic signs might be better, like the ones that are common in Europe.

  • Averymck

    I thought this was really interesting, but am I missing something that there's no "before" imagery of the signs? Sounds great, but I really don't know what the improvement was, not living in New York....

  • B Goyarrola

    Mr Frere Jones revealed himself as a talented typographer from a young age, but having designed Interstate in 1993, he ought to be a tad older.

  • Guest

    It might have been quite challenging for Tobias to design Interstate in 1949 -- not being born until 1990 and all. Otherwise, not too bad.