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]