ART DIRECTING TRAFFIC
You’re driving in Manhattan; you need to park; you find an empty spot—eureka—and then you have to make sense of the street sign to see if you’re actually allowed to park there, and if so, for how long. Good luck. “New York City’s parking signs can sometimes be a five-foot-high totem pole of confusing information,” says Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who’s been a key player in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to make New York a greener (and more user-friendly) city. “We used to have signs with 250 characters on four different signs in three different colors.” Virtually every street in the city operates with a multifaceted set of criteria that defines who can park there, when, for how long and under what terms. While it’s not an infinite amount of variables, there are enough to be pretty confusing—particularly since a lot of the more trafficked areas distinguish between commercial and non-commercial vehicles. There are variations for days of the week and different times of day, and sometimes you have to pay at a meter and display a ticket, and sometimes you don’t have to pay at all. No wonder parking tickets are a serious source of income for nyc.gov.
What’s a New York City kind of design?
Michael Bierut has done a great deal of thinking about this issues in the last few years, but he isn’t a traffic expert or a bureaucrat; he’s a partner at the New York office of the legendary design firm of Pentagram who’s won awards working on projects for clients ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue to Harley-Davidson to the New York Jets and the Morgan Library and Museum. He came to the parking-sign job via another DOT project Pentagram was working on that will launch later this year: “a big, citywide way-finding program for pedestrians,” which was launched after a DOT fact-finding trip to London and some other European cities, looking at installations that tell pedestrians what’s in their area as they walk along. The NYC way-finder program involves working off a massive map database of the entire city to produce information signage. “They’re outdoor installations,” explains Bierut, “so they have to be resilient, with nothing tricky about them; they’re very classic.” A lot of the graphics and cues are designed to feel like extensions of the subway signs that designer Bob Noorda and his partner Massimo Vignelli created in the late 1960s. “It’s work that’s very New York,” says Bierut. “It’s come to look like New York partly because it has a matter-of-fact kind of functionality about it. It doesn’t look like it’s been ‘designed,’ or that it’s trying to cheer you up or brand the city or have dots or colors”—the latter being the kind of design that clearly drives him crazy. “When you go to some other city and they have that kind of ‘discover whatever it is!’ and there are happy little stars and stuff, it feels desperate,” he continues. “New York is like, you need to know where it is. Good luck.”
How do you read a sign?
All this and more eventually led to Pentagram’s involvement in the parking sign simplification program, which the DOT was working on in-house; they had already done a lot of the thinking the issue demanded. “There are really smart people in NYC government right now,” says Bierut. “Someone said, well, this is sort of design, so why don’t you call these designers we work with?” The job: make reading a parking sign a lot easier. That turned out to be a function of much more than just the words on the signs, although, says Bierut, they were certainly a major contributor to the confusion produced. Coincidentally, as if to confirm this, around the time Bierut took the job on, the stand-up comic, screenwriter and actor Louis C.K. made a funny video
In the work that the DOT had done before Pentagram came on board, “They had come up with a testing model that was kind of rudimentary, but pretty straightforward,” says Bierut. “They would mock up a sign, show it to a focus group and tell people, say, imagine it’s 1 p.m. on Tuesday and you want to park for two hours. Are you allowed to do that or not? And that exposed a lot of the key things.” The key things turned out to be a combination of the ambiguous way signs were written, a lack of hierarchy in how the information was organized, and the way essential facts were often buried.
A sign that says, “This Is a Sign!”
A crucial element about signs that fascinated Bierut—beyond their choice of words or where the words are positioned—is one that few of us think of consciously when we look at a sign but which is in fact in some ways their real function: what “a parking sign” is supposed to look like. He and his team worked with a fairly large group from the DOT, all the way from Bruce Schaller, the Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning, down to the people who actually made the signs in the shop. “At the very beginning, I said to Bruce, ‘You know, we could design these signs really well—so well, in fact, that they wouldn’t really look like parking signs.’” Of course, they would still be signs posted on poles with parking information on them, but, Bierut points out, “People are accustomed to a certain way these signs look”—often, for instance, with “ugly, vernacular, amateurish, horrible typography.” Making them look too good, he thought, would make them less credible: “They would look too much like advertising, too much like something that was an nonofficial sign. Not from the city.” And no one at the DOT to whom Bierut put that question understood what he was asking. “They just couldn’t figure it out. Not that they were dumb or anything. It was sort of like asking a fish to distinguish between different kinds of water.”
“There are certain things about design that you know the day you graduate from design school,” Bierut goes on. “You have it all down and don’t need to know anything more about certain aspects of it. But if I was completely ignorant about one thing it had to do with this world of—I’m not even sure what the word is for it—how you work within and against conventions in order to signal things.” So what interested him about this project was what makes a parking sign look and read like a parking sign, with all the authority it must have. And in the end, this most basic design question applies to whatever a designer is working on. “When a magazine is put on a newsstand, people have to somehow understand what kind of magazine it is, and the way they come to that understanding is really subtle,“ Bierut continues. “It’s nothing to do with the writing; it has to do with the holistic effect of all its different elements.” (Of course, someone can always come along and upend the conventions, and then a new convention arises, but in general designers work within perceived boundaries.) “For instance, if you actually redesigned U.S. currency you could do all kinds of stuff with it, but somehow—at least in the United States—people think money has to have all those Victorian and rococo curlicues on it, or it ain’t real.”
At the start of the project, one convention of the signs that Bierut was really hoping to get rid of was the borders around their edges, which drove him crazy. “What are they there for?” he says. “All they do is make it look like a ‘sign.’ It’s not like you need the border around the edge to tell you that the sign is coming to an end, or that this sign is different from that one or from the space around them. I’m not sure what they’re meant to accomplish.” Instead, they worked on some very Swiss-style designs that used vertical lines to divide the different sign thoughts. “The first time we came in, you could tell that people were looking at them with a faint air of disorientation,” says Bierut. “They’d say, I like it and everything you’re saying makes sense, and it certainly looks clean, but there’s something off about it.” What was striking, he adds, was that while people could barely articulate what was wrong with the new concept, as soon as they restored the borders on the signs, everyone thought, “Oh, okay, now that really looks like an official sign that the city of New York is putting up or you’ll get fined and towed.” Clearly, one of the elements that told people a parking sign was a parking sign was the border around the edge.
The border question wasn’t an issue in the way-finding signage project, because those signs are a new thing, without a precedent—and because you don’t have to look at them. “You can ignore them,” says Bierut. “They’re just for your voluntary use.” He goes on, “The way-finding signs have to have credibility, but the parking signs need authority, and that’s different. They somehow have to convey, in their humble state, the full weight of the city of New York saying ‘It’s this, or else.’”
Bierut shrugs off any suggestion that his team came up with any path-breaking ideas. “We did the kind of things you do as a designer working with an editor, where you suggest, ‘Couldn’t these be dashes instead of the word to? Do you want to line things up like that? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put this above that? Should this be flush left or centered?” Bierut not only has direct experience working with editors—he’s done redesign at the New York Times and on various magazines—but that describes his method even if technically no editor is involved. “We just happened to be the people who were there at the moment they decided to make this change, so we’ve been credited with a certain degree of intelligence that isn’t necessarily warranted,” he says modestly. “Any half-decent designer would have come to similar conclusions about these things.”
In many ways the DOT work has been like a master class in typography. “What we did for them is what all designers know intimately,” says Bierut. “The manipulation of variables for emphasis. If it’s all lowercase, and we make something in capitals, what does that do? If everything is one color, and we make another thing another color, what does that do?” They tried all of these and then basically kept doing variations. And beyond the issues like the sign borders, there were other kinds of restrictions, such as the fact that the signs come in set sizes. “Just like with any other layout—whether you’re doing a paper magazine or a poster—you have all this information and you wish they’d give you three more pages or could make this thing a foot bigger,” says Bierut. “Instead, they’re trying to make these things smaller, so the only devices you have to operate with as designer are spacing and emphasis—and you’re really restricted there, as well.”
Other graphic elements
Finding solutions to unpacking and clarifying the jumble of parking signs wasn’t only about letters and words. Bierut and his team also wrestled with the signs’ use of arrows, numbers and boxes. “We started with an arrow that we thought was more legible than everything else,” says Bierut, “but ended using the conventional arrow that they use in New York street signs.” (The one he wanted—“a nice proper arrow”—can be seen in the picture at right of an early meeting with the DOT, when arrows were still being debated.) In fact, the choice of arrow wasn’t an independent decision; like everything else, the arrows had a history, too. “They were just too freaked out by not having the familiar arrows,” Bierut says. The same picture also shows mock-ups without box rules, another early idea. “That was the point when I thought the signs were really looking good,” says Bierut. “New York has so many of these signs that whatever they or we did would define whatever the new standard was. And I encouraged them to push it as far as they could. In a way, though, this is just such an improvement over what was there that we were happy to take what we could get.”
Bierut’s team also enlarged key numbers. “That’s because where the parking is metered, as you’re driving, that’s often really the differentiator. If you need to park somewhere for more than four and half hours, three hours won’t do for you; you need somewhere that says six-hour meter parking is okay.” That numerical information was previously buried. “You’d be parking, then you’d see the sign, then you’d get a ticket. You’d say, ‘But I paid that,’ but this is only for one hour, and you’d say ‘What?’” Bierut attended a few hearings in traffic court where, he says, the cops provided surprisingly exhaustive testimony about the condition, position and legibility of the signs to counter the pleas of drivers contesting a ticket. “That’s their only defense, really, against any kind of argument such as “I didn’t know,” “The sign was broken,” or “There was no sign there—how was I supposed to know?”
The parking Catch-22
A thought that occurred to Bierut only after the project was finished was whether it meant that the department was going to do itself out of revenue. “Actually, I hope so,” he says. “That would be the sign of success, right? If traffic tickets dipped to nothing. In a way, maybe Louis C.K.’s sign in that video has been a diabolical way to keep a massive ongoing revenue stream for New York City. That might be very well true. Set the entire driving citizenry of New York in an endless Catch-22: no matter where they park, they’re probably going to be wrong and have to pay a fine.”