Why you don't use Helvetica to tell people where they cannot park.
Growing up in suburban Ohio, the most complicated parking sign Michael Bierut recalls ever encountering was the classic, two-word prohibition mounted over the rare driveway or fire hydrant: NO PARKING.
Pretty straight-forward. You’ve got your verb, you’ve got your negation. No exceptions, conditions or need for interpretation. "There was no difference between ‘standing’ and ‘parking,’ ‘except deliveries and commercial vehicles,'" says Bierut, who now works in New York as a principal with the design firm Pentagram. He sympathizes with the rest of the city’s drivers – including, hilariously, the comedian Louis C.K. – who’ve been complaining for years about what might be the most byzantine parking regulations on the planet.
"I am such a coward a lot of times – I’m one of those people who will park in a garage just so I don’t have to sort out what the signs mean," Bierut says. "And I would also say they look generally ugly and chaotic, too, on top of everything else."
Bierut worked on the design of the much-celebrated replacements for the city’s parking signs, which have been steadily appearing in Midtown Manhattan since earlier this year. Soon, the newer versions will reach the stretch of Fifth Avenue outside Pentagram’s own offices, and from there, the city’s Department of Transportation expects to install them in other parts of town as well.
The signs have evolved in some fairly basic ways: The information is now flush-left instead of centered, and the text doesn’t scream at drivers in ALL CAPS any more. There’s also a new two-toned color scheme and a tidy box conveying the maximum meter time on any block. All these subtle adjustments, by some trick of city psychology, have totally transformed the maddening experience of parking in Manhattan.
City Councilman Dan Garodnick began agitating for simpler signs in 2011 because his constituents (quite reasonably) had been grousing about them. We asked Garodnick if any of these angry drivers felt the city was intentionally trying to trick them, to which he replied: "Yes yes yes yes yes! That was part of the sadness of all of it – that people actually think that the city is deliberately trying to confuse them in order to give tickets. And that perception alone is a problem."
That gives you some sense of how bad things were before this January. The City Council and the New York City Department of Transportation eventually began working on revised language for the signs, testing prototypes on the street (sample quiz: looking at this sign, if it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, and you’re trying to make a three-hour board meeting, can you park your Subaru in front of that produce delivery truck?).
Pentagram, which is also working with the city on a way-finding campaign due out later this spring, was pulled into the project to lend some design science to the whole enterprise.
"If you start to analyze it from a logic chain point of view," Bierut says, "what makes parking signs particularly complicated is that you’re being asked to calculate a solution based on multiple variables." Are you driving a commercial vehicle or a non-commercial vehicle? Is it a weekday or a weekend? Rush hour or mid-day? Street cleaning or no? "And you’re under stress and you may not speak English as your first language, and you’re late for your dentist appointment," Bierut says, "or you’re just intimidated by the prospect of getting towed."
Pentagram has also designed signage for tens of thousands of confused souls in airports, and that would seem to be an even trickier task. But, Bierut says, just about everyone in the airport wants to do the same thing: get to their gate and onto an airplane. That’s not the case with street parking, where one driver wants to run in to the Duane Reade, another is trying to deliver a U-Haul of furniture, and yet another is circling for a spot to leave the car during dinner and a Broadway play. Parking signs have to simultaneously speak to all these people with varying motivations on a single metal pole (and within the guidelines of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices).
You may never have noticed this consciously, but signs can also be either permissive or prohibitive, telling you what you may do versus what you cannot do. "Metered parking from 2 p.m.-5 p.m." sounds agnostic – and less like an invitation to test the meter maid – than "no parking 5 p.m.-2 p.m." The new signs are all permissive in language (and this was a whole separate decision from whether to make them say "2 p.m.-5 p.m." or "2 p.m. to 5 p.m.").
With the wording simplified and shortened, Pentagram then began to play with the design, a process that Bierut likens to piling yet more variation onto the variables already implied by the language to emphasize each of them in their own separate way. What if some of the numbers were in boxes and some of the words in bold? Or if you changed the color for the commercial signs and the size of the type for time?
The challenge was to add as few design elements as possible for maximum effect, because the diminishing returns of more fonts and colors and type weights set in quickly. "Once you start emphasizing this thing and then doing something else to that thing, throwing in all these variables," Bierut says, "people don’t stand a chance to decipher them consciously or subconsciously."
He's basically describing the city’s old-school signs.
Ironically, for all the ways that people hated the previous signs, Pentagram also had to design replacements that would look like our expectations of parking signs. The firm produced one version of the signs in Helvetica, the classic font that’s used in the New York subway. "They looked really beautiful, really modern," Bierut says a bit wistfully. "But somehow they didn’t look like parking signs in a way. They didn’t have that aura of authority."
Helvetica didn’t convey "this sign means serious business, or you’ll get a ticket." And so you’re looking instead at a font called Highway. Stripped of all context, Highway isn’t necessarily a serious-business script. But we’ve been conditioned to view it that way, as we have with all kinds of other subtle design stagecraft.
"If you’re designing a jar of spaghetti sauce," Bierut says, "you take a risk if you make it look like something else – if you make it look like yogurt, or pharmaceuticals, or you make it look like contact lens fluid."
The same is true with parking signs made to look like billboards for the Times Square TKTS kiosk.
Of course, the ultimate result of all of this is that the new New York City parking signs don’t look like much at all if you happen upon them in their proper context. It’s just that now, as a driver, you don’t have to look at them for quite as long, scratching your head, summoning strangers over for a second opinion, all in an effort to decipher them.
"I haven’t stalked anyone doing it yet," Bierut says of the prospect of observing his work in the urban wild. "But I have noticed – and it’s gratifying in a way – that they get less attention. I guess this is a triumph: I have yet to see anyone puzzling over them."
All images courtesy of Pentagram.