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Designing Simple, Comprehensible Signage

May 12, 2017

‘To Park, Or Not to Park?’

Melissa Bean Sterzick

Nikki Sylianteng was living the life of an urban commuter, complete with a daily search for parking in an area where it was limited, confusing signage, and white envelopes regularly tucked into her windshield wipers, when she had an idea for “better” parking signs.


One parking ticket in particular caused her to question her intelligence.


She took her frustration to the drawing board and translated the complicated sign that had earned her the ticket and came up with a simple chart. The project, which she started in 2010, offered catharsis but little else.


Several years later, she was a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York when a vacation in Los Angeles generated another pile of tickets. That’s when she decided to take another stab at re-designing parking signs. Today, her design has gained national recognition and limited implementation in three major cities.


The signs themselves are simple and straight-forward. They condense complex parking schedules and regulations into an easy-to-read, color-coded grid. They have been tested in LA; Brisbane, Australia; and New Haven, CT. And they may soon be tried out in Columbus, OH.


It isn’t just the parking signs themselves that are a departure from the usual. Sylianteng’s process for creating and introducing comprehensible signage, as well as her philosophy on the best way to share information and ideas  are both remarkable.


Going Rogue


The first prototypes of her parking signs went up in Brooklyn in 2014. Sylianteng didn’t consult with city leaders or hire a team to promote her ideas. She printed up and posted a laminated version of her grid, with a marker and space for users to write in feedback, under an existing, city-approved sign.


Those prototypes revealed a few kinks, including the need to accommodate colorblind parkers. So, the color coding remained, but graphic patterns were added. Comments in the feedback space were enthusiastic and confirmed Sylianteng’s hypothesis – people were misunderstanding street signs in the same ways she did.


“Once you’ve already parked and are at that point where the parking signs have ‘holes’ in them that don’t cover the window of time you’re in, then you’re left guessing,” she says. “You’re in this limbo, and you find out only later if you did the right thing or not.”


Sylianteng’s unconventional approach attracted attention.


Her re-designs got positive feedback on the streets and in the news.


That’s because, she says, they address a need people think is impossible to fulfill.


“Parking is one of those things where there are a lot of problems and frustration, but people don’t think about it that much — that’s just the way things are.


“It makes people see things in a different light when there is such an intractable problem, and you can actually do something about it,” she says. “I am very drawn to intractable problems. This just seemed so simple. We don’t need tons of technology or to tear up the streets so that people actually know what they need to know to park.”


“In general, I am very interested in getting to the heart of big problems through small means,” Sylianteng says.


Attracting Attention


Brandy Stanley, Parking Services Manager in the city of Las Vegas Economic and Urban Development Department, says the main problem cities face in conveying parking information is getting drivers to actually read parking signs. Those who do, don’t always comprehend them, because some respond to visuals and others to language, she says.


“People don’t read signs. Anybody who’s been in parking for any amount of time is going to tell you that. The only hope you have of being effective is to develop signs that jump out at people that they can see and understand at a glance,” she says.


Stanley also notes that municipal codes are another stumbling block. If a city has adopted the U.S. Manual and Uniform Traffic Control Devices code, she says it would require a huge effort to modify that code. Yet, she was impressed enough by Sylianteng’s design to suggest that the effort would be worthwhile.


“There’s probably not a city council in the universe that wouldn’t want those signs. They’re very clear,” she says. “But it would take a champion — someone who is willing to put in the time and the effort — to get it done,” she says. “By default, people don’t read the signs, but if you get something that jumps out at them, they will read it. That’s why [Sylianteng’s design] is so intriguing.”


Dealing With the Disconnect


The problem with current signage, Sylianteng says, is the disconnect between the conceptualization of the rules and the sharing of the rules. There’s a step missing where the creators of the rules and the signage ensure that the public will comprehend them.


That’s complicated by changes in rules over time, and the confusing way that layers of signs portray the rules. Sylianteng says her signs give the user a clear answer — park or don’t park — that does not require interpretation.


“I think my signs do really well to lift the burden from the driver,” she says. “When you look at regular parking signs, you wonder, ‘How did that even get there like that?’ They don’t have to answer those questions to produce the signs. They just print the sign and put it on the pole and leave it to the driver to ask questions,” she says.


Sylianteng’s original idea for simplifying parking was to put a green or red light over every parking spot, but she quickly realized that was not a simple solution.


“People tend to want to throw money and technology at problems. Technology is great, but I think the best solutions are thoughtful ones. If they require technology, then that’s great,
but sometimes you just need to change your approach.”


Current pilot programs benefit from Sylianteng’s guidance, but she allows the cities themselves to figure out how to implement new signage. All she asks is for credit as its creator.


Challenging the Status Quo


The city of Columbus, OH, has been considering a pilot of Sylianteng’s design, but the process is slow. Amanda Ford, Parking Services Coordinator, says the city’s municipal code, which meets national Manual and Uniform Traffic Control Devices criteria, does not permit a pilot test that would be effective.


The new signs could be posted with existing signage, Ford says, but could not be posted alone, because they cannot be enforced. Conducting the pilot in that way would be counterproductive, she says.


“We want to do a pilot with these signs, to test them in a fairly confusing parking area where there are a lot of signage and a lot of restrictions,” Ford says. “We would love to take down our existing signs. We want to make them less confusing. [But] we have to follow signs standards, and because this is something very different, it requires us to take additional steps. I think there’s support for that in our community.”


The next step is to conduct “human factor testing” to see if the signs are enforceable. Once that happens, she says, the city might be able to go forward with a pilot.


“There’s a reason we have standards in place, but sometimes that gets in way of exciting new things,” Ford says.


Following the Law


While bureaucracy might inhibit innovation, legalities make it necessary to follow the system of review that is in place, says Julie Dixon, Principal at Dixon Resources Unlimited, a parking consultancy.


“The challenge is that new regulatory signage has to be enforceable,” she says. “They have to be sure – it’s not just a matter of putting up signs. ... It’s still so new, but we’ve got to try something different.”


Dixon says she has been aware of Sylianteng’s design for some time, and is hearing about it more and more. She sees it as a positive development for the parking industry, whether it is used widely or not.


“It’s very rare that we have innovation in our industry,” Dixon says. “This is an attempt. It’s a starting point. It’s got people talking.”


Making it Mainstream


At this stage, Sylianteng’s parking signs are “disruptors.” She hopes they become more mainstream — if not in practice, at least in approach. She has a few other ideas for parking, including an online parking quiz to measure drivers’ comprehension of parking rules.


They condense complex parking schedules and regulations into an easy-to-read, color-coded grid.


“My hope is that the signs create that framework that requires you to have simpler rules. Right now, it’s so complicated — anything goes,” Sylianteng says.


“But if you have to tailor the rules to the means of communicating the rules, that requires constraints. Right now, the approach is so open that the rule-making is also so open, which may not be the best thing. ...”


“When I started the project, it was really about showing how a small, thoughtful change in [one’s] mindset can make such a big difference.”


Today, a young woman who could take the parking industry by storm is happy providing support for cities that pilot her re-designed parking signs and hoping to crowdsource a revolution in parking regulations. She has a website to share her timeline, ideas and theories: http://toparkornottopark.com.


Melissa Bean Sterzick is Parking Today’s amateur parker and occasional reporter on all things parking. She can be reached at melissa@parkingtoday.com.



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