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A little more than a year ago I posted an article about designer Nikki Sylianteng’s To Park or Not to Park project, in which she undertook a guerrilla campaign to bring her reworked, demonstrably clearer versions of real parking signs to the streets of New York City. At that time, the project was already attracting tons of notice from the press; it has since continued to blossom in impressive ways. Several municipalities around the world have started to re-examine their own parking signs with the aim of emulating Sylianteng’s work, and one major city, Los Angeles, has even started pilot testing versions of her designs in its downtown area. I thought it was a good time to ask her over email about her thoughts on the project’s progress and where she hopes to take it.
Khoi Vinh: Last year this was a really interesting side project, but now these signs are becoming reality. Have you been surprised by the life this has taken on?
Nikki Sylianteng: I am surprised. Mostly because there are a lot of people who believe that cities intentionally keep parking signs confusing because it’s a huge revenue source for them. So I expected someone on the city side to have shot it down by now. So far though, from what I’ve heard at the transportation hearing in LA and other cities who’ve expressed interest, that hasn’t been the case.
So that’s a remarkable story—do I understand it correctly than an L.A. city council member just happened across your work? Did he consult you before he put it before the council?
Yes, I think they read about the project on Wired, then I got an email from his policy director asking for my permission to attach a mockup of the sign to a motion to be introduced in Council.
What was your reaction to the one hundred trial street signs based on your ideas that L.A. posted earlier this month?
It’s the first official trial so it’s pretty exciting. The sign has its limitations so I’m curious to see how it pans out and what effect it will have on parking tickets. One thing I noticed is they seem to have gone out of their way to change aspects of the design even though I’d given them templates. I wonder what the motivations are and if this will keep happening. Also, I’ve been so focused on the ordinary driver/neighborhood activist, but it’s probably time to directly address cities.
Was that a moment when you suddenly recognized new potential for the project, or had something like this always been in the back of your mind?
I think it happened a couple months before [the L.A. city council first took it up], after I did the colorblind studies which was also around the first time you picked it up for Subtraction.com. All these articles were coming out talking about how I was trying to change the system. I don’t think I was thinking that far ahead when I started but when I heard that, it made me think “Am I? Is that what I’m trying to do? Maybe it is?”
When I put the first sign up, I had just come back from L.A. where I got a US$95 parking ticket in downtown. It just so happened I was also looking for a personal project to work on at the time. Getting the ticket reminded me of an old parking sign redesign concept I did before grad school that was just sitting in my portfolio. I knew a few of my non-designer friends could really relate to it which is important to me so I thought maybe I should at least find out whether it also made sense to other people.
There is a project in France called Fabrique-Hacktion that I love. I’ve always been drawn to these types of projects so I approached this as something similar. I can’t say it was completely out of my mind though because I’ve always wanted to do a project like Deborah Adler’s ClearRx. But like I said, there’s this perception that it was highly unlikely because it goes against government interests so I’m surprised by how well it’s been received.
Is that “change the system” impulse something that’s consistent in your work, or in your life? It takes a certain gumption to take on bureaucracy in this way where you’re saying, “This is all wrong, let me show you how to do it right.”
Hah, that’s a loaded question.
Questioning the system is more like it. Especially when it goes against what you would think is common sense. It’s less about gumption and more about curiosity and an impulse to understand why things are the way they are. Why do parking signs have to be so complicated? Do cities just have other priorities? Do they even think they’re broken? Are they intentionally confusing us? I don’t pretend to know but I want to find out.
When I was younger, even if things didn’t make sense, I assumed there was a good reason for it. Some expert must have thought about this already, right? But the older I get, the more I realize that’s not always true. I’ve become very skeptical of the assumption that “that’s just the way things are”.
Okay so, maybe it’s too early to say definitively, but what’s your best guess to date for the answers to those questions? Particularly, “Are they intentionally confusing us?” I bet a lot of people suspect the answer is yes.
This may be the eternal optimist in me but so far my answer is no. You really can’t generalize.
Several cities have expressed interest in trialing the new sign and if you listened to the transportation committee hearing in LA, it wouldn’t be so easy to say yes.
I spoke to fellow frustrated driver Michael Brouillet who met with traffic engineers in Santa Monica. He said “meeting the people that actually design the parking signs we find so confusing and hearing their own frustrations of state and federal laws that tie their hands in terms of design, I felt naïve that I used to believe that they were almost intentionally trying to confuse us.”
It seems more a matter of lack of ideas, priorities, and bureaucracy than malicious intent.
What are your thoughts on Pentagram’s recent redesign of NYC’s parking signs? That is, what do you think of them aesthetically and functionally?
They look good and are probably the best they can be, considering the constraints. Functionally, I’ve heard they’re harder to read because the type seems smaller. I don’t drive here so I can’t speak from experience.
Do you think there’s any hope that these municipalities can internalize good design well enough to do this on their own, without having to hire a firm like Pentagram?
They might always need to contract it out. Is there a municipality in the world that does it well in-house? Maybe in Europe?
One thing that stands out when you compare Pentagram’s New York signs and the pilot signs that L.A. produced is that the former are fairly impressive typographically while the latter are a bit of a letdown. Is that aspect of the design important to you when you think about the success of this project?
In terms of getting qualitative feedback, it is important because it creates an emotional reaction in the person reading the sign which can affect their comprehension. I’ve read reports about some signs getting mixed reactions and I can understand why.
On a broader level, the problem with parking signs is really a systemic one. Solving it means asking questions like: How do confusing signs get in front of drivers in the first place? What makes them perform so poorly over time? And how can a new design or framework fix this? In that sense, L.A.’s pilot is pushing that conversation forward.
What are your plans for the project going forward?
I need to establish clear guidelines and next steps for cities who want to do a trial. Then it’s just a matter of seeing what happens.
Eventually though I’d like it to be self-sustaining. I’ve thought about having local reps of some sort, just like how I have my colorblind council and friendly neighborhood spies. I’ve also thought about bringing people in to help or collaborate. I have a lot of ideas from merchandise to quizzes to a Patreon to a picture book…I can see myself working on this project forever, which I love, but I’d like to work on other projects too! My goal is to do both.
More information on the project at toparkornottopark.+