Last year, I did a photographic exploration of parking signs around Fremont and Queen Anne. My aim was to create a typology of something that is so incredibly common in our day-to-day life, but to find the unique ways humans have added their mark to the signs. The end result was a collection of images that was unified as a collection but contained remarkably unique individual images. I recently stumbled back across these photos and found that they were actually an interesting look into the information we need – or don’t need – as drivers.
We have been conditioned as humans to accept that red means stop, yellow means caution and green means go. This conditioning is evident in these parking signs – as the color of the sign or type is the first read, and the words themselves are the second read. That’s a great thing for signs that are almost completely covered in stickers and graffiti – because the information isn’t totally lost. Of course, it’s important for a driver to be able to identify the specific parking regulations on a sign, but if that’s inaccessible, a quick examination of the color may be all they need to determine if they should just keep driving, or actually try to disseminate the information further. Even if a sign wasn’t covered in stickers, the color codification is still critical to the ease of use of the signs. While driving, it would be unsafe to read every single sign, so a quick glance is all we can safely give until we’ve slowed down. Parking signs, then, have become a system that we don’t notice anymore because they’re so ingrained into our lives.
Compared to other cities I’ve visited, Seattle actually has relatively simple parking regulations. Sometimes color codification isn’t really going to be that helpful because there’s just a total deluge of information – information that HAS to be conveyed explicitly (not just generally like a color system does). The question, then, is if it has to be conveyed through type. Tradition and existing systems would say yes. After all, it’s how we’ve always done it. But is it truly effective – especially for signs that are as complicated as this?
Last year, a design started floating around the Internet asking this same question. Designer Nikki Sylianteng decided to see if she could find a better way to organize the information in all of these separate signs and created a project called To Park or Not to Park. The basic premise of the redesign was to use colorblocking rather than excessive text to inform drivers if it was acceptable to park at a given time or not – which could potentially require a single glance instead of reading multiple signs (that were each incredibly specific). All drivers want to know is if they can park or not – not necessarily why or why not.
The whole project and Sylianteng’s thinking process is outlined on her website (toparkornottopark.com), and it’s incredibly fascinating to read through the feedback she’s received and her ideation process.
One question that I’ve pondered since discovering this project is if changing a familiar system to one that is seemingly better (more organized, easier to understand, etc.) is actually more problematic than just having a slightly less cogent system in place. Take the parking signs covered in stickers from Seattle. If we can still understand the information conveyed even without the bulk of the information actually visible – is that a system that is too widespread/familiar to be worth changing? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question (and I’d argue that it depends greatly from system to system), but it’s definitely important to think about.