An Interview With Designer Nikki Sylianteng, Potential Savior of L.A.'s Parking Signs
One of the most frustrating aspects of life in L.A. has to be untangling the increasingly indecipherable parking signs all over the city. With the signs reaching ludicrous heights (quite literally), the city is starting to tackle the problem.
As a first step, the City Council’s Transportation Committee, led by Councilman Paul Krekorian, voted to test a simpler, more visual design over 45 days starting earlier this month. After the pilot, the LADOT will report back on the feasibility of implementing the new parking signs throughout the city.
The motion included a sample sign created by Brooklyn-based freelance interaction designer Nikki Sylianteng, which went viral several months ago. While the motion says it will test a sign similar to Sylianteng’s design, we chatted with the designer about her work, and the parking ticket that inspired it.
What inspired you to rethink parking signage?
I live in New York, but from 2005 to 2011 I lived in L.A. and that’s where my frustration came from. [In 2010] I was applying to grad school at SVA [School of Visual Arts] for its interaction design program. This was one of the projects I did [for my portfolio]. I took a look at the things that frustrated me and asked why it was so complicated.
I graduated in 2013 and was visiting Los Angeles. I was downtown and parked and wound up getting a ticket for $95. It reminded me of the project and it was already posted on my web site. When I got back to New York, I prototyped it and wanted to see what people thought of it, so I printed a sample, laminated it, and asked for feedback with sharpie marker. I put it on a parking sign outside my window in Brooklyn and asked people what they thought of it
How did it go viral?
I put together a project page with a photo of the design at oparkornottopark.com. It featured the redesigned parking sign and asked for people to sign up to offer feedback. I tweeted it out and then someone from Business Insider contacted me asking if they could put it on their web site. From there, The Atlantic got ahold of it, and it was published in The Atlantic magazine. Wired and Gizmodo picked it up too.
When it was published by Wired more people heard about it and there was a lot more interest from different cities. I started getting emails from traffic engineers in Vancouver and other cities that wanted to do a pilot test and wanted to know how to go about doing that. I was also contacted by the policy director at Paul Krekorian’s office. He said they were interested in having the LADOT review the signs and adopt it for use and asked for permission to use it as a demo. They wanted to call upon the DOT to review it and report on its potential.
Were there other prototypes?
No, that was the first design. I had never did anything like that before. I think what helps the virality is that I am working in public. I have the blog, a web site, people can follow it and have a behind-the-scene look. They can see how its developing and the thinking behind it.
Were there other designers or initiatives that inspired you?
Another SVA grad, Deborah Adler, who redesigned prescription bottles, was an inspiration.
What about Pentagram’s redesign of New York’s parking signs?
I think they had to comply with a lot of existing rules – they had to work within those rules. I’m in a different position. I’m working on it as an experiment so I’m free to make some executive decisions. I have the freedom to ask "what if?" If you are directly working with a client, you’re not as free to do that.
Are there any issues around copyright?
I’m still trying to navigate that part of it. I don’t know yet. To me, it’s very simple. If people want it, then taxpayer money should go towards it. But I don’t know how that works in the real world. I’m talking to people to find out.
Do you have any concern about the level of visual literacy needed to read your signs?
One thing that has been pointed out is that this design would be friendly to people who don’t speak English. But one piece of criticism I’ve gotten is that the numbers are too small. With text you can read it from afar. When I designed it, I used myself as the use case and how I go about parking. It’s so hard to find a spot, you take the first one you see, then get out and confirm that you can park there. That’s the reason for the way it looks. I’m curious to hear what from the traffic engineers at LA DOT – what their thoughts are on it.
Any plans to return to LA or work with the city of L.A.?
I’m not sure what their plans are or what my involvement will be. I need to catch up with the staff member, but it largely depends on what the findings are.
What do you hope the outcome of this project is?
The best-case scenario is that it will be adopted by cities. It’s important to note that the signs are not a direct translation of the current signs. One reason the parking signs are so confusing is that the rules are complicated. If we want simpler signage, then we need to simplify the rules. That’s what I’m doing with the signs.
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