A Q & A on parking signs with Michael Bierut of Pentagram, an international graphic design firm. Bierut led the team that redesigned parking signs in New York.

What prompted the redesign of the signs in New York?

The NYC Department of Transportation has done a whole series of projects to make the streets safer and better for New Yorkers. We had been working with them on several other initiatives. They were already under way on a sign simplification program and had come to the point where they decided to involve graphic designers.

How many words maximum should be contained on a parking sign in order for the average driver to understand it?

Understanding has less to do with the overall number of words and more to do with what the words say. Are they all necessary? Do they communicate clearly? Does the hierarchy of information make sense? In short, the same issues that will come up if you’re doing a magazine page or a website.

Do multiple colors and font sizes make for an understandable sign?

In signs, the rule is to use the minimum number of variables to communicate the message. What font? What size? Bold or light? Upper and lower case or all capitals? What color? What position on the sign? Each decision is a chance to control the emphasis. If you use too many at once, people can’t tell what’s important.

What was your goal in redesigning the signs in Manhattan?

Obviously, the goal was to make them easier to read. The strategy that the NYC DOT used was to look at the signs from the point of view of the driver, rather than the city government. It seems obvious, but it’s not.

What made you decide on two colors and no more than 140 characters?

It was all part of the strategy of reducing the number variables.

I’m attaching a sample of a Philadelphia parking sign. What would you change to improve the design?

I have nothing against serif typography, but reversing it out of blue and red makes it really hard to read. Also, I find that it’s easy to miss the arrows, which are pretty important.

Philadelphia is interesting, particular Center City, because it has so many colorful signs that are directed to tourists. These should probably considered not just on their own, but as part of the larger ensemble.

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Bruce Schaller, New York’s Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning, reviews sign variations. (Pentagram photo)