This graphic is trash
My superfluous critique of New York’s messy street cleaning signage reminds us that images with ambiguous meanings can (literally) be costly
The following criticism is a bit personal — I have received numerous parking tickets as a resident of New York. Despite recent efforts to improve the clarity of the parking signage, I feel that New York City’s confusing graphics are still in need of a cleanup.
In the image below, we see an example of NYC’s Street-Cleaning (Alternate Side Parking) signage.
THE SIGN INCLUDES:
- A graphic
- A time-frame
- Day(s) of the week
- An arrow that indicates the direction(s) of the restriction
The sign is meant to communicate that parking is not permitted to the left on Tuesday mornings between the hours of 8:00 am and 10:00 am due to street cleaning.
The words “No parking” do not appear on the sign. The graphic (1) is crucial to the sign’s messaging and it takes up approximately 50% of the available space. Failure to interpret this graphic correctly can result in a hefty fine.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH NY’S STREET CLEANING PARKING REGULATION GRAPHIC?
- Excessive modification of established symbols
- Dated elements
- Illegible from a distance
- Irrelevant information prioritized
Allow me to explain…
Excessive modification of established symbols
You have probably seen the “General Prohibition Sign” before.
When the General Prohibition Sign is used in conjunction with a pictogram, it is meant to communicate that something is not permitted.
Although it does NOT appear on the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Road Signs You Must Know exam, the General Prohibition Sign overlapping the capital letter “P” is generally intended to indicate that Parking is not permitted.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
If the diagonal line of the General Prohibition Sign is incomplete, is the symbol still easily recognizable a General Prohibition Sign? The answer is no.
Numerous street signs utilize the General Prohibition Sign with a completed diagonal line. Why would a citizen be expected to understand that the street-cleaning sign is an exception to this rule?
If the diagonal line of the General Prohibition Sign is incomplete AND we morph the diagonal line into a push broom, is the symbol still easily recognizable a General Prohibition Sign? The answer is DEFINITELY NOT.
This modification of this established symbol causes the intended message to become muddied.
When designing, it is generally considered a best practice to utilize graphics that are timeless. New York City’s Street-Cleaning signage includes a push broom which is intended to indicate that the streets will be swept.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
In 2017, Bill Gross tweeted a joke about a child who mistakenly believes that an old floppy disk is a 3D-print of the “Save” icon.
For the sake of this post, I’ll explain the joke. Today, there are still some applications that utilize a floppy disk icon to indicate “save”. Most children have never used a floppy disk and don’t necessarily associate this obsolete hardware with the act of saving a file.
Although there was a time when people literally swept the city streets with a push broom, this is no longer the case. A broom likely doesn’t offer a clear connection to the actual Street Sweeper used in modern-day New York.
Use of a design element that is too closely linked to specific time period or object can cause a graphic to lose its effectiveness as time goes on.
Illegible from a distance
Graphics are intended to be effective when they are printed large or small. A design should be “readable” from a distance. New York City’s Street-Cleaning signage (sometimes) contains a push broom element with detailed bristles.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
We have to consider the way that the graphic will be viewed.
The graphic will appear on signage that is relevant to drivers who will be viewing the content while in a moving vehicle.
Have you ever tried to stand still on a crowded New York City sidewalk? If so, you’ve likely heard some rude comments or frustrated grunting. We should be able to interpret this element of the graphic quickly, but the broom’s bristles aren’t easy to see from a distance or while moving at a brisk speed.
How far out of focus can an image be and still be recognized? A [logo] which is subject to an infinite number of uses, abuses, and variations… cannot survive unless it is designed with utmost simplicity and restraint.”
— Paul Rand, A Designer’s Art.
Jim Nielsen put Paul Rand’s theory to the test with his Logo Integrity in Focus study, in which viewers are challenged to identify logos that have undergone varied levels of Gaussian blur. Although the graphic in question is not technically a logo, this principle still applies.
When a blur is applied, the graphic is increasingly difficult to interpret. At a glance, the graphic could even be misinterpreted for another symbol.
Graphics that rely on detailed elements which can only be seen up close are less likely deliver their intended message. Designers must also consider how their graphics will be viewed.
Irrelevant information prioritized
More often than not, the space a graphic occupies is limited. A designer should prioritize elements carefully to maximize effectiveness within the available space. New York City’s Street-Cleaning signage is guilty of wasting space.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
In the upper-curve of the circle (I’m no longer going to refer to it as a ‘General Prohibition Sign’), New York has included some text. Perhaps they’ve used this opportunity to offer some clarification as to what the graphic means?
No, of course not. Instead, they’ve used the space to communicate a separate message that citizens shouldn’t litter. Again, I would like to remind you that the words “No parking” do not appear on the sign.
So… No littering between 8:00 am and 11:00 am? OK, fine!
I’ve already spent a lot of time expounding on the problematic incorporation of a push broom into the graphic. Perhaps the biggest sin of the broom’s inclusion is that it is mostly irrelevant! Sure, the sign is intended to communicate that there is no parking due to street cleaning. Who cares?! In reality, it doesn’t really matter WHY there is a restriction— The primary purpose is to communicate the parking rules.
The space available in the graphic could be utilized more effectively. Frankly, the more widely-used General Prohibition Sign overlapping the capital letter “P” would communicate the “no parking” message with better clarity.
In case you haven’t figured it out — I’ve been having a bit of fun with this post. Obviously, it won’t take long for people to figure out the intended meaning of the graphic that I’ve picked apart in this post. But as a person with a background in design, I feel a bit surprised that the greatest city in the world uses such a poorly-designed graphic.
Feel free to share this post the next time you challenge a parking ticket in NYC— Although I doubt it will do much good.