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New Meaning of ‘Street Art’

Designers often pride themselves in noticing details. Appreciating even the most basic things. Professors tell us in college, “everything you do – do it to the best of your ability.” But in our careers, there can arise a project that feels monotonous or unispiring. Designers at Pentagram faced such a problem when asked to help redesign the most mundane of the everyday: street signs. Challenges like these remind us all that hard work and smart thinking can improve the urban landscape. Even a cluster of street signs can become art.

Before (left) & After (right), from @printmag
Before (left) & After (right), from @printmag

Pentagram worked with  the New York Department of Transportation to redesign the city’s parking signs. Previous signs were packed with type centered and set in all caps in various fonts and sizes. Finding parking in the city was hard enough on its own, without adding the complication of sifting through these signs.

In order to start with the most basic content, Pentagram started the redesign by setting everything in a custom Helvetica. Over the course of the project though, they found it too jarring for the city setting. They decided to use Highway, a more common DOT typeface. All of the type is (thankfully) left aligned rather than centered. 

The information overload is most striking when looking at the “before and after” shots. The improved function of the new sign relies on a strong hierarchy, which amounts to smart thinking rather than flashy design. A driver can quickly spot the hour limits, and the consistent layout makes the signs more efficient to fabricate. More than an instance of making the audience (drivers) happier, the efficient production shows a deep respect for the client as well. 

Whether working in environmental or industrial design, advertising or web layout, Pentagram’s project is a reminder for all of us. Good design at it’s core is about smart thinking. As Pentagram partner John McConnell once put it, “the creative process is paring back all the time. If you can’t defend it, get rid of it…. Usually, ‘creativity’ means showing off to your peer group, and creativity without intelligence is as dumb as it comes.” It’s not about showing off. Concept is king, and sometimes the cleanest solution can take a piece from being overworked, to almost art.

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