Los Angeles’ new parking signs – how readable are they?

No thinking person would argue that LA’s multiple parking signs; stacked totem pole style, were anything but a cruel joke on drivers and a boon for the city. For me, they never failed as hilarious teaching examples of high barrier, hard to read and use consumer information.

But LA’s new signs have left me feeling that my acquired aversion to areas prone to earth shaking remains, well….somewhat justified.

OLD                                                                      NEW

old LA parking signs

New LA Signs








Applaud the designers who took this task on. And let me say right here that I haven’t thought through a better design solution.

What I can do is analyze for readability. So here’s my analysis.

The design approach taken was to try to eliminate as many words and numbers as possible. So gone are the riddle like, “No parking between 6AM and 12 PM Monday/Thursdays.”  That’s probably a good approach even though on-the-street interviews with parkers in NYC revealed that most have learned how to interpret the grammar of city parking signs.

The signs have a deceptively simple look that may still be hard to read and use.


The new LA signs have swapped out the old language of words and numbers with  a new language of squares, colors and representations of days and times that may be equally hard to decode.

Here’s how I analyze the readability of the new signs:

1. Time:              The time of day now runs from top of sign and is connected by dots.

But, usually we represent time in numbers or spatially running from left to right as on a timeline. 12 AM appear both at the top of the sign and the bottom. That makes for a strange looking clock.

2. Days:               The days of the week are abbreviated across the top of the sign.

But, universal calendar grammar displays 7 days to the week. The less versatile reader can easily conclude that the sign is referring to 3 days of the week, not all 7. (We are somewhat more used to seeing weekends combined)

3. Legend:         The sign has a legend at the bottom displaying 5 distinct icons for: parking/no parking /no stopping/tow-away/passenger loading.

But, from a wealth of map reading studies we know that legends are often    overlooked or misinterpreted by many. I for one, haven’t figured out what     the arrows below the icon legends signify!

For me, the most complicated element of the maps is the thing that even Wired Magazine, calls “brilliantly simple”. It’s what I call the “color conceit”.  The belief that adding color to a design makes things easier. Many times true. Here, not so much.

4. Colors:            The colors green and red – are universally (at least in the US) signifiers of stop-go; ok- not ok. So that’s not the problem. The colors are a good signal to the reader. Easily decodable.

The problem is that the sign is really asking color to do the heavy lifting – to make the signs readable and interpretable. But color can’t win the day.

A simple task analysis reveals that the new signs are still asking the reader to do a number of different and not so easy tasks:

  1. orient to the time of day and understand the intervals. (Yes you could start with the day of the week, then move through time of day, etc.)
  2. then locate the day of the week you are inquiring about
  3. move down the sign to the point at which time and day meet
  4. then decode the color to determine if parking is allowed.
  5. successfully decode what the white outlined blocks of time – 2h, 30 min – are doing . While the linguistic information gives a specific amount of time -2h, 30 min, – the block itself can run from 8AM to 8PM – 12 hours.   The reader needs to know, or figure out (while they’re standing there) that this means you can park any 2 hours within the time frame.

Full disclosure – I don’t have many alternative solutions besides the ones I would tackle above, and….well, no one is asking.

So – fear of being caught in a CA earthquake, or fear of getting a parking ticket on an LA street? Tough choices.





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