Thoughtful Design: The Power of Naive Optimism

I hope that I am raising my three children to be inquisitive, innovative thinkers (and also good humans!). Design thinking was not a capital-T Thing when I was growing up. Neither was data visualization. However, the ability to recognize opportunities and apply your talents— or, more generally from a different perspective, identify problems and devise solutions — is an invaluable life skill. The intersection of curiosity and passion for innovation is one that leads to positive change. It’s critical to remember that lesson, perhaps now more so than ever before in our lifetimes.

“Just as one infectious agent can spread throughout the network from a single point, so too can one solution.” — Gaia Vince, Nautilus

To that end, I am always on the lookout for instructive examples in the real world, of ordinary folks applying their ingenuity to pervasive societal frustrations. Nikki Sylianteng’s To Park or Not To Park project is a classic that exemplifies best practice of both design thinking and data visualization in real life.

I was introduced to Nikki in 2015 while watching a webinar of her Gel conference talk. Her “Guerilla Parking Sign Redesign Project” is well documented and has garnered significant media attention. What began as simple frustration over a $95 parking ticket (who among us has not experienced this?) in Los Angeles has expanded to 10 cities globally. By the end of 2020, six years after the project took root, Los Angeles says it will complete installation of parking signs inspired by Nikki’s visualization. Data visualization and design thinking as a vehicle for community improvement — bravo! So let’s deconstruct this effort.

Parking restriction “totem pole” in Culver City, CA, sourced from Twitter

For starters, Nikki was proactive enough to recognize the potential for a solution sourced from the experience of her own day-to-day life: she was repeatedly frustrated by (and ticketed for) misunderstanding confusing parking signage in Los Angeles. She noticed a similar problem when she moved to New York City.

As she set out to articulate her problem, she framed her goals so as to answer two questions, assuming the mindset of the driver:

(1) Can I, the driver, park here? And (2) for how long?

Next, she set about collecting data by studying the information display on the existing signs to develop an initial prototype. She synthesized the unstructured data from her exploration by designing a grid visualization with a clear “red-means-no,” and “green-means-yes” heuristic. Nikki laminated that initial graphic and — voila! — she had a low-cost prototype. Nikki credited her approach as heavily driven by a research mentality, optimized for learning and information mining.

“A lot of people could look at this as a design project, but the way I was approaching it was as research. My artifacts were designs, but they reflected what I was visualizing in my head. I used the design to ask the question.”

Photo courtesy of To Park or Not to Park and Nikki Sylianteng

Following that, she sourced community feedback by posting trial signs as experiments under existing parking signage inviting feedback with comment boxes and attached Sharpie markers. Initially, she picked locations she could observe from her home to try to validate the idea. When the original wave of positive comments started coming in (“The Mayor should hire you.”), she put up a simple online landing page, and the surge was on. This landing page caught the attention of Business Insider. They wrote a piece, followed by the Atlantic and other major outlets such as Wired and Fast Company.

Nikki was buoyed by the rush of support. “It was a domino effect. I put up a landing page to reflect what a few people had written on the signs to crowdsource more feedback and from different cities. It was from that landing page shared on Facebook and Twitter that I got this inquiry from Business Insider. The project was covered by all the major publications and that’s how cities started to get wind of it. Someone on their staff would hear about it from a family member or something and they would pass it around in the office.”

Subsequent prototypes incorporated the suggestions provided in these comment boxes. During concept development, it can sometimes be overwhelming to scope stakeholder research and figure out the most effective (and efficient) way to integrate the varied base of user feedback. Nikki’s approach was to conduct just enough research to prototype. Ultimately, she revised her design five times:

Photo courtesy of To Park or Not to Park and Nikki Sylianteng

“Nobody had thought to question it.”

It’s particularly interesting that Nikki conducted this experiment working in the open. She enlisted the public to help her test her prototypes. With an eye on transparency, she diligently shared the feedback she received and her interpretations of it widely on social media and online. The landing page soon became a full website. Accessibility improved when people experiencing color blindness became involved — Nikki formed a colorblind council. Subsequently, she received input from all sorts of community members — many voices who would otherwise have been left out — including traffic court judges, parking enforcement officers, and city engineers. Shifting her design framework from the perspective of enforcing the rules to that of a citizen trying to interpret the rules and prioritizing diverse community participation resulted in a more successful design. Amidst this shift, Nikki exercised a participatory mindset and signaled a generative approach: that she recognized the expertise represented in the community and that hers was, at this point, the role of facilitator. “I thought, ‘First, let’s find out what people think’ … and people felt involved, like they could contribute. Everyone has their own specific experience with frustrating parking. It’s so ubiquitous and so small that people usually think of something like that as, ‘that’s just how it is.’ Nobody had thought to question it. I was expecting traffic engineers to explain to me all the reasons why the signs wouldn’t work and at least then I would have understood. There was a parking sign manufacturer in Brooklyn that told me that this was the most research that had ever been done on parking signs. There had been readability testing, but there’d been no usability research done on it before.”

Toolkit photo courtesy of To Park or Not to Park and Nikki Sylianteng

She could have stopped there. After all, she already had a functional prototype. But as any designer can tell you, a critical chunk of the process happens not before, but rather after the first set of prototypes. As cities began to express interest, Nikki took two additional steps: she painstakingly followed up with contacts to track the status of implementation. (You can study the process and progress of each city here.) She also developed a toolkit that includes sign templates and instructions for use by citizens and municipalities interested in testing the approach in their own communities. And, with another nod to accessibility, she set a variable “name a fair price” fee for use of it.

Pilot tracking photo courtesy of To Park or Not to Park and Nikki Sylianteng

The nature of a civic project like this is that it can actually expose systemic breakdowns. Simplified design and powerful data visualization can take things only so far. In this case, simpler signage requires a foundation of simpler rules. Interestingly, a New York City parking judge explained to Nikki that complex signage was in place to help ration scarce resources: free or low-cost metered parking spaces. The alternative meant more expensive metering, thus less accessibility. The tangible scarcity — parking spots — was prioritized over the intangible one: citizens’ time and the quality of their experience.

In her role representing everyday commuters and drivers, Nikki says she “optimized for clarity whenever the rules were ambiguous, resulting in a tighter interpretation of the rules in her visualization.” Throughout her project, Nikki noted a qualitative insight that placed residents at odds with the city. Citizens frequently assumed that parking signs were designed to trick them and thus generate revenue for the city. She commonly encountered skepticism that cities were, in fact, disincentivized from investing in improvements that could decrease this revenue source. Consider the impact of this assumption on a city’s brand. The lack of consideration for citizen experience and the inability to prioritize quality experiences help to explain the finding in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer that, “In a majority of markets, less than half of the mass population trust their institutions to do what is right.”

In Brisbane, however, one of the cities that most efficiently adopted her design, three key factors helped to set them up for success:

  1. Parking infractions contributed less than one percent to their annual budget.
  2. There is only one Council and thus one budget and, presumably less bureaucracy.
  3. The project was framed as an improvement in parking regulation compliance, reflecting the perspective of the government, as opposed to a cost savings for drivers. The pilot team wisely keyed in on what mattered most to the government as a stakeholder in order to gain administrative approval. Incidentally, Brisbane’s trial resulted in an up to 60 percent increase in parking restriction compliance and 63 percent of motorists requested installation of this supplemental signage in other complex areas.

To Park or Not to Park was an act of generosity; one person’s contribution to an easier civic experience. Nikki dedicated significant time. She followed up. She brought people along with her who continued to share updates representing their experiences in their geographies. She developed tools and a shared language to put citizens on a level playing field.

Yes, this was a passion project, but Nikki used this opportunity to apply her skills and best practice generative research processes, approaching it with the same diligence of any professional in other fields. This contribution to her portfolio was a boon to her graduate school applications as well. Nowadays, the types of inquiries she receives come from textbook authors and people like me who want to document it as a case study. It’s worth noting that, for those of us working in professions like design thinking, data visualization or systems/service design, a project like this can tangibly illustrate the value of our fields to a broad range of audiences.

I admire the generosity and optimism that drove this project and the reach of its impact. In qualitative research, we use a technique called “Appreciative Inquiry,” which revolves around positively examining what’s going right in a given situation, rather than the void of what isn’t. Keith Storace and Ann Hilbig use a similar technique for community development called “Appreciative Community Building.” They focus on helping communities identify their assets to inform solutions. This approach demands optimism. Nikki Sylianteng brought boundless optimism to her guerilla parking project. She ended that 2015 Gel talk with a quote that I often consider. In it, Jon Kolko, the founder of the Austin Center for Design, describes his experience with students:

“Over the course of the program, they see that they can design things, and these things can cause the world to change. This view is naively optimistic, but in that optimism comes power, and in the naivety comes action.

I am optimistic that our communities will continue collaborating to solve other major civic issues of our time. In a zeitgeist inextricably tied to the COVID-19 crisis, I’m excited to see that same data-driven design thinking and optimism help find a cure, and I’m very much looking forward to the day when my primary anxiety once again is just finding a parking space.

For 20 years, Mary Aviles has stewarded projects driving strategy and content, human experience, concept development, and systems change. A graduate of the University of Michigan, her work has spanned the business-to-business, health care, and nonprofit sectors. Mary is a mixed-method UX researcher at Detroit Labs and the managing editor of Nightingale. She writes about dataviz in real life (IRL) in an effort to help practitioners and “non-data” people enjoy better understanding and experiences in their shared ecosystems.