Killer Car Parks

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On 21 December 2012, Dr. Jaber Samir was stabbed to death at a popular shopping mall in Kuwait. The violent assault that took his life was provoked by a dispute over a parking space in the car park. The same afternoon I heard this news, I had been working on a wayfinding strategy presentation for a shopping mall in Jordan. The image above is the second slide of that presentation.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel writing about this, but I’m going to take a risk here a talk about it. My deepest sympathies go out to Dr. Samir’s family and friends and I hope some intelligent and respectful dialog may shed some light on the situation.

Obviously when I wrote items 1 and 5 in that list, I never imagined someone dying over the issue. As a designer working in wayfinding, I quantify the value of my work in user journey efficiency, customer satisfaction, user loyalty…never in human life. It’s a sobering reminder of the value and impact design has on our lives and I’m going to go out on a limb here as say that design had a place in the death of Dr. Samir.

Here’s how: Design affects our behaviour.

I’ve worked on dozens of car parks all over the world, and they are consistently the lowest point of design in a project. When I learned that the dispute between Dr. Samir and his murderer started over a parking space, my mind was flooded with images: Two men driving endlessly in a dimly lit underground wasteland. Feelings of disorientation and being lost give rise to anger and ultimately aggression. Situations like these can bring out the worst in people, and simple disagreements can escalate into something horrid.

There has been an outcry on internet communities such as KuwaitUp2Date and for increased police and security precense. This would certainly have an effect on these incidents happening, but you still have to question why they happen in the first place. I’m not saying the design of the car park drove the man to murder; there are innumerable factors leading up to this. The guy clearly had it in him to do this to someone before he ever got to the car park, but is it possible that the design of the car park lead to an experience so frustrating that it at least contributed to bringing out the worst in him.

So why do car parks have such a consistently poor experience and what does design have to do with it?

Honestly I don’t know why it happens but I think design is both the source and the solution to this problem.

I don’t design car parks (as an architect or engineer would) but as a wayfinding designer I have many times been asked to work on a car park signage programme with the brief to “fix” the car park with signs. I don’t think it would be fair for me to write a criticism of architectural design practices regarding car parks. I think that would (and should) be done by someone working in the field. I would offer this: the lack of real interest for a positive customer experience in car parks is a monument to how disconnected architects & developers have become with the people who actually use what they design.

As someone who designs wayfinding and has done a fair few car park wayfinding programmes, I will speak to the effect signs have in a car park. Certainly signage, bad signage, has contributed to many poor customer experiences in car parks. We can probably recall some experience of following exit signs around in circles for what felt like hours or roaming aisle after aisle of parked cars trying to find our own. Signage can’t “fix” a poorly design car park, but it can certainly make it worse. Conversely, I would say even though signs can’t “fix” the car park, they can also make better. I think it’s the work of wayfinding designer to really think through the customer experience and make sure that every step of the journey is positive.

With that in mind, here’s 5 things I think any good car park wayfinding sign programme should do:

  • Don’t hide the forest in the trees: Be careful with graphics on columns. Do not apply the same large scale graphic to every column. It’s better to use a heavy graphic application on “drive aisles” and lighter graphic application on “parking aisles”. This creates visual distinction which helps to orient users.
  • Buy the tech: Car park management system are becoming more advanced and affordable. These computer systems track available parking spaces, guide cars to them and help people find their car on return. These systems help monetize the car park in new ways and increase security too. This technology helps wayfinding but it’s not a substitution for it as these systems still need the hand of a skilled wayfinding designer to be applied correctly. That said, the benefits of these systems are amazing and should be a no-brainer for projects going forward.
  • Get luxurious: Give people a chance to buy their way out of the car park experience. Offer valet parking as either a permanent or temporary service during peak times. As a business, valet parking is cheap to operate, so keep the service as affordable as possible. This is also a great perk for customer loyalty programmes.
  • Car parks are not for cars: Every car that enters a car park is carrying people. One, three, six, or more pedestrians are going to emerge from the car and have to walk (or roll) their way out of the car park. If you consider this, there is actually more pedestrian traffic in the car park than vehicular. Give pedestrians a clearly marked and safe route to the nearest exit. I do mean nearest. Never offer choice in the car park, just get them out to a safe comfortable place, and then guide them to their destination.
  • Make an Exit: Do not forget that the exit route from the car park is just as important as the way in. Marketers will tell you people only remember the last thing you say, so make sure this last experience is a positive one. Direct users to specific exits (if there is a choice) with signs that are clear and visually distinguished from signs for parking. Don’t neglect the toll/payment gateway, it’s the last chance for a brand impression.

As with all things design, I think it’s better to focus on what we can improve. How the future can be shaped around an idea that is somehow more informed, inspired and a bit wiser than we are now. It’s terrible to think that horrific circumstances motivated writing this, but at same time we should never forget that everything we do (humble or grand) affects the lives of others. To anyone missing Jaber Samir, please accept my deepest condolences.