What Is Environmental Graphic Design?
Environmental design is a field without borders, and is therefore commonly misunderstood. As a multidisciplinary profession merging so many different fields, it’s easy to understand how anyone not directly involved would get confused. That lack of clear definition, however, is arguably one of the profession’s strengths. As we go through its history and spectrum of design disciplines, we’ll try to plainly answer the question on most people’s minds: “What is it?”
What It Isn’t — Common Misconceptions
Before we dive into the blurring boundaries and overlap of disciplines, let’s start with a few common misconceptions. Over the past couple weeks I did some research and on-the-spot interviews, asking folks what they thought “environmental graphic design” meant, to help determine where people are experiencing a disconnect.
Here are the most common responses to my question:
- Environmental = Green — using recycled or “green” materials, focusing on sustainability or your environmental footprint.
- Designing or improving the natural environment; confusion with landscape architecture or environmental engineering.
- Hippies. Earth-loving hippies.
Clearly the most widely misunderstood aspect of environmental design is that it is often mistakenly associated with sustainability and the recent “green” movement. While it’s important to consider sustainable materials and be environmentally responsible regarding our design practices, the word environmental bears no relationship to the natural environment. Using the term “environmental graphic design” is a way to distinguish the practice from that of “conventional graphic design”, or rather designing in the three-dimensional environment as opposed to a two-dimensional medium such as printed paper or the screen.
In talking about three-dimensions don’t confuse it with package design either — while packaging is three-dimensional design as well, we’re talking about the built environment.
What is Environmental Graphic Design?
Along with the lack of clear definition and boundaries, part of the confusion stems from the many different terms used to describe what we do. Environmental graphics, architectural graphics, wayfinding, signage, and supergraphics are just a few of the terms that have been used the history of our profession. Anymore the term “environmental graphic design” is the most widely used by industry professionals.
Let’s take a look at how others describe what we do, first from SEGD, the Society for Environmental Graphic Design:
Environmental Graphic Design embraces many design disciplines including graphic, architectural, interior, landscape, and industrial design, all concerned with the visual aspects of wayfinding, communicating identity and information, and shaping the idea of place.
Some common examples of work by EGD practitioners include wayfinding systems, architectural graphics, signage, exhibit design, identity graphics, dynamic environments, civic design, pictogram design, retail and store design, mapping, and themed environments.
Next, Wikipedia’s definition:
Environmental graphic design (EGD for short) is a design profession embracing many design disciplines including graphic design, architecture, industrial design and landscape architecture. Practitioners in this field are concerned with the visual aspects of wayfinding, communicating identity and brands, information design, and shaping a sense of place. Some examples of work produced by environmental graphic designers include the design and planning of sign programs, wayfinding consulting, exhibit and interpretive design, entertainment environments, retail design, information design including maps, as well as memorial and donor recognition programs.
Simply put, we tell stories or communicate messages and information through the built environment. We take complicated information and make it simple and easy to understand (like many designers do), only we do so in three-dimensional environments such as cities, mass transit systems, museums, business and medical complexes or retail stores.
The (Considerably Brief) History of Environmental Graphic Design
Unfortunately we don’t have the time or the space to discuss the complete history of environmental design — doing so would have to include the history of man and civilization! As with most art we could trace our history back to the petroglyphs and pictographs of early man, but for the sake of simplicity let’s start with the early 1900s.
Art and design were shifting dramatically at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Art Nouveau movement was in its waning years, paving the way for Arts and Crafts and more modern art movements. Up until now design had been developing in parallel to architecture, skirting each other but rarely interacting much. Finally in 1899, architect Hector Guimard designed the station entrances for Paris’ new metro system, to be opened during the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle world’s fair. Not only were the structures a marvel of Art Nouveau architecture, but they successfully integrated the “Metropolitain” lettering into the architecture, becoming one of the earliest, most widely recognized and documented examples of environmental graphic design.
Design and architecture continued to evolve through the early 20th Century, being affected by pre– and post-WWI years as well as the Bauhaus. Artists and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudi, Herbert Bayer and Ray and Charles Eames rose to prominence during the next 30 years. In the post-war economic boom of the 50s and 60s design and architecture merged further as architectural spaces grew in size and complexity. Hybrid commercial and transportation spaces required more attention to signage design and navigation systems. By the 1970s the term “environmental graphic design” came to be used to describe the close relationship between architecture and communication design, followed by the formation of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design in direct response to the growth of the profession.
Fast-forward a few decades and you’ll realize the impact. Environmental graphic design is everywhere, especially where you don’t realize it. Every new building built needs a sign system, every new train station needs maps and wayfinding programs, museums need to communicate massive amounts of information to a wide demographic, and retail stores need to be heavily branded. For a relatively new field, we’ve come a long way in the past 50 years!
For a fascinating and thorough rundown of the history of our profession, be sure to check out Craig Berger’s fantastic Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems.
The Environmental Graphic Design Arena(s)
Environmental graphic design activity has been broken out into three distinct (but overlapping) arenas, as identified by Wayne Hunt of Hunt Design Associates in Pasadena. They are:
1. Signage & Wayfinding
Signage and wayfinding programs communicate site and navigational information to a viewer. Signage helps to identify and brand a specific place, and when used as part of a larger wayfinding program helps people to determine orientation and navigate a complex environment.
Interpretive environments tell a story or communicates an idea or theme. Most often recognized as exhibit design, it also includes projects such as historical sites or donor recognition programs.
Placemaking takes a more conceptual approach in that it involves designing a distinctive image for a site. It typically focuses less on communicating information and more on a site’s branding, architecture and interior design, among other things.
The Importance of Environmental Graphic Design
If you’ve ever successfully navigated a new city, arrived at the correct airport terminal or learned something new at the museum, then you’ve already demonstrated the importance of environmental design. In fact, good environmental graphic design is a good example in communicating the value and importance of design in general. Environmental design plays an often overlooked but rarely disputed key role in how people interact with and experience the built environment.
As the field of environmental graphic design has grown and matured, its value and demand has increased as well. Well designed signage is recognized as a key contributor to increased well-being and safety. Those outside the field have come to appreciate environmental design’s role in demystifying complex environments and enhancing their aesthetic qualities, allowing visitors a more positive and enjoyable experience.
Where the Field Is Headed
We’ve touched on where the field has come from and how it’s grown in the past 50 years or so, but where is environmental design headed? There is definitely a shift towards LEED certification and sustainable materials, as well as a greater demand for all things digital. More and more firms are offering full service experiences with digital signage and interactive design to answer that demand.
Where do you think the environmental graphic design field is headed? How do you think it will change in the next 5–10 years, and how will you or your firm prepare for those changes?