January 08, 2021

Making Space: Environmental Graphic Design Outdoors

People gather outside at a park enjoying a sunny day in Irvine, California.

The work at RSM Design thoughtfully integrates placemaking and environmental graphic design into spaces giving the visitor a sense of place and providing a moment of respite and delight.‍

Everyone needs parks and outdoor spaces now more than ever.

Environmental graphics, wayfinding signage, and public art programs give outdoor spaces a voice and make guests feel comfortable, invited, and welcomed. They let guests know that they've arrived at the right place, leading them to different destinations and activities. They tell people where trailheads are located and they can also add a sense of whimsy or delight. Differing forms of architectural graphics define a space and create exciting visual opportunities along the way. 

When you have an unexpected piece of art in an open space or poetry written in the pavement, or it could just be a simple trailhead with a directory map, it provides you with all the information you need at the right time and place. 

We’re working on new residential communities such as Rancho Mission Viejo and Terramor, for example, where residents want open space with natural walking surfaces, along with the sense of security knowing that they won’t get lost. It's really a sense of certainty.

If the paths are clear and the signage is located at the intersections of those paths, you feel more comfortable. At our design studio, we also work to place specific signs such as to look for native birds or to watch out for rattlesnakes that can provide warnings, but also ensure that people are looking for things that are beautiful.

View RSM Design's parks and outdoor spaces work

Outdoor Graphics Welcome Visitors

Great Park Neighborhoods (a housing development in Irvine, California by FivePoint) is called a “Great Park” which is visionary in thinking. The premise is that there is one great park, and then each individual park, such as Cadence Park or Pavilion Park, where the neighborhoods are built around, are also great.

Each time they build a new neighborhood they put a park in the middle. They build the model homes right on the edge so the park becomes the hub and spokes. They have cooking and painting classes, kite making, pumpkin carving and all kinds of events in these community parks.

RSM Design has completed the signage and wayfinding for all of these events as well as the permanent signage and several placemaking elements that define what different areas of the space are to be used for. It definitely connects the community in a classic, almost town square kind of way.

Defining the Outdoor Experience

Each park has a different monument and wayfinding signage system along with a unique play structure that pays careful attention to the curated park design. Whether it's the community pool area and the graphics and signage related to pools, or perhaps a garden theme park or an art walk, the environmental graphics and park signage design speak to different elements that serve the community’s particular needs.

These opportunities for experiential graphic design and public art programs relate to the essence of each parks' individual personality and bring out that character in a form that people can see and read. It gives the place a spirit that it might not have otherwise.
Cadence Park at Great Park Neighborhoods, Irvine, California

Connecting to a Living Brand

Great Park Neighborhoods is the Anti-Brand, meaning they don't really say “Great Park Neighborhoods” anywhere. They just do great parks and neighborhoods. The living brand has a breath of its own. For each of the parks, it’s a unique master signage system all across the area that is creating the identity.

What people are engaging with in those spaces is due to the different narratives that belong to each park. The signage and wayfinding design provide aesthetic cues. Each park is identified uniquely by creating fun ways to make them different from the other parks. The signage and identifiers play a unique part in that.

In contrast, there is a different approach for the Summit at Bechtel Reserve for the Boy Scouts of America. It's definitely a branded experience. Everything feels like a kit of parts that work together. Whether it's a stop sign waiting for the shuttle or a map, each piece has a related look and feel. Everything is a branded destination or experience, whether it's the skateboard park or the biking or archery area.

Summit Bechtel Reserve, Mt. Hope, WV

Engaging Elements of the Human Experience: Connect, Activate, Think, Inspire

You're on a corner in Chicago and your friend says to meet you at that big red sculpture. You're waiting, looking up at this big red sculpture and someone comes up to you. One person says, “Do you know the artist?”, and the other person says, “Yes, it's Calder.”

What’s great about these places and moments is they can be appreciated by both one or many, inviting strangers to have a conversation and connect. The art invites a place for conversations to spark, because two people that don't know each other are both looking up at this red sculpture.

It also activates the space, like a poem in the pavement. It makes you think about what the poem says. Or maybe it's an educational plaque about trees, or it might be the history of the place. You might have an educational moment or an inspirational moment to connect to one another or to connect to nature.

Monet Avenue, Rancho Cucamonga, California

An example for Inspire is when you hike to the top of a mountain or hilltop. At the top, there's a graphic that shows all of the mountains nearby and you learn the elevation of not only the one you're standing on, but the ones that you can see in the distance. You become inspired to hike a different mountain and then maybe that inspires you to climb Mount Whitney or the tallest peak in your area. You start small, and maybe you're inspired to keep going.

Activate is about the sense of discovery people get when exploring a new place. It's also about being intrigued by a place and wanting to see more of it.

When people find things that are educational or inspirational in the space, they are motivated to think more deeply or experience the place differently. Whether it's to learn more about their community, to explore or they’re activated to go somewhere new, which is pretty powerful to give to a community.

Environmental Graphics in the context of 2021…

If you can't go to a restaurant, you can't go to a cinema, you can't go to a sporting event, you can still go outside. Homes are being sold before they're built because the homes are connected to so much… acres and acres of trails and open space. And everyone wants trails and open space and land to get outside now. It allows for ease in social distancing with more space between one family group to another.

People are stressed out and frenzied, and we need to do things that not only simply inspire joy, but just allow people to breathe and exhale and feel OK wherever they are. I think this whole idea of breathing in the outdoors is important and healthy. But you're asked to wear a mask and it feels counter to what you're wanting to do. So we need to provide visual ways to let people just exhale. I don't know how we're going to do that, but we'll figure it out. Or maybe that's just me holding my breath.

Suzanne Redmond Schwartz is a founding partner and principal at RSM Design. Her world class experience has transformed projects from Saudi Arabia to Southern California, earning accolades and positioning RSM Design as a global leader in architectural graphic design. Suzanne manages and inspires the RSM Design team with her infectious enthusiasm for connecting people to place. 

Read more about Suzanne and connect with her here

Images used in article by Tsutsumida Pictures, Jonnu Singleton, Allison Richter and Boy Scouts of America

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