Architectural Graphic Design
Design as a bridge
Architecture speaks of space, form, place, and function while integrated Architectural Graphic Design communicates a building’s function, purpose, message, and narrative. Effective and appropriate Architectural Graphic Design supports the statement made by a building and strengthens its presence. The architectural graphics layered into the conversation derive from the built context, spatial context, cultural context, and historical context. They are not independent nor superficial. The Architectural Graphic Design layer has meaning, form, function, and purpose… similar to the architecture.
The inclusion of the Architectural Graphics creates a strong sense of place, fulfills human needs, helps users find their way, and communicates a building’s narrative, fostering a strong conversation between the person and place.
On the Origins of Architectural Graphics
Graphics have always been an inherent part of architecture, making the language of patterns, words, signage, and narratives as much of a part of the community as the buildings themselves. Almost every documented culture used words, symbols, or patterns in their environments—and we’re still doing it today, taking old techniques to new levels. Taking a look back, as we create environments for the future, is fascinating and inspiring, which is why we are publishing a series of articles that take an in-depth look at the relationship of graphics and architecture. First, we’re starting with the origins, exploring how typography, patterns, and culture have helped create the architectural identity of buildings for centuries.
Architectural graphics have very deep roots.
But when exactly was it that we started using words, symbols, and patterns to create an environment? The short answer: from the start.
Graphics have always been an inherent part of architecture, making the language of patterns, words, signage, and narratives as much of a part of the community as the buildings themselves. Almost every documented culture used words, symbols, or patterns in their environments—and we’re still doing it today, taking old techniques to new levels.
Taking a look back, as we create environments for the future, is fascinating and inspiring, which is why we are publishing a series of articles that take an in-depth look at the relationship of graphics and architecture. First, we’re starting with the origins, exploring how typography, patterns, and culture have helped create the architectural identity of buildings for centuries.
Graphic Design Connections to Architecture
In the Beginning
For centuries, architecture and graphic design have coexisted in the built environment, although each discipline has its own unique language. If you combine and meld them, they create a whole new vocabulary that can give a building its unique identity.
Let’s go all the way back to hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics used graphic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements to create characters and tell stories. However, these did not just act as storytelling—they also gave structures cultural identities that are still being studied today.
While the centuries, uses, and structures have changed, we’re still seeing the same relationship between graphics and architecture. Classical inscriptions, figurative murals, and ornamental surfaces have all evolved over time to reflect the social and cultural climate of each changing era, becoming part of our visual heritage.
Arch of Titus
Over the decades, these depictions evolved to reflect the social and cultural climate of each changing era, becoming part of our visual heritage. You can take a walk through any city and see graphic elements in architecture almost everywhere. Think of a city hall, or maybe your town’s library. While your city hall may not have the intricate carvings like the ones seen on the Arch of Titus in Rome, it may have similar carved inscriptions letting you know that it is a city hall.
The Arch of Titus itself is an example of graphics evolving to reflect changing times. It was restored in 1821, and the restorations included new carvings to reflect the current religious landscape, which were made in travertine limestone to differentiate between the old and the new.
What’s changed as times changed?
Nothing and everything
Through all of the world’s political, religious, and industrial revolutions, the use of architectural graphics hasn’t just continued—it has flourished and grown into a critical component of how society engages with architecture. Today, we are still using graphics in architecture to convey language and meaning through both two- and three-dimensional design. Architectural graphics woven into the environment solidify narratives, culture, and history, and build a sense of community.
1939 World’s Fair
The combination of graphics and architecture is what most inspired environmental graphic design pioneer Deborah Sussman. Sussman vividly recalls her memory of the 1939 New York World’s Fair installation:
“The famous ‘Trylon and Perisphere’ of the 1939 New York World’s Fair became another lasting icon for me. In this case, it was the form and its whiteness, its newness, its bigness, and its simplicity that lives in memory. It wasn’t architecture; it wasn’t really sculpture, and certainly not graphic design. So what was it? It did not fit into a category neatly. Could it have been ‘environmental graphic design’?”
– Deborah Sussman
Sussman helped to define what structures did not fit into a category, but still made a powerful impression. Now, the famous Trylon and Perisphere lives on in memory as the origin of modern environmental graphic design.
The Power of Typography and 2D Patterns
The graphic design of typography, imagery, symbology, and art can tell cultural and visual stories, and oftentimes echo an architectural and cultural message.
The human desire to “dedicate” places is clearly the reason graphics were integrated into the built environment. Inscriptions, figurative murals, and ornamental surfaces have long been a part of architecture. These elements and concepts transformed over time, reflecting the social, political, and cultural climate of each period and becoming part of our rich visual and cultural heritage.
Typography as a Tool
The typography we see today, along with layered two-dimensional patterns, have been used to define a structure’s identity for centuries.
Typography is a particularly powerful tool. Compare The New York Times building in New York, the Arch of Titus in Rome, and Mussolini’s Palazzo Braschi in Rome. While the three structures bear little resemblance to each other culturally, politically, or geographically, they all use typography to tell their identity story.
The Arch of Titus is a religious honorific arch, whereas Palazzo Braschi was once the headquarters for Italy’s fascist party. Then you have The New York Times building, which tells you not only that it’s a prominent publication, but also that it is part of the very fabric of New York City.
Coming of Age
Las Vegas in the 1940s is a great example of how wayfinding and signage are design elements that can turn buildings into landmarks. Sure, the bright lights and typography gave you information and told you where to go—but they also helped to give Las Vegas its cultural identity.
Santa Monica Place
Architects of the 1980s embraced using typography to solidify architecture brand identity. Take Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Place in Los Angeles, for example. He used gigantic typography layered with chainlink to turn something that could have been ordinary into an iconic image that has been woven into the pop culture history of Los Angeles.
Seattle Art Museum
Go a little farther up north to Washington, and you can see another excellent example of typography in architecture. The Seattle Art Museum, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, uses typography in a way that seems so simple, but has such an impact. That “simple” typography has made the museum truly stand out in a city full of iconic buildings.
Universal CityWalk Hollywood
If you jump to the 1990s, Jon Jerde’s design for Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles also shows how signage isn’t just a simple addition to the architecture, or something that gets in the way of it—it is a crucial part of the design.
The engaging aspect about examples of architectural graphics is that they’re everywhere, in almost every city or town. Even now, we’re seeing some of the most exciting examples of architectural graphics yet—which is what we’ll talk about in our next blog post.
Graphic Design Continues to Transform Architecture
Many aspects of the built environment—including urban streetscapes, office buildings, museums, airports, public parks, mixed-use developments, and entertainment centers—have been transformed by the integration of graphic design and architecture.
Although the discipline of architectural graphics was only recognized relatively recently, it has long been known not only for its functional improvements, but also for its integral relationship to changes in architecture, cultural movements, and art. This combination of the disciplines can shape our overall perception and memory of place and ultimately enrich our experiences with the built environment.
The conversations surrounding graphics in architecture are important. Graphic typography and texture can enhance architectural design in so many ways, and even turn a building into an iconic destination.
RSM Design's new book, Graphic Connections in Architecture, takes a deeper look at the synergistic relationship between engaging graphics and today's architecture, starting with the origins and going all the way to the future.
And remember—don’t miss the next blog post in this series. Next time, we will be discussing architectural graphics in contemporary environments, and you know we’ll have a lot to say.
Innovation in Architectural Graphics Today
Architecture can be seen as both a canvas and an opportunity for storytelling. The synergistic relationship and importance of graphic design in architecture gives a building and its users the chance to connect with the context of a community by weaving in a unique graphic language. Architectural graphics express meaning and purpose in an immersive and engaging way, the focus is consistently on the relationship of architectural graphics to community, culture, history, and emotion. In this article, we look at what is happening today with environmental graphics, retail experience design, and the importance of placemaking design. People want to see architecture as a reflection of their community and it is often times through this layering of graphics where these feelings manifest. Here we will examine some of the ways communities around the world are using graphics in architecture to express their unique personalities.
Architecture can be seen as both a canvas and an opportunity for storytelling. The synergistic relationship and importance of graphic design in architecture gives a building and its users the chance to connect with the context of a community by weaving in a unique graphic language. Architectural graphics and their interdependence with two- and three-dimensional designs express meaning and purpose in an immersive and engaging way.
RSM Design’s current series of articles, as well as our new book (Graphic Connections in Architecture), focus on the relationship of architecture and graphics, and how our team works at the intersection that weaves both together. Our focus is consistently on the relationship of architectural graphics to community, culture, history, and emotion.
In our last article, we talked about the origins of architectural graphics throughout history, beginning with a survey of graphics interventions from antiquity. In this article, we look at what is happening today with environmental graphics, retail experience design, and the importance of placemaking design.
A Look at Graphics in Architecture Today
Today, many graphic installations into architecture focus on context, culture, and emotion. People want to see architecture as a reflection of their community and it is often times through this layering of graphics where these feelings manifest. Here we will examine some of the ways communities around the world are using graphics in architecture to express their unique personalities.
Fifth + Broadway
In the very heart of Nashville, across from the renowned Ryman Auditorium, is Fifth + Broadway... the epitome of a true mixed-use development and microcosm of the city. Rooted in heritage, influenced by culture, and designed for the people, Fifth + Broadway both preserves what makes Nashville great and looks towards its future. Boldness is a key word to describe this community and the graphic layer seen there. Dynamic neon signage and other original installations speak to the seamless relationship of graphics to architecture.
Fifth + Broadway uses landmarking elements that help people get where they need to go, but they’re strategically layered into the architecture to tell a story and represent the community.
The wayfinding and signage are all in the context of the culture. The graphics originated with music posters, offset printing, and block printing—all the origins were derived from a sense of place, history, and community. These bold signage graphics guide visitors, tell stories, and serve in functionality.
The Moscow Riviera is a two-million square foot mixed-use development that has become a high value destination within central Moscow. Working with the interior and exterior signage graphics, the RSM Design team echoed the bold elegance of the people, nature, and surrounding area.
This development is an ideal example of how architectural graphics as pattern becomes an integral part of the architectural expression. In our first article in this series, we revealed how pattern is not just ornamentation, but is a traditional technique of experiential design. At Moscow Riviera, you’ll notice the same elements being used in the architectural graphics to create a similar synergy, but it’s completely modern and a reflection of this progressive community and location.
When you look at Rosemary Square in West Palm Beach, Florida, you’ll see a diverse area of experiential retail and culinary offerings. You will also notice the robust arts and cultural programs, making this a truly exceptional new district to live, work, and visit in south Florida.
Through the use of architectural façade graphics, the buildings were enhanced to be more engaging and reflective of the vibrant local arts culture. What adds to the soul of this place are the layered patterns and cultural references that provide contextual vibrancy to the guest experience. These economically produced and impactful façade patterns and mural installations transformed the district into a new dynamic environment.
Hofgarten Shopping Center
The city of Solingen, Germany, is known for its knife and cutlery production—it’s even called the City of Blades.
The Hofgarten Center celebrates Solingen’s knife and cutlery production, among other unique elements that reflect the region by inspiring the origins of the graphic language. The graphics also weave comfortably with the modern architecture, utilizing themes of nature, industry, and fashion, to blur the lines between what is architecture and what is graphic enhancement. The relationship between the graphics and architectural patterns makes the façade, for example, feel bold and impactful. Additionally, throughout the building, visitors encounter playful surprises that make walls look like they disappear, skylights with interesting dynamic and ever-changing light features, and bold unexpected patterning in the parking areas.
From the front door to the parking lot, Hofgarten Center uses architectural graphics as wayfinding tools to turn a building into a surprisingly strong representation of the community.
LBX: Long Beach Exchange
Long Beach Exchange is all about the engaging the guest with specialty graphics.
The custom graphics help to create many different expressions of the site’s origins and culture. It complements the architecture in a positive way, making a statement about the community: It’s okay to be original and stand out here. Inspired by the local culture and laid back vibes of the community, the architectural graphics have turned into Insta-worthy moments of surprise and whimsy.
Did you know that Pacific City was the original name of what is now Huntington Beach, CA? That’s what makes it such a perfect name for this city’s shopping and dining epicenter. And the Pacific City narrative is inspired by and overtly reflects the culture of the community—Surf City, USA.
When the project was being built, the property installed temporary barricade graphics to give visitors something engaging to look at while the stores prepared to open. These murals reflected the local surf culture and history, and they quickly became popular with the community. However, when the stores were ready to open, the murals came down. And the community questioned what had happened. Visitors had identified with the artwork so strongly that they asked the developer to bring them back. Shortly after, the murals became permanent installations.
What was intended to be a temporary expression of Huntington Beach’s culture was embraced and permanently adopted by the community. The murals used graphics in architecture to communicate the area’s history and spirit. What seemed like a temporary fix turned out to be something completely beloved.
Looking Forward: The Evolutions of Digital Experience Design
Given how today’s graphics in architecture and wayfinding design trend toward community-focused context, culture, and emotion, what does that tell us about where things are going? Can we accurately predict the future of architectural graphics and wayfinding?
No, but it sure is fun to speculate.
It all comes down to the individual. Many people seem to be attached to their smartphones—it’s how they navigate. Will “traditional” forms of wayfinding be as critical in the future with our reliance on the digital expansion?
Digital components in signage are not new…they have been around for quite some time, so that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s more about how wayfinding and graphics will become greater user focused. We will be exploring how wayfinding will become more intuitive and less reliant on traditional signage methods, instead turning to virtual engagement of the space.
We’re seeing how signage technology is shifting. For example, we're using technology that produces LED glass or digital nodes to transform any surface...into a sign, an image, a pattern, another façade. We're seeing digital graphic façades that generate their own power or other sustainable initiatives, becoming more multi-functional and more inherent with the architectural expression.
Will all of this outdo traditional models of wayfinding? Most likely not. Instead, it will enhance them. As buildings become digitally smarter, they will inherently evolve to do more, but we will always use the graphic layer of buildings to convey culture, community, and context.
Next: The Future of Environmental Graphic Design
Right now, culturally, it feels like we’re in a similar spot when compared to the country after the 1918 flu pandemic, which ushered in the roaring 20s. With the anticipation of a reopening and return to normalcy, people are looking for comfort and confidence, while also craving new experiences. How will this change the impact of environmental graphics and experience design?
It starts by blending smart technology with wayfinding in a way that helps people feel comfortable about getting back and learning how to experience travel, dining out, and being with the community again. We’ll get back to digging into the future of graphics in architecture in the third installment of this series. For more information, check out our companion book, Graphic Connections in Architecture, to this article series.
It’s Time to Redefine “Architectural Graphic Design”
Studying for my architecture undergraduate degree there were countless books that influenced (and continue to influence) my way of thinking about architecture, space, and design… Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Venturi), For an Architecture of Reality (Benedikt), Towards a New Architecture (Le Corbusier), Silence and Light (Kahn), Invisible Cities (Calvino), In Praise of Shadows (Tanizaki), and so many others.
However, there was one influential book that helped shaped my ability to represent my designs... Architectural Graphics, the classic bestselling reference by Francis D.K. Ching. Originally published in 1974 and now in its sixth edition, it continues to introduce and influence the fundamentals of graphic and design communication. The architectural graphic conventions outlined in the book informed my design process and served as a guide to see a design conveyed and built. Along with the go-to reference book on building design and construction known as the “architect’s bible” or Architectural Graphic Standards (American Institute of Architects, 12th edition) I was all set to branch out into the design profession.
Fast forward a few decades later and I find myself working and creating at an exciting crossroads… the intersection of architecture and graphic design. My attitude and definition of the term architectural graphic design has changed quite a bit since Francis D.K. Ching, and I have found myself redefining what the relationship of architecture and graphics is all about and practicing a different form of architectural graphic design… one that engages the third dimension.
Our studio, RSM Design, was founded in 1997 using the term “environmental graphic design” because we loved seeing how graphic design could shape and influence the physical environment in the built realm, and most importantly how graphics influenced the people using the spaces and making the places. The term “environmental graphic design” has always been an obtuse term and one that is still being defined and ill-defined by many. Over time the use of “environmental” has been referenced more for its ecological and natural uses, rather than the physical setting or surrounding, making it even more difficult to associate environmental with graphics. “No, we do not do ‘green’ sustainable graphics,” I have found myself saying when describing what it is that our studio creates.
While I do not know the reasoning why, I did find it curious when a few years ago the professional organization of the Society of Environmental Graphic Design dropped “environmental” to now become the Society for Experiential Graphic Design. Is this new term any less obtuse than the original? I contend that what our studio is practicing and investigating is how integrated graphic design can symbiotically relate to architecture, hence redefining the term “architectural graphic design.”
With the recent passing of the influential Robert Venturi, I have again reconsidered the relationship of graphic design and architecture and wanted to understand and redefine how to interpret architectural graphic design. In the book he co-authored with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour forty-six years ago, Learning from Las Vegas, the “decorated shed” relies on imagery, signage, and graphics to convey its program, in contrast with the “duck” that expresses the program and meaning thru the building’s form. The architectural graphic designs clearly become an integral part of the building’s commercial character and there becomes a new focus on the architecture of the everyday. Today, the commercial character and culture is more powerful and pervasive than ever.
As relevant as commercial architectural graphic design is to buildings and places today, it did not begin with the conversation initiated by Venturi. The disciplines of architecture and graphic design have lived harmoniously and symbiotically together for a long time. Architectural graphic design is not new. It has been around for centuries but only relatively recently have been recognized as an important component of the project narrative. Whether through hieroglyphics, classical inscriptions, façade stenciling (Otto Wagner in Vienna), strong building identities (PSFS Building in Philadelphia), and many other relevant examples, the two disciplines work together to create a cohesive narrative (or “story”) of the building and the way the visitor interacts with it. This marriage is not confined to buildings alone, but also manifests itself in civic spaces and urban places where signage, wayfinding, and art combine to create richness, character, functionality, and engagement.
Architecture speaks of space, form, place, and function while integrated architectural graphic design communicates a building’s function, purpose, message, and narrative. Effective and appropriate architectural graphic designs support the statement made by a building and strengthen its presence. The graphics layered into the conversation derive from the architectural context, spatial context, cultural context, and historical context to which they relate. They are not independent nor superficial. The architectural graphic designs have meaning, form, function, and purpose… similar to the architecture. Whether these architectural graphic designs are woven into the building or space through identity signage, wayfinding signage, specialty features, or graphic embellishments, there is an open dialogue that mutually benefits one another. The inclusion of the architectural graphic designs creates a strong sense of place, fulfills human needs, helps users find their way, and communicates a building’s narrative, fostering a strong conversation between the person and place.
As environments, buildings, and spaces are crafted there are many unique disciplines that play a role in their overall success. The profession’s design process has to be multidisciplinary and collaborative, now more than ever. Important elements such as lighting, mechanical, structural, and landscape need to be joined by architectural graphic design as an equally important layer. The American Institute of Architects has twenty-one Knowledge Communities that work to share information and create connections that advance the profession. It’s time to make architectural graphic design the twenty-second conversation within this community.
So, let’s rethink the relationship of architecture and graphic design and what the term “architectural graphic design” refers to. Move away from the two-dimensional references of architectural representation and weave graphics more deliberately into the vocabulary of the building profession as a necessary component. The relationship of architecture and graphic design should now become a symbiotic and necessary alliance that will orient, inform, and delight. Architectural graphic design can make a difference.