Environmental Graphic Design provides communication & connection between people and the places they visit. These branded environments encompass elements of graphic design, architecture, interior design & landscape design. Local history & developing culture provides inspiration for branded stories that bring physical spaces to life. Environmental graphics includes layered design elements that help with direction as much as they enhance brand experience.
Every project has its own character, some focus on function while others fashion. In office buildings or healthcare projects environmental graphics play a supporting role with identification and direction. Wayfinding signage creates clarity & certainty for the guests. On the other hand retail & entertainment projects are intently focused on the visitor's experience. Public art, murals and interactive placemaking is used to create "wow" moments that people don't easily forget. Environmental signage is most often static & architectural, although a push to interactive digital experiences is ongoing and ever-changing.
Environmental graphic design, or EGD, is a multidisciplinary field of design in which the disciplines of graphic design, architecture, art, lighting, landscape, and other fields are utilized as a way to enhance the user experience through the visual translation of ideas in the built environment. These enhancements within a project are expressed through a broad array of applications and techniques, and may take the shape of signage, identity, super graphics, art installations, and the strategic use of color, just to name a few.
Environmental graphic design, or EGD, is a multidisciplinary field of design in which the disciplines of graphic design, architecture, art, lighting, landscape, and other fields are utilized as a way to enhance the user experience through the visual translation of ideas in the built environment. These enhancements within a project are expressed through a broad array of applications and techniques, and may take the shape of signage, identity, super graphics, art installations, and the strategic use of color, just to name a few. The concepts and implementation of EGD within a project makes the discipline exciting and diverse, yet often times somewhat difficult to neatly define.
Environmental Graphics provide a layered experience in which identity, imagery, and sense of place are enhanced through emotional triggers and touchpoints within a spatial experience.
Spatial concepts are introduced to a project and guest experience typically represented by form, space, light, and shadow. Environmental graphic design can act in a supporting role to the architecture or space where the graphics provide identification and direction as experienced in courthouse or office building, for example. EGD can also be the primary focus of the visitor’s experience as evident in some retail environments or an entertainment complex. Regardless of the type of space, environmental graphics continue to play an important role in many modern-day urban experiences.
The discipline of environmental graphic design was first known as “architectural signage” and the typical scope was centered around the building’s basic needs of identification and wayfinding – room identities, signs to direct traffic, and the application of logos, lettering, and numerals were very common elements in a project. As the discipline matured, it has become much more integrated into architecture and EGD designers have found a variety of creative and synergistic ways in which it could be expressed.
During the 1970s and 1980s the practice of weaving graphics into a project underwent something of a rebranding and became known as “environmental graphic design.” During this time it gained increased acceptance as a specialty practice within the architectural design industry. At the time, the word “environmental” was easily accepted as being synonymous with “your immediate surroundings” – the word had yet to adopt today’s primary definition of conservation, climate, and the natural world. As the word “environmental” evolved in the lexicon of everyday life, the EGD field began to experience identity issues. Even as the acceptance and integration of environmental graphic design expanded, it became increasingly difficult to introduce the concepts to those unfamiliar with it, as the idea of being “green” had usurped the more immediate definition pertaining to one’s surroundings.
In 2018, the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) decided a change was needed to overcome both the misunderstandings around the terminology as well as to more accurately describe the transformation the discipline had experienced over time. The SEGD board of directors decided to swap “environmental” for “experiential” as a way to solve both challenges. And although the consistency in the acronym may help the discipline regain its previous foothold of awareness, the description may still come up short in truly describing everything EGD encompasses today.
Even as the recognition of the discipline is evolving, the presence and proliferation of environmental graphic design is undeniable. The role of EGD in visitor’s experiences within the environment has become absolutely vital. Why does environmental graphic design have such a profound influence on an experience? What are some of the tools and applications being used today? What does the future of EGD look like? This four-part series will attempt to answer these questions in search of a more definitive definition of this creative area of design.
Four principles applied to the built environment cover all human needs. They serve as a litmus test for the capability of an environmental graphic design program to provide users the tools necessary to fulfill all four connections. Ultimately, the impact of EGD is directly tied to its ability to tap into these emotional connections to influence the overall experience and memory of a place.
Part 1 of this discussion described the basics of environmental graphic design as a multidisciplinary field of study aimed at providing communication within the built environment – ideas, images, and messages layered and integrated into an architectural experience. Whether you call it environmental graphic design, experiential graphic design, or architectural graphic design the objective is similar…helping people make connections with the places they visit and inhabit. By doing so this increases their ability to identify with these places, making these places their own, thereby uniquely connecting on a visceral and emotive level. The principle of “Connecting People to Place” provides some insights to the intention behind environmental graphic design and the countless ways in which EGD can facilitate these connections. However, at the core of every one of these ways to connect is a single driver – human need.
As designers we explore three types of criteria when developing EGD programs: certainty, variety, and delight. All three are designed to satisfy human need on one or more levels. When considered alongside Maslow’s pyramid of human need, the concepts of certainty, variety and delight help provide a lens through which to evaluate the potential success of proposed solutions. The two base layers of the pyramid cite physiological and safety needs as the most critical of human needs. EGD elements such as wayfinding systems act as guides to built environments and experiences. By identifying entries, exits, escape routes, and helpful directional information, these guides satisfy those first two layers of the pyramid. With the assurance of safety, visitors can relax, enjoy the space, and then be receptive to other elements designed to address the upper portions of the pyramid which involve love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In total, these elements add up to a more positive emotional connection with the place because they allow more access to the experience – they enhance it by helping one get to it, understand it, and feel a level of ownership in it.
The primary guiding principle of our design practice is that people are at the center of everything we do. Whether you think of people in terms of individuals, groups, or communities, they are inherently the reason behind most every built environment. The audiences are nuanced in terms of demographics or psychographics but most importantly all have human needs. Regardless of who these people are or where they come from, the goal is to help a user “feel” a place – to translate brick and mortar into narratives that help people make meaningful and personal connections to a place. We approach the psychology of connecting people to place through four attributes:
Mental Connection (IQ): The ability to think, reason, problem-solve, and comprehend
Physical Connection (PQ): Connection to our bodies and health as well as our ability to maintain and develop a balanced state
Emotional Connection (EQ): The ability to communicate, interact and socialize with others and be self-aware
Spiritual Connection (SQ): Connection to ideas bigger than ourselves and the ability to think creatively beyond what we see and experience
These four principles as applied to the built environment cover all of the human needs. They serve as a litmus test for the capability of an environmental graphic design program to provide users the tools necessary to fulfill all four connections. Ultimately, the impact of EGD is directly tied to its ability to tap into these emotional connections to influence the overall experience and memory of a place.
Environmental graphic design’s greatest asset may be its willingness to adapt to a wide variety of situations, materials, and processes. Because EGD is focused on the communication of creative ideas, the ways in which it can be expressed are limitless. This adaptability also creates a rich environment for the use of emerging technologies, materials, and ways of engagement. Some users might think only of signage within the realm of EGD, but there are numerous other applications in which EGD designers convey connections to the environment.
Environmental graphic design’s greatest asset may be its willingness to adapt to a wide variety of situations, materials, and processes. Because EGD is focused on the communication of creative ideas, the ways in which it can be expressed are limitless. This adaptability also creates a rich environment for the use of emerging technologies, materials, and ways of engagement. Some users might think only of signage within the realm of EGD, but there are numerous other applications in which EGD designers convey connections to the environment. We’ve compiled a glossary to help convey some of the ways environmental graphic design is expressed and integrated into the built realm:
Project Identity Monument, Tenant Monument, District/Zone/Neighborhood Identity, Vehicular Directional, Parking Directional, Street Name Identity, Regulatory Signage, Pedestrian Directional, Project Directory, Advertising Kiosk, Trail Markers, Addresses, Building Identity, Parapet/Rooftop Feature Signage, Bike Path Identity, Temporary Signage/Graphic Installations, Barricade Graphics, Tenant Signage, Digital Applications
Entry Door Graphics, Project Directory, Advertising Kiosk, Pedestrian Directional, Information Identity, Restroom Identity, Stair and Elevator Identity, Amenity Identity, Escalator Level Identity, Room Plaques, Evacuation Map, Egress Signage, Donor Recognition Sign
Entry Identity, Marquee Blade, Clearance/Exit Bars, Car Count Digital Signage, Feature Wall Directional, Suspended Vehicular Directional, Column Level/Zone Identity, Elevator Core Identity, Pedestrian Directional, Reserved Parking Identity, Paving Graphics, Stair Identity, Room Plaque, Bike Parking Identity, Pay Kiosk Identity
Fascia Signage, Blade Sign, Canopy and Awning Signs, Window Graphics, A-Frame Sign, Barricade Graphics, Menu Board, Inlaid Paving
The environmental graphic elements above represent a small amount of the creative elements that can be engaged with the built environment. While signage may be perceived as the most common EGD component, there are many other dynamic possibilities to express a brand or an emotion and make a connection with the users of a space. The integration of environmental graphic design does not happen in a bubble and when teams collaborate and work together, places become elevated into memorable experiences.