Larger than Life

It’s hard to explain what graphic designers do. True, everyone inside the profession knows the role we play communicating complex information simply, intuitively, and in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing. But not many people outside of the profession understand that the books they read, the apps they launch, the sites they scroll, the packages they open, the logos they wear, the menus they review at their favorite restaurants, and so much more are all the results of hours of meticulous nudging, analysis, and years of experience scrutinizing type spacing and image quality. Many designers probably noticed this at a family function when your distant aunt asks what they do for a living. That blank stare that says “I should know what that means, but what does that mean?!?”

Now. Imagine what happens when they answer their distant aunt’s inquiry with “I’m an environmental graphic designer.” 

City Point , by Pentagram

City Point, by Pentagram

More often than not, they get a different blank stare. One that says “I have no idea what that is, and I’m not entirely sure I want to know.” Or maybe they get another question, such as “so you work with environmental agencies, like the EPA?” Or worse, they get a look of understanding when they explain that environmental graphic design is large-scale type and imagery applied to architectural spaces. “OH! You design billboards!!!” 

No. No, they don’t. Not. Even. Close.

Environmental graphic design, or—as a few people have begun calling it more recently—experiential graphic design, is the design of environments using graphic design elements. Type, imagery, color, shapes, tone, and on and on are used just like they would be in a “normal” graphic design project. But instead of putting these elements on easily held artifacts, environmental graphic designers splatter them all over the walls. And the floors. And sometimes the furniture. And, just to be safe, everywhere else.

But they do more than just apply graphics to walls, floors, etc. Like print, packaging, branding, and digital designers, environmental graphic designers are tasked with conveying information. The only real difference between environmental graphic design and any other graphic design discipline lies in what deliverables they do this with. 

Environmental graphic designers…

  • use lighting, materials, and dimensionality to communicate in environments.
  • work with architects and interior designers to create a sense of “place” through the application of graphic elements.
  • help visitors to those spaces/places navigate quickly, easily, and as intuitively as possible.

Environmental graphic design has its roots in the history of mankind. Early navigators, such as the Inuits, left behind various wayfinding tools, such as inukshuks, to help others follow their paths. Designed to resemble people, these ancient structures of stacked rocks acted as landmarks and viewports for travelers of all kinds. 

Today, environmental graphic designers spend less time stacking rocks and more time gathering images, fussing over type, and collaborating with architects, interior designers, engineers, and fabricators to assure their projects work appropriately for their context, content, and audience. Which is not always an easy task since environmental graphic designers need to think beyond the page, thinking instead in terms of space, scale, and behavior.

For more information on environmental (experiential) graphic design, check the SEGD website.