Type in the Environment

The Old Vic , designed by Pentagram

The Old Vic, designed by Pentagram

Much like with all other graphic design disciplines, one of the most universal characteristics of environmental graphic design is the use of typography. And while you might think that setting type on a wall would be vastly different from setting type on a page or screen, you might be surprised. 

Okay, yes, there are differences. For example, when setting type in the environment, you’re dealing with letter heights that range from millimeters to feet rather than points and picas. And yes, your audience is typically in motion, meaning that it’s important to take into account issues of legibility and readability in a more dynamic and constantly changing space. But really, all of the same rules followed with on a page are present in the environment, including the avoidance of stacked words, pig-bristles, widows, orphans, rivers, loose lines, and ugly rags. Typesetting is typesetting, no matter where that type lives. So to apply type in the environment, start with the basics—follow the rules.

Additionally, when setting type in the environment, you’ll notice that, just as in print design, you’re looking to aim for three different “levels” of reading…

  • Urban Scale: (above left, Frist Art Museum, by Pentagram) in print, these are usually your “one-second read” items such titles and headlines. In the environment, these tend to be the largest type in the design and are used to help orient people quickly while they’re driving, riding, or walking in highly congested areas. Naming rights (signs that tell you the name of a building), level indicators, or any other typography that’s bigger and bolder than everything else in the space falls into this category. Typically, this typography tends to be set at 12-inches or taller—easily read even if you’re driving by.
  • Human Scale: (above center, Titletown, by Pentagram)the “one-minute read” type that resides in the middle ground—it’s important, as it provides vital navigation information. This might be more akin to your body copy in print design. It exists to help you navigate from one space to the next. Directional signs (signs that tell you which way certain spaces are), or anything else you might stand and review for a minute or two. Typical type sizes on this range run two- to five-inches in height, read most often by a walking audience.
  • Personal Scale: (above right, Museum für Film und Fernsehen, by Pentagram) the “captions” of environmental graphics, this smallest range tends to include items such as exhibit plates, directories, room signs, or anything else that would take a bit more time to review, such as when your audience is standing or sitting. Because your audience takes longer to review this material, type sizes can be much smaller, closer to 1/2-inch or 2 inches in height.

Keep in mind as you design for each scale that legibility (the ability to recognize letters and words easily) and readability (how easy it is to physically read your text) play key roles in your overall design. Sometimes larger scales results in proportions that dramatically affect both legibility and readability as letters become enormous and spacing spans too greatly. Likewise, moving from larger to smaller scales might mean your spacing compresses, also potentially impacting how easily your audience can recognize and read the content. As a result, it might make sense to establish some typographic rules for each scale iteration—perhaps increasing spacing on the personal scale, or decreasing it as you move to human or urban. That way you're sure to have great environmental type every time.

samantha perkinsComment