Back in March 2018 I had one of my better “ah ha” moments of the year. I was serving on an advisory board for a local university arboretum. After a few years of being under-staffed and under-funded, the organization was getting back on its feet by first hiring a full time leadership position and then beginning a capital campaign. Their biggest priority was to have a new system of signs to help visitors find the arboretum and navigate its spaces. They needed a signage and wayfinding study.
A few months earlier, the architecture firm that I work at announced the enhanced formation of a community involvement unit. Its purpose was to support staff members who wish to participate in non-profit initiatives both within and outside of the field of architecture, and to integrate a spirit of volunteerism into our office culture. Any proposed initiatives must be applied for and approved by a committee.
Fast forward about three months, I was in a weekly meeting with the Communications Group at my firm, which consists of graphic designers, copywriters, business development managers, visualization specialists and other communications professionals, and the main topic of discussion was the aspiration for younger communications staff to gain experience leading their own projects and getting more face time with clients. Apart from leading the firm in winning work and awards, the tasks of many in the group were largely internally-focused. And that was when my “ah ha” moment happened. I was sitting with a group of professional graphic, written, and oral communicators who were are ideally suited to communicating a signage and wayfinding strategy, and I had the institutional knowledge and landscape architecture background to fill in the gaps. I pitched the idea to the team as a great way to meet both their objectives as well as the goals of the arboretum. And the rest was history.
Fast forward to present time, and we’re now about 18 weeks into a 22 week schedule called “Phase 1 – Concept Design”. Our main deliverables for this phase is a report, renderings for fundraising purposes, a location map, wayfinding strategy, design concept, locations map, and basic cost estimates. This experience is my first time performing a professional signage and wayfinding study, and these types of activities are usually performed by consultants called Environmental Graphic Designers. As our community involvement team consists primarily of myself and two graphic designers with support from an architect, communications director, and visualization specialist, I’d like to think that we have the right skills and background to perform the tasks at hand.
Environmental Graphic Design (EGD) embraces many design disciplines including graphic, architectural, interior, landscape, and industrial design, all concerned with the visual aspects of wayfinding, communicating identity and information, and shaping the idea of creating experiences that connect people to place.
While we each brought our own expertise to the table, we knew that we needed a crash course in EGD to supplement our formal design training. Initially, we held a few brown bag lunches to share books on the topic as well as to learn about the client and site. We found The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places by David Gibson to be helpful in providing a context for EGD and how it relates to other design professions. This was useful to getting assurance in using transferable skills with confidence. Additionally, we found the book Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems by Calori and Vanden-Eynden very useful in offering a template for the process and phases of engaging in a signage and wayfinding study.
Once we had a firm understanding of the process as well as an affirmation of our skill sets to succeed, we then spent a lot of time studying the work of EGD firms through their reports and built designs. This visualization exercise prepared us to plan for and anticipate all the various elements of a signage and wayfinding investigation. It also enabled us to fully understand the scope of the discipline, which help us to challenge what we could achieve in this work beyond signage and wayfinding to elements of placemaking, exhibition design, public spaces, research and master planning.
And that’s how it happened. A connection was made, and a half dozen design and communication professionals came together with the common goal of seeking to understand how to improve the visitor experience through enhanced signage and wayfinding. As we navigate the traditional process of securing cost estimates, gaining approval from the university architect, and reviewing local zoning ordinances, we look ahead to finalize concept renderings to help with fundraising. I’ll always look back on this period as the summer where the arboretum got the gift of a free study, the communications group gained a ton of valuable experience, and how I became an environmental graphic designer for a few months.