Graphic Design = Public Design

The Bloomberg Tower in New York, home of the financial news and data company, announces itself curb-side with Two Twelve Design’s iconic “731” for 731 Lexington Avenue. Courtesy Two Twelve.

By William Richards

Signs, signs, everywhere the signs—they stop us, direct us, inform us, frame space, define brands, and leave traces of themselves in our memories.

Graphic design is public design. By virtue of the decisions that go into wayfinding, signage, or even the fonts on your computer, the people behind what you see are the people behind many of the visual memories and impressions you have of the world—whether you know it or not.  To put it another way: the people behind graphic design are doing the thinking so you don’t have to.

This month, the City of Richmond announced that New York-based graphic design company Two Twelve has been selected to develop a wayfinding and signage program for Downtown and the Boulevard areas. Two-Twelve was selected among seven finalists for the job of unifying the city’s outdated system for pedestrians and motorists, having completed similar jobs for Charlotte, Baltimore, New York as well as campuses like Yale University.

The firm will partner with Richmond-based BAM Architects and begin work this winter.

Last November, Inform polled three way-finding wizards to find out what goes into way-finding and the process of designing a mental landscape, including David Gibson, principal and founder of Two Twelve, John O’Neill, principal of Thinkhaus in Richmond, and Andy Cruz, the co-founder and art director of Yorklyn, Delaware’s House Industries. Their responses, reprinted from the September/October 2009 issue of Inform:



Where is the line between direction and suggestion in design?


David Gibson: As a graphic designer who mostly deals with way-finding and signage systems, I believe it depends on the context of the design problem. In places that deal with matters

of life and death, such as a hospital, suggestion just doesn’t cut it. Design must direct as clearly and explicitly as possible. In a concert hall, however, design might suggest where to go. It’s a question of volume and balance.

In general, landmarks and architectural and interior design cues can suggest, whereas signs direct. Ideally the architect and wayfinding designer work together to balance the two to best serve the people who use a place.


Andy Cruz: Somewhere between being bummed that your scheme didn’t turn out the way you planned and not sweating a casual idea that wasn’t realized.


John O’Neill: With advertising design, there is more suggestion in the communication then there is with other forms of graphic design. In information design, there is only direction. Some designers may use suggestion to mask the dangers that are sometimes hidden from the public in advertising. For example, fast-food advertisements can be influential on our lifestyle and diet by suggesting that they are a healthy, inexpensive, and quick meal. In reality these kinds of foods could lead to health problems which may eventually result in higher health care cost. I see graphic design as a means to address social and cultural issues. In this case I do not believe any form of graphic design can suggest that someone should address an issue, but it can clearly direct them in the manner that is needed.


How do you use subtlety?


D.G.: Sparingly and selectively. Sometimes a sign needs to be strong, bold and clear. Other times a simple graphic is sufficient. The relative sophistication of a design solution is the result of making choices. For the campus way-finding sign system at Yale University, we used a custom typeface called “Yale Street” as a subtle way of branding signage. Most people won’t notice it, but in the absence of a logo, it serves as an important branding gesture. Contrast this with something like our 8-foot illuminated “731” address sign over the entrance to a Cesar Pelli building on Lexington Avenue, which is anything but subtle. Here the graphics and architecture together make a grand statement.


A.C.: The subtlety operation takes a steady hand. We’ve been known to overdo it from time to time. I get into this thing where we put together something that looks clean and subtle, but then decide to push it a bit further in the hopes that the viewer might remember it. Whether that memory is good or bad is another story.


J.O.: I believe that all designers should use subtleties when they refine the smaller details in their work. It should not matter if you are a graphic designer, a fashion designer, or an architect.

Simply stated, the smaller details count. The larger elements require the most attention but the smaller details are what showcase the designers’ skills, craftiness, and mental sharpness. Subtleties are often the things that give the design meaning.


When developing signage for city centers, what is the distillation process like? How do you capture a city in its signs?


D.G.: It starts with diagramming and mapping the elements of the city to be signed. This reveals what I call “the hidden logic” of the urban fabric. We identify and diagram the major areas and destinations, and the pathways and arteries that run among them. This gives us a picture of how they fit together and helps us understand which would be most useful in helping people navigate the city. From these findings we develop a way-finding strategy and conceptual map, create a vocabulary of sign types, and develop a location plan for them. Then we look at what goes on the signs in terms of messaging (destinations, nomenclature, information hierarchy) and graphic elements (logos, colors, fonts, symbols), and what the sign structures should look like. We study the visual identity of the place, its image, its architecture, its street furniture, and landscape, and consider how signage should relate to these. The solution emerges from 1/3 way-finding strategy, 1/3 identity design, and 1/3 information requirements.



What is the connection between the font you’re using and the message you’re conveying?


D.G.: It’s a direct connection. The choice of a font or typeface needs to be appropriate for both the context and the content. Some fonts are better for a resort in the Maine woods, while others make more sense in an urban office. Of course we sometimes make ironic choices on purpose that lead to something interesting; font exploration and selection is part of the creative process after all.


A.C.: It’s like choosing what t-shirt to wear: some days you can put on the tee with a “reasonable” image/look but other days you just need something plain, clean, and quiet.


J.O.: I believe that the typeface is the voice of the written message. If one uses a playful typeface, the message will appear to be less hard-hitting. If the typeface is bold, the message will be more direct and louder. Usually the typeface sets the tone for what we are reading.


What kinds of questions do you ask someone who needs help creating their brand?


A.C.: Can we do something cool that looks a little different then who you’re competing against? I love branding “trends,” because once you get past market research and focus groups, it’s all just fashion.


D.G.: We typically deal with branding for places—cities, parks, hospitals, universities, transit hubs—rather than consumer products or corporations. The standard corporate branding process looks at the competition, target audience, perceptions, price point, likely applications, and other fairly abstract factors pertaining to a specific market and product or service. Branding for a city or an institution involves many of these issues as well, but the research and analysis work also has to take into account tangible and political factors, such as existing landmarks, street furniture, symbols, building code and zoning laws; and the objectives of the planners, politicians, municipal agencies, and other stakeholders involved in the project process.


J.O.: Thinkhaus has a strategic design process that we follow each time that we set out to solve branding design problems. Methods within the process, such as “persona development,” enable Thinkhaus and the client, as a team, to address leading questions about the target audience and the best way to communicate to that audience. If we can answer those questions early, as a team, the questions that follow will expedite the creation of the brand in the timeframe we desire.


How do you name the things that are personal to you?


D.G.: Over the course of a 27-year relationship I had four cats, all named for gay liberation pioneers. The first was Walt, after Whitman; the second Edward, after Carpenter, an English socialist; the third Oscar, after Wilde; and the last was Maggie, after Magnus Hirschfeld, a German liberationist who was hounded by the Nazis in the 1930s. Maggie had some gender confusion, because he was a male cat!


J.O.: On a personal level, we draw from our past, and from our spiritual connections, to name those things that are most important to us. It does not matter if we are naming a newborn baby or a new found business. In either case I believe the person or the object that is named grows into the name that we give it.


A.C.: Our first child’s name was nice and symmetrical: Ava. Then we rolled with an “ex–wives of Sinatra” theme and ended up with Mia. No plans for Nancy or Barbara, yet. Those names have more than three characters.

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One Response to “Graphic Design = Public Design”

  1. I believe that we may be in a weak period for graphic design directed toward the public. I think the use of computer monitors to do layout and design lead, unless the designer is careful to think of the actual use, to graphics that do not have the strength to effectively communicate. Looking at that monitor face to face is a very different experience from reading a sign at a reasonable distance. This process leads to too many words too small to read or filled with graphics (text and images) that make perfect sense close up but which fail to communicate. Technology is not a substitute for good graphic skills. This is not to say that inferior design is a new phenomenon, but the technology empowers bad design (think of all the ugly clip-art and funky font “announcements” you see posted on school or office bulletin boards.

    Technology is not necessarily the cause of this status. it just enables more bad quality design. The past is filled with examples of precursors to our present state – think of the Chessie System Railroad System’s logo. It took a realistic image of a cat resting its head on a pillow and abstracted it into a “kodalith” type high contrast silhouette that is unrecognizable without knowledge its origin.

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