Although graphic design is concerned with the selection and organisation of two dimensional elements, these elements often have to function in a three dimensional environment. Examples might include the internal ‘environmental’ branding at a company headquarters, an exhibition design, a retail store or perhaps signage in a city centre or airport.
Like any piece of graphic design, environmental graphics might be purely visual or highly informational, or indeed anywhere in between. But as part of the usual compositional concerns of organising type, images, colour and space, environmental graphic designers also need to take into consideration the wider use of the space around them, as Frith Kerr, director of graphic design consultancy Studio Frith, explains: ‘The arrangement of type or shapes within a space – be it a page of a book or a wall in a gallery – is essentially graphic design. In designing a physical space, graphic design is most effective as a means of communicating the idea of how the space should be used, understood and navigated. Graphic designers are trained to think holistically about problems and so the application of this to spatial concepts is not only appropriate but essential.’
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Signage and wayfinding by Steers McGillan, 2006
Graphic designers working with physical spaces will often do so in collaboration with architects, interior designers or exhibition designers. Studio Frith, for example, is working with interiors group Ben Kelly Design on an exhibition for the Wellcome Trust. ‘It is great to collaborate closely with interior designers and architects to explore the potential of signage and graphics within a space. Collaboration with 3D designers, curators and the client is an essential and critical part of this process,’ says Frith.
As Graphic Thought Facility creative director Andrew Stevens explains, collaborating closely with designers in other disciplines can help ensure graphics are intrinsic to a physical space, rather than a last minute add-on. ‘There’s a lot of exhibition work where we’ll tend to work with interior designers and lighting people. When working for the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, with [exhibition designers] Casson Mann one of the big driving factors was graphics not being this last thing where you come along and stick some type on and some pictures up. Actually there was a will for the graphics to be integral to the fabric of the whole experience of visiting the museum. So, if the showcases were being built anyway, why can’t they be adapted to also carry the graphics, and if the lighting’s been commissioned anyway why can that not be pushed to its extreme and also deliver headline typography in a very exciting way?’
Watch a video of designer Morag Myerscough talking about her career.
When it comes to designing signage, the graphic elements are often allied to – if not part and parcel of – the discipline of wayfinding. Wayfinding itself really falls under the area of information design, which we will come to later. But signage can also perform a narrative function, as well as aiding orientation. For example, Studio Myerscough’s graphics work for Westminster Academy school, conducted with architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), included an ‘interpretation of the discipline of the academy’, as well as a wayfinding study.
Westminster Academy graphics, designed by Studio Myerscough and AHMM, 2007
Signage for the National Portrait Gallery and the Great North Museum by Nick Bell Design