Oftentimes interior designers, architects, and facility owners don’t fully understand the expertise and creativity that the field of environmental graphic design (EGD), an intersection of communication design and the built environment, can bring to a project. The mention of EGD triggers thoughts of signage or graphic wallcoverings, but it’s much more than that—it embraces graphic design, architecture, industrial design, landscape architecture, visual identity, and branded environments, and touches on a variety of design elements, from wayfinding to shaping a sense of place. It requires a multidisciplinary design approach to communicate stories, inform people, and organize places for efficient navigation. 

Environmental graphic designers offer a unique perspective on the user experience and how a space flows from the front door and through the interiors. When involved in a large-scale project, it’s critical to have clarity of path and to integrate cues that make the project not only clear, but beautiful. Here are several things to consider.

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Part of the team

EGD designers think visually and graphically, and they’re focused on clarity. Having them participate in charrettes with an integrated team can help in selecting where a material or color should be placed, for example. They may also comment on multiple decision points during space planning and provide guidance for simplifying. Their graphic skills and understanding of color can also provide a valuable second opinion on contrast colors.

Next, if it isn’t possible to have the EGD designer involved in presenting a design to a client, the design team should review the presentation together ahead of time and become familiar with the terminology to better explain how EGD will aid the project.

Well-designed EGD elements can benefit both patients and staff, as well as add a unique branding and clear wayfinding experience. EGD features can also serve as integrated artwork.

A prescription for wayfinding

You may have a space plan that’s clear of obstacles and odd turns; however, without elements that guide visitors and staff through the building, there won’t be clarity of path. How can you think differently about focus points, multiple decision points, and destinations? EGD doesn’t have to be applied only on the walls—floors, ceilings, fabrics, furniture, and casework are all worth considering. But don’t overdo it. Remember the details should add interest to your interiors and give the project a unique story that people remember.

Rather than creating a theme for wayfinding, focus on the architecture and interior design. What are the big ideas? What story are you trying to tell? What’s special about this facility or the people who use the space? By doing some research on the community, the owner, and the patients, you can find stories that can be woven together to inform the design. Large feature walls on multiple floors can be designed with wood cutouts and printed with dye-sublimated patterns or motifs. Artifacts can be collected and used as art installations. These designed moments serve as texture, relief, and color.

And wayfinding is just as important outdoors as it is indoors. The experience of campus arrival, whether by car, bus, or subway, is all part of the first impression. It’s critical for patients and visitors to find their way without confusion or stress. You also want that first impression to be memorable and state what the facility is all about. EGD is not just about building signage—it’s critical to helping define key building elements. For example, the materials, graphics, and textures used on the inside of a hospital building can be visible through the exterior glass and make a strong statement about the organization’s brand, as well as visually orient visitors. 

Meet and greet

It’s important to learn from multiple industries and professions—just as fashion can be an inspiration for interiors, graphic design can be a catalyst for new ideas, too. Try attending industry events, such as lectures from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, to gain exposure to new design thinking, technologies, patterns, colors, typefaces, and presentation formats. Graphic designers speak the same language as interior designers, and they make a great addition to a network of creatives.

Christine Vandover is a senior interior designer at HOK New York. She can be reached at christine.vandover@hok.com.