A lot of focus goes to place-making in the effort to capture what's missing from our super-charged lives. Rather than generic malls, we want more memorable, even authentic, places to live, shop and socialize, re-create a sense of roots, engage and soothe the senses and feed our individual and collective sense of soul.

Enlightened clients understand that environmental design is more than the application of graphics after the fact. Early in the planning process, a skilled environmental designer can help shape the thematic concept or storyline that guides the architecture, interiors, even the landscape. While retail identity and way-finding systems define how people interact with a space and feel comfortable in it and project the center or retailer's image, but these individual elements are infinitely more powerful if they're infused with a great idea.

Intense research and brainstorming goes into mounting themes for new retail developments, focusing on local legend, landscape, culture and ethnic experience and architectural precedent. Extensive text and photo documentation, concept development and sketching involve creative fusion and result in a project storyline.

Not every development has to include a history lesson, cultural monument or museum, but most can benefit from an organic concept that shapes the holistic environment and experience. Graphic consultants bring a different sensibility to the task, looking beyond structure, function and other hard aesthetics to the softer dynamics of using color, image, light, texture, even smells and music, to captivate consumers on an emotional level. What we provide is not a thin surface veneer but a rich set of tools for bringing things down to human scale and sparking a deeply sympathetic response to a space.

The best ideas result from the environmental graphics designers' collaboration between owners, developers, architects, interior designers and landscape designers who share the same spirit of discovery. Following are two examples of projects that unleashed rare team dynamics and outcomes:

For the launch of its first mall store at the Mall of Georgia near Atlanta, Haverty's set out to redesign its traditional freestanding furniture stores and craft a softer, more contemporary image with greater appeal to its almost exclusively female target audience.

Rawson Haverty hired nine women from diverse design backgrounds to study and rethink all aspects of the space, brand identity and every other dynamic, allowing six months for research. By Haverty's estimates, and sales figures concur, that the investment paid off.

Every customer who enters the store is transported to a whole new world. Music, lighting, ambient sound and color all inspire relaxation. The floorplans' sweeping circular design invites a full turnabout of the store's path, from which everything can be seen, says team member Jessica Marro of TVS. Vertical banner systems, incandescent glass display cases and different floor treatments, rather than dividing walls and small room settings, provide focal points and visually break up the space.

As the first Hispanically themed mall in Atlanta, the Plaza Fiesta project took on a life of its own. Architects Ozell Stankus Associates were hired for what seemed like another quick paint-up, fix-up of a dreary, enclosed, mid-'60s mall in urban northeast Atlanta. Early on, the graphics designers were brought in for a brainstorming meeting with Doug McMurrain, owner of Ram Development Group, who had a vision for attracting the Hispanic community by designing the interior storefronts after building facades a street in old Mexico.

Guided by McMurrain's intriguing ideas, the dimensions of the project expanded. By visiting a nearby Hispanic market, consulting with the center's Hispanic advertising firm and having vivid conversations with potential Hispanic tenants, the development concept expanded further. The likely tenants warned the designers to keep it rustic.

Striving for authenticity, research extended to Mexico, where building colors and details were photographed and used in sketching the interior facades. A ceramic fountain, lanterns, iron balconies, shutters and other details added to the authenticity. Behind this rustic streetscape, narrow avenues lead to a large area for booth vendors that features rough-hewn wood beams and no real interior walls. Modeled after a Mexican open-air market, this informal space invites crowds of activity and offers a casual stage for community-oriented cultural events. As General Manager Sinisterra says, this mall's going to be one big party. Unlike the overdone ambiance of many Hispanic-themed restaurants, Plaza Fiesta is a credit to its roots.

Whether the goal is a soothing retreat from mall activity or a vibrant cultural stage for crowds to gather, environmental graphic design can play a formative role in creating retail spaces that satisfy our yearning for greater order, authenticity and community.