The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a great way to describe an environment that creates a sense of place. The word “place” has several meanings in today's society, including “a building or area set aside for a specified purpose” (Websters.com). Creating a sense of place, by my definition, is the successful interaction of design elements — i.e., buildings, graphics, interiors, and landscape — resulting in an environment that attracts people on a conscious and unconscious level. In the planned environment, there should be a whole design and a whole function. Otherwise, you just have an accumulation of designed parts.

Environmental graphic design is a critical component in the process of creating a sense of place. It is defined by The Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) as “a diverse field that includes the planning, design, and specifying of graphic elements in the built and natural environment.”

Ideally, environmental graphic design (EGD), like architectural design, should be considered at the onset of a project. Early planning provides a more functional and aesthetically pleasing design and allows graphics to be integrated into the building's architecture, interiors, and landscape.

Currently, Cooper Carry Inc. is working on Lindbergh City Center, a mixed-use project in Atlanta that will include retail, entertainment and office space, condominiums, apartments and a hotel. An urban community centered around a mass transit station, Lindbergh City Center will be a phased development designed from the ground up to look like an extension of the existing Piedmont Avenue infrastructure. An environmental graphic design master plan is being used to implement graphics and signage for the entire project. The master plan will outline development identification, public parking signage, office and retail signage, visual screening elements, and wayfinding. Particularly in large-scale developments, a signage and graphics master plan is extremely beneficial to both the owner and the tenants. A master plan identifies the project's graphic elements for budgeting purposes, and it establishes a unified design standard for all parties to incorporate currently and in future phases of the project.

In the retail environment, a unique doorway, a color palette, or a material change can identify the gateway to a different merchandising area or department. The current trend in identification graphics involves large scale and vibrant color images that not only contain verbage, but also illustrate lifestyle and product influence. The project graphics are serving more and more as artwork, which only corroborates the change in traditional retail design from grandiose public gathering spaces to more intimate home-like settings. When traditional signage is necessary, off-the-shelf signs will not give a retailer the design edge that is essential to compete in today's market place. For a minimal cost difference and with a modicum of foresight, custom-designed and fabricated signs can be incorporated into the designed environment without intruding on the space. When EGD works with the other design disciplines early in a project, more issues and potential challenges are likely to be identified, discussed, and resolved, eliminating change orders in the field.

Think about the last store in which you shopped. Would you call it a “place”? Did all the design elements work as a complete unit, or were the graphics an afterthought? No EGD professional wants to create conflict in the aesthetics and function of a development or building. Let's use a shopping mall as an example. Aesthetically, poorly planned signage can interrupt the shape of a wall, break up a clean line, or cheapen the look and feel of a designed space. Functionally, poorly planned signage can disrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic, block sight lines, or simply create confusion. How many times have you been unable to locate the bathrooms, the escalators, or even an entire anchor store?

As EGDs our goal is to encourage and simplify interaction between people and spaces. We recently created new signage and graphics for Citicorp Center, an existing high-rise mixed-use project in Chicago. We were asked to redesign two levels of retail with the goals of attracting both the hurried commuter and the lunchtime shopper.

Originally, the space was designed as an extension of the corporate architecture on the upper floors. In contrast, we created a bright and airy setting reminiscent of the Art Deco period to articulate the tempo of the retail center. New color schemes, materials, and graphics were used to create the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Large-scale vinyl graphics, fabricated aluminum, and wood veneers established the desired look. Most importantly, the environmental graphics conveyed functional information to pedestrians, while integrating with the surrounding architecture and interior design.

Environmental graphics encompass many areas of design, including signage, architectural graphics, wayfinding, imagery, interpretive graphics and merchandising. Each of these areas must work cohesively with all the various design elements of a project to “create a sense of place.”

Patrick Murphy, SEGD, is an associate and senior environmental graphic designer for Cooper Carry. Cooper Carry Inc., founded in 1960, is a full-service design firm headquartered in Atlanta with offices in Washington, D.C. and New York. Cooper Carry provides architectural design, planning, interior design, landscape architecture, and graphic design services for a variety of project types.