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How did you first become interested in environmental graphic design? I definitely did not grow up wanting to be an environmental graphic designer, and I don’t know anyone who entered environmental graphic design through the front door. With that said, while I was at the University of Memphis working on a BFA in design, I was fortunate to meet two great people: Charlie Manus, an architectural illustrator, and his wife, Connie Hendrix, who had her own ad agency. Both of them had very successful careers, and together they bought an architectural sign franchise.

This turned out be quite a blessing on multiple levels. As their very first employee, I had the opportunity to learn anything I wanted to know about the architectural sign business. As the company grew, I saw there were people who actually got paid to plan and design wayfinding programs. I also learned that just because you can draw something doesn’t mean you can build it, which made me start thinking not only that I could do this, but also I could do it better.

Which wayfinding features in Atlanta’s new international terminal are you most proud of, and why? It is easy to think of wayfinding as simply signage, but to truly deliver a holistic solution, wayfinding must be so much more. Wayfinding features—such as a space with open sight lines and angled ticket counters, floor patterns, a direct view to planes, and specialty lighting that highlights major destinations—all work together to reinforce the correct paths and minimize the need for signs. It is this type of collaboration among the Gresham, Smith and Partners’s teams of architects and interior and lighting designers that contributes to the intuitive wayfinding I am most proud of.

To guide Atlanta airport passengers toward security, you designed a “yellow brick road.” How did you hope this might affect travelers? The idea of the yellow brick road was to work with other visual cues, such as angled ticket counters, to subconsciously lead people towards the next destination, which in this case is the security checkpoint. The design team hoped this would give the traveler an intuitive flow, independent of the signage.

How do environmental graphics impact us emotionally? Just take a look at a list of customer comments from any airport. Any passenger that is willing to take the time and effort to submit a written comment has been impacted emotionally. The emotions vary from worried to frustrated and downright angry. Every once in a while, you find a happy or thankful emotion in the mix.

What is interesting is how these emotions impact an airport’s bottom line. Research shows that happy passengers spend up to 45 percent more on retail spending than unhappy passengers.

Emotions have a similar impact in other settings, for example, on the anxiety levels of hospital patients. Research shows that physicians have to spend more time and effort calming a patient who got lost or confused on the way to the doctor’s office because they are so stressed. Patients that show up late for their appointment or procedure because they did not know how to find their way lost productivity, which once again translates into the bottom line.

What should all environmental designers know about guiding visitors through a space? There a lot of considerations, beginning with what a customer, visitor, passenger or patient knows before they begin the journey, to understanding how human factors affect their experience. With that said, there are the basic elements of wayfinding. A lot of environmental graphic designers have put their own spin on this, but the first place I ever saw these points was in the book Design That Cares, by Myron Grant and Jan Carpman:

• Know where you are.
• Know where you are going.
• Know the best way to get there.
• Know when you have arrived.
• Know how to find your way back.

You were featured in David Zweig's book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. Do you feel the work of environmental graphics designers receives enough credit or attention? Being recognized in the first chapter of David’s book was awesome for the EGD profession. However, whether environmental graphic designers get recognition is a secondary issue to whether or not there is value associated with the work we do.

I’ve worked with clients who referred to our work as “a bunch of signs,” as well as clients who, at least originally, thought hiring a wayfinding consultant was a waste of time and resources. It is a pretty awesome feeling when your hard work is rewarded with positive feedback from a client who once thought a wayfinding consultant was not worth the money.

Find the clients who value your work and then work your you-know-what off to deliver a successful solution. If there is value, all the other stuff will follow.
Jim Harding leads Gresham, Smith and Partners’ award-winning environmental graphic design group from the firm’s Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters. His signage and wayfinding design experience is unique in the breadth of industries and project types it covers, including corporate and urban design, healthcare, land-planning and aviation clients. Harding’s writings are frequently published in major industry trade journals, and he recently authored the ACRP's Report 52: Wayfinding and Signage Guidelines for Airport Terminals and Landsides—a first-of-its-kind guidebook outlining best practices for terminal and roadway signage.
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