THE POWER OF PLACE
A sign has to be somewhere, someplace. Digital or traditional, a sign cannot be nowhere. As an object with a location, a sign is, therefore, a part of that place. Since signage exists to communicate, it connects the people who see it with the place where it’s located. Signage design is one of the disciplines that make up the art of Environmental Graphic Design or EGD. Other kinds of contributions come from industrial design, landscape architecture, interior design, and the graphic arts. As one designer quipped, EGD should tell an amnesiac everything he needs to know. Where am I? What am I doing here? How did I get here? Where am I going? That’s a light-hearted way of expressing the power of place.
ENVIRONMENTAL GRAPHIC DESIGN
We tend to think of signs as a visual communication medium. In general, it is, braille ADA-compliant lettering being the major exception. In fact, a lot of EGD is visually-oriented. Vision, after all, is central to the human experience of living. Consequently, it’s not surprising that EGD and especially sign-making seem to be as old as the human race.
THE POWER OF PLACE
Some nameless people who lived around 20,000 years ago created a visual bond between us and them, in their place, in their time. The cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, are Environmental Graphic Design par excellence. Through them, we see Lascaux as the painters saw it. The images are of large animals, of people, and also abstract figures. There are, surprisingly, no images of plants or landscapes. The Lascaux landscape, rather, was itself the painters’ canvas. They placed their art in the place, drawing the viewer deeply into it. And now, 20,000 years later, we still get their message. We surely don’t all get the same message – there’s a lot of heated debate about it. Some scientists believe they see evidence of the painters’ hope or fear that the images might come alive! In any case, no one can look at these signs and be untouched.
SIGNS OF OUR TIMES
Signage designers and manufacturers today are, in fact, in the same business as those Paleolithic artists at Lascaux. Were those painters informing travelers that they are in the bison’s territory? Wayfaring and identification, we would say nowadays. Or were they blueprints for upcoming hunts? Warnings to strangers? Advertisements?
These questions will probably never be completely settled. Imagine an archeologist 20,000 years from now digging up a typical lane merge sign of today! This, after people had gone way beyond ground travel and cars for thousands of years.
For more on EGD, readers are invited to the website of the multi-disciplinary professional society SEGD. You’ll learn how there’s more to signage than meets the eye.