This year, SEGD celebrated its 50th anniversary, marking a milestone for the discipline of experiential design. Our association celebrated the occasion in Washington, DC, the HQ of SEGD. It was clear to me in meeting other designers from around the world, that the practice of experiential design is at a crossroads; previously, hardly anyone outside of our industry understood our practice of design and now, it is high demand and expected from clients and collaborators. With more eyes on our work than ever, how will the industry evolve? What can we learn from the foundations laid in the past and what do we want to do differently in the future? Our time in DC focused on these questions, along with immersing ourselves in the diverse culture of our nation’s capital.
Throughout the conference, the programming themes built upon each other, each day compounding off the previous. Together we took a journey reflecting on the past, reframing the present, and reigniting our vision for the future. What follows are the thoughts that arose for me from these lectures, workshops, and connections forged.
REFRAMING YOUR PERSPECTIVE
For growth and evolution, it is essential to genuinely reflect—to see the world as it is, not as you want it to be. This applies to the personal and the communal, and on the first day we dove in deep on reflecting on the state of EGD for the designer (personal) and industry (global). The fundamental purpose of experiential design is to create experiences that help users understand and navigate the world; not necessarily spaces but the sense or feel of the space, the conditions to create the experience. This may seem obvious, given the name of our discipline, but it is easy to get caught up in the methods of execution and forget our purpose. Illuminated signs, informational wall coverings, and sculptural installations are thrilling to create, but it must serve the purpose before anything else. Witnessing a titan of design, Lance Wyman, share his experiences was a highlight for me, as I learned about his contributions to graphic design in my DAAP days. The intention and methodology he imbued into his work, for example pulling the visual history and culture of Mexico into his 1968 Olympics branding, is still referenced in case studies today. Also, the fact that he is still actively practicing design today, was an inspiration and comfort, seeing a career in design can last a lifetime.
Frequently changing your point of view and reframing your perspective is integral to staying relevant for people and industries alike. Using the same approach repeatedly will only deliver the same results, so it is important to adjust as the world changes. We must connect with and value what still serves us and honor our collective histories and cultures while disconnecting from thinking processes that no longer apply to the unique challenges of today. Considerate design solutions have long been considered a luxury, along with the design industry itself operating in an insular and often pretentious way. While we are experts in our discipline, it is our duty to empower our clients to solve their own problems; we are collaborators, not saviors. Jarred Howard, the CEO of the National Juneteenth Museum, shared the mission of his organization and how they were creating an experience to amplify that. This museum will “connect the stories of freedom of the enslaved to modern-day liberation in daily pursuit of equity and justice” (nationaljuneteenthmuseum.org). The location itself is in an area of Fort Worth that is historically Black and historically neglected, which, with the addition of National Juneteenth Museum, will undergo a revitalization without pushing out the people that call this neighborhood home. The museum will operate as a “culturally engaging learning center”, featuring local chefs, a business incubator for local entrepreneurs, galleries, and green spaces. This is not going to be your typical museum experience, and I find it thrilling to see how this could serve the local community and international visitors. I personally can’t wait to visit it upon its completion.
OUR FUTURE AND THE VALUE OF GRAPHIC DESIGN
After two days of discussing the state of our industry and how we can best serve our communities, it was easy to feel reinvigorated and excited on how we can approach the future. When the future of our industry is discussed, incorporation of technology is typically a key talking point. What I found so intriguing about the content shared during SEGD is there were strong opinions that we not completely rely on technology, that the human element is integral to our work; the future can be distinctly human and community minded. Technology is merely a tool, not the catch-all solution. Another component for considering the future were clients and how to form successful design relationships. When taking on new clients, it is important to ensure your clients align with your mission and values, and you both want to learn from the experience. Design is a practice, not a commodity. Emily Cohen, author of Brutally Honest, pushed the audience to stop allowing others dictate who we are as individuals and a discipline, and emphasized the importance of client education. When our clients can make informed decisions about design solutions, we all win. Cohen also shared the significance of sharing results with your clients and collaborators, driven by data. When others can see the return on investment, it makes an even stronger case for your work moving forward.
While our time in DC was short, we managed to witness fascinating lectures, have engaging conversations, and get inspired by the work and environments around us in just a few days. Experiencing the meld of cultures that is distinctly DC and making new connections while reinforcing existing made our time there even more valuable. Overall, it was an experience I will hold in my mind and heart for a long time to come. If you take anything away from this, experiences are everything.
Chelsea and I both attended the Society of Experiential Graphic Designers (SEGD) Conference in Washington DC this year. The overarching theme was “Look Both Ways.” The programing for the conference did just that: showcased the future of the industry while also honoring design legends whose work became the foundation for what we do today.
One design pioneer who spoke was legendary graphic designer Lance Wyman. Most of his talk focused on his work for Mexico City’s massive metro system. This was particularly resonant with us, as we do an array of projects in transportation. Lance Wyman pioneered the use of icons in public transit for wayfinding. This makes wayfinding intuitive for a multi-lingual audience and is considered a best-practice today.
The conference had guided tours as part of the program. Chelsea and I joined a wayfinding tour of the National Mall led by Hunt Design. In their ongoing work there, they are incorporating signage elements that improve accessibility. By using icons, developing tactile signage, and incorporating audio elements, they create impactful results with their work.
The conference captured where EGD is headed in the future. The speakers were intentionally varied as far as profession, age, race, and gender. Talks were given by artists, landscape designers, architects, sign fabricators, and (of course) graphic designers.
There were several talks about de-colonizing design and reframing our design practices to include all people. The word “Decolonizing” can be misunderstood. By definition, it is the act of reexamining and making changes (in the design field, in this case) so as to counter the belief that the culture of a colonizing power (Euro-centric cultures) are more worthy or important than the colonized culture (global native cultures).
Dr. Elizabeth “Dori” Tunstall spoke about her book Decolonizing Design in a panel. Dr. Tunstall was the first black Dean of a design school anywhere. In her talk and in her book, she gives very practical advice on how to decolonize your design practice, such as looking beyond European and American designers for inspiration and involving indigenous communities in your community engagement process. One quote that stuck with me: “(as designers of spaces), we are being paid by the client, but we are in service of the community.”
There’s much more I could talk about from this conference. But overall, the conference stayed true to its tagline: “Look Both Ways.” It honored and examined the past, while painting an optimistic future for the field of Experiential Graphic Design. A future full of collaboration between professions; a future that is accessible for all; a future that is focused on sustainability for our changing planet. These are values and goals that we are working towards at MSA as well. Stay tuned to see how we will continue to honor the past while looking to the future in our projects.
BRAND NEW CONFERENCE
In late September, I attended the Brand New Conference in Chicago, a 2-day event on brand identity. The conference featured influential graphic designers and strategists from across the globe, who spoke about their personal journeys, how it informed their practice, and insights from their projects. With storytelling at the heart of branding, here are some of my favorite takeaways for enhancing brand experience.
WHAT A BRAND IS AND ISN’T
Almost every speaker discussed their interpretation of what defines a brand. What a brand isn’t was unanimous: the logo isn’t the brand. While the logo is an essential part of the brand for recognition, the brand captures the entire experience. The brand represents the purpose and values, ultimately creating an emotional connection with the audience. Some arguments of what a brand is are as simple as Ghost Note, “the brand is the vibe, and it must be protected.” Other arguments were as complex as Love + Money (a brand and digital agency), which had a cheeky Darwinian thesis about the similarities between brands and memes, and how both are ideas built upon other ideas and not all of them survive.
A BRAND MUST EVOLVE
Saleah and Love + Money provided compelling case studies about the importance of brand evolution. Saleah talked about their experience of working with Soapy Faith, a body care brand that thrived in the direct-to-consumer market but was struggling when entering bigger retail outlets. The problem? The original brand identity wasn’t making the right impression and was holding them back in this new market. Transformation is what helped them reach new levels of success. Brands that have been around a long time aren’t off either. Love + Money discussed their experience of working with Polaroid, a legacy brand that was struggling to stay relevant in the digital age. A brand refresh helped launch Polaroid in a new direction that promoted its digital capabilities and appeal to younger audiences. Evolving their brand helped them survive in the ever-changing market. Whether trying to jumpstart growth or keep up with the times, it’s important to evaluate how a brand serves the purpose of its users.
KNOW WHAT YOUR BRAND STANDS FOR
While good design plays an important role in branding, good strategy is the foundation. Defining your purpose, mission, and values with intentional language all goes into design strategy. Branding powerhouse, Collins, shared a peek behind the scenes on how they approach design strategy with a campaign they did for Equinox as an example. In their approach, Collins believes strategy isn’t about taking a client from A to B, but rather A to A+.
Enhancing a client’s brand is knowing:
- Who you are for (tribe) and what you’re against (enemy)
- What you believe (belief) and how you behave (role)
These elements are then used to create a brand promise that can be performed successfully over time to create brand loyalty.
In their design strategy example for Equinox, Collins helped define their values. This resulted in a campaign saying, “Equinox doesn’t speak January” and that the gym wouldn’t be offering new enrollment promotions in the month of January. Why? Their brand is for those who are dedicated and they are against passive commitments. Going against the current of competitors was disruptive, sparked debate, and ultimately increased brand awareness.
RESPECT THE AUDIENCE
In addition to knowing your purpose, it’s important to know your audience. And how you connect with your audience matters. For the People is a firm that specializes in place branding and advocates the importance of collaborating with the community it serves in the process. Knowing the audience helps build an authentic and trustworthy brand that can make a real impact. Nihilo utilizes their background in poetry to write captivating copywriting that emotionally connects with their audience. To drive connection, their biggest insights are simple but impactful: true things resonate with people, and don’t insult the intelligence of your audience.
THE POWER OF COLLABORATION
Have you ever wondered what makes the design behind Nike so special? Diego Guevara, The Global Designer Director of Nike attributed a lot of its success to two things: community and collaboration. For Diego, being able to bring in a diverse roster of designers and illustrators into campaigns is what has elevated Nike, and being able to collaborate and nurture a design community has become his most authentic purpose. Who you work with matters. Bring others in for the right dynamic and the team will make the work (and you) better.
Outside of talks, the conference was a great opportunity to connect with other designers and collect loads of material samples for our Graphics Library at MSA. During a lunch hosted at the Design Museum of Chicago and the conference after-party, I met designers from all over – from Chicago locals to attendees from New Zealand to London. Once the conference wrapped, I spent extra time in Chicago to check out Color Factory and The Museum of Ice Cream, to see how these famous installation spaces approach experiential design in installation spaces. In the end, attending Brand New in Chicago provided valuable insights into how we can implement more engaging narratives within spaces.
- Ghost Note - Washington, DC / Speaker: Reggie Snowden
- Love + Money - Auckland, New Zealand / Speaker: Danny Pemberton
- Saleah - New York, NY / Speaker: Shar Biggers
- Collins - San Francisco, CA / Speaker: Taamrat Amaize
- For the People - Sydney, Australia / Speaker: Jo Roca
- Nihilo - Columbus, OH / Speakers: Emunah Winer and Margaret Kerr-Jarrett
- Nike - Beaverton, OR / Speaker: Diego Guevara