Donor Recognition Explained

Saying “thank you” is a beautiful thing, and expressing gratitude to patrons who make building projects possible is a crucial and sometimes complex task for institutions on the receiving end of their gifts.

Donor recognition has become an important subset of environmental and experiential graphic design. No longer confined to the traditional approach of applying donor names to bronze plaques, donor recognition elements are often architecturally integrated, artful, installations that not only recognize donors, but add a unique sense of place. Often, they are so beautiful that they’re used as tools to encourage new donors as well as encourage the existing ones. As part of comprehensive environmental graphics programs, donor recognition systems are often tied thematically and visually to the organization’s mission, values, and brand.

Donor recognition programs take myriad forms, from static, sculptural solutions to installations that harness digital technology. To be cost-effective, they are designed with flexibility and longevity in mind, often with modular elements that allow the addition of names from year to year and campaign to campaign. They are found in a wide variety of venues where private donations are used to fund capital improvements, including healthcare facilities, educational campuses, museums and science centers, parks, and arts institutions.

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Documentation in Experiential Graphic Design

In environmental graphic design, documentation refers to the design phase dedicated to communicating the design intent of the graphics program to sign fabricators for pricing and production.

In the documentation phase, the design intent is conveyed through a series of drawings and documents, including sign location plans (exact locations where signs will be installed); message schedule (master inventory list for the entire program); design drawings (illustrations of the signs graphics and hardware, also called working drawings or design-intent drawings); and technical specifications (instructions to the sign fabricator).

Designers use a wide range of tools to create documentation packages, from Excel spreadsheets and more sophisticated databases such as Filemaker to rendering programs such as RevIt and Sketch-up and design software such as CAD and InDesign. Documentation is a crucial stage of the design process, as it will determine how closely the finished product matches the designer’s intent. Effective documentation requires extensive collaboration among designers, clients, fabricators, and suppliers.

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Digital Technology in Experiential Graphic Design

In experiential graphic design, digital technology refers to the means of creating, storing, processing, and displaying electronic communications in a built environment. Generally, media created using digital technology are displayed on computer screens or LED or LCD displays. However, evolving digital interfaces and projection technologies are increasing the array of surfaces on which moving images can appear.

Digital design focuses on the design of digitally mediated environments and experiences, including websites, web applications, exhibition experiences, and gaming. Digital signage, another application of digital technology, is made possible by the centralized distribution and playback of digital content on networks of displays. Digital signage often appears in retail applications and, in addition, is increasingly a component of comprehensive wayfinding systems designed for transportation and healthcare environments.

In experiential graphic design, digital technology is not necessarily confined to a computer screen, kiosk, or display. It is often scaled to the built environment, architecturally integrated, and designed as a user-focused experience. It frequently allows and encourages user interaction, particularly through interfaces such as gesture recognition software, motion sensors, or even facial recognition. It leverages sophisticated content management systems to create immersive, often temporal, constantly changing environments that can be customized to meet user needs and preferences.

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Design Research and Experiential Graphic Design

Design research or user research is research undertaken specifically to support the development of products, services, and systems that meet human needs. The primary goal of design research is to generate value for the end user, that is, to meet a specific need.

The design research process involves gathering, distilling, and applying information from user interactions, including user interviews, field surveys, and tests. Methods of data collection and the types of data collected differ from those used in market or academic research. Rather than collecting theoretical data, design research relies on gathering and synthesizing human insights and experiences, with the goal of using these insights and experiences to meet identified needs.

Increasingly, the design world is focusing on evidence-based design to research user needs and behaviors in the built environment, particularly their interaction with architectural spaces. In environmental and experiential graphic design, this research often takes the form of prototyping conceptual systems or communications (such as signage) to determine their effectiveness in helping people navigate spaces. Specific to signage and related visual communications in the built environment, design research has been focused on legibility, nomenclature, mapping, use of symbols, use of multiple languages, sign location, and other factors affecting the effectiveness of wayfinding and directional information systems.

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Design Thinking and Experiential Graphic Design

The idea of design as a way of thinking has its origins in Herbert A. Simon’s 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. Simon noted that design can be thought of as the process of transforming existing conditions into preferred ones. Design thinking is a process aimed at creating the preferred condition through a structured process. This idea of separating the craft or making part of design from the thinking process of design was further elaborated in the context of using design thinking in business by Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business in his books "The Design of Business" and "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works" Martin has been very successful in introducing the idea of using design thinking as an alternative process to analytical thinking into business schools across America.

The design thinking process involves multiple steps which you will recognize as the design process, including: 1) identifying the problem that needs to be solved; 2) researching the history and existing conditions through immersion in the subject, defining user needs, and questioning existing thinking about the opportunities and challenges; 3) ideating, or exploring multiple perspectives and creating and considering many possible solutions; 4) refining and prototyping the most promising concepts; 5) choosing the best solution; and 6) implementing it.

Why is design thinking an important concept for Environmental and Experiential Graphic Design? It is a very useful framework for designers to help business leaders to understand how design works and how it can be used to address many of a businesses problems. It empowers designers to sit at the strategy table with business leaders and to work with them to tackle the larger problems/opportunities these businesses confront and that their clients encounter when interacting with spaces. In this way, the methodology has been adapted as a general method for problem solving outside the design world, particularly in businesses that aim to achieve a more creative or human-centered approach to the way they operate.

Tim Brown the CEO of design firm, IDEO, wrote an interesting thought piece entitled "How Might We Improve the Health & Wealth of Cities?" that provides some pointers as to the type of problems that Experiential Graphic Designers could tackle. In general the type of problem goes from tactical problem solving to business opportunity to social problems as the scale of the questions being tackled increases. Urban living is clearly the movement of the 20th and likely to be the direction of development through the 21st century. Improving the quality of the built environment will bring benefits for hundreds of millions around the globe.


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What is Accessibility and the ADA?


Designers involved with creating experiences in the built environment must be aware of making their communications accessible to people of all ability levels.

Accessibility implies a focus on universal design—that is, design for all. This is inherent in a design discipline that is user-centric, focused on the needs of the people using the physical space. In environmental graphic design and experiential graphic design, this particularly impacts wayfinding and signage systems. Laws in most developed countries now mandate that signage in public spaces consider the needs of disabled persons, especially those who are blind, visually impaired, or physically disabled.

While universal accessibility is not mandated by law in other areas of experiential graphic design, it is important. Truly user-centered design considers the needs and abilities of all people who will be engaged in the experience, not just those in a certain subgroup. 


In the United States, accessible for wayfinding and interior signage is guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted by the United States Congress in 1990, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. Also note the Standards for Accessible Design (SAD) as well as state and local accessibility codes. These guidelines focus on sign legibility (through typography size, height, weight, line spacing, and contrast), sign location, use of symbols and Braille, and other factors. The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), were made effective in 1992 and updated substantially in 2011 with the Standards for Accessible Design (SAD). The SAD guide the construction and alteration of facilities covered by the ADA, including places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities.

The ADA seeks to ensure that these public buildings are accessible to people of all ability levels, including those who are blind, visually impaired, or physically disabled. For environmental and experiential graphic designers, the SAD guidelines impact the development of wayfinding and signage systems in these public spaces—focusing heavily on sign legibility (through typography size, height, weight, and line spacing, and color contrast), sign location, use of symbols and Braille, and other factors.

SEGD has provided leadership to the design community around compliance since before passage of the legislation in 1990. For more than three decades, SEGD has provided courses, workshops, white papers, and other educational materials focused on the subject. Members of the SEGD community are actively involved in ensuring that these codes at the federal, state, and local levels consider the needs of users and follow design best practices. In 2012, SEGD released the 2012 ADA White Paper Update to help the design community meet the spirit and intent of the new SAD guidelines.


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Experiential Graphic Design and Branding

Perhaps no other tool is more powerful for differentiating a product, a place, a company, an organization, or even an individual than what we have come to know as “brand.” It is a visual and psychological shorthand in a world full of choices: a way to guide, reassure, and engage an audience—and keep them engaged.

Some call branding an art; some insist it is a science. Whatever you choose to call it, it is a disciplined process used to build awareness and develop customer loyalty. At its best, it permeates every touchpoint with the audience, from personal interaction to written communications, digital interfaces, social media, visual communications such as signage, experiential design, and architecture. Brand strategy provides a foundation and a central unifying idea that aligns brand behaviors, actions, and various forms of communications.

In experiential graphic design, branding is often an integral component of placemaking and identity projects, wayfinding, exhibition, and even public installations. It is the focus on an increasing number of strategy/research/planning initiatives, particularly as it relates to return on investment (ROI) for brand investments.

While branding often develops as a separate effort, experiential graphic designers collaborate in branding either by developing the brand identity itself or supporting it through communications and experiences in the built environment. These are among the most powerful touchpoints for the brand.

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Content Management Systems

Content management refers to the processes and technologies used to support the collection, management, and publishing of information, particularly in the digital realm. Digital content can take the form of text, images, video, audio, and multimedia. These assets are managed via computer programs that allow publishing, editing, and modifying content from a central interface.

Content management systems (CMS) vary by specific industry. A web CMS, for example, includes software designed for website management, such as content management applications (CMAs) that automate the production of HTML. Digital asset management systems (DAMs) focus on managing graphics and multimedia components and their corresponding metadata, but not text. Enterprise content management systems (ECMs) include components designed to organize and administer enterprise data efficiently. ECM components are geared to goals like streamlining access, eliminating bottlenecks, and minimizing overhead.

In experiential graphic design, content management often refers to the administration of content delivered via digital platforms such as electronic displays. In these applications, content management systems are programmed to automate the sequencing and rotation of content over time, often to reach target audiences at specified times of the day or to match the tone and pacing of content to correspond with activities in the surrounding environment.

See below for SEGD member firms who can help with Content Management Solutions.

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The Role of Content in Experiential Graphic Design

Content is the buzzword of the 21st century, the term that has been co-opted to represent the constant flow of information from social and traditional media. In branding and business communications, it is information that leads consumers to discover, engage with, and consume brands. Content can lead consumers to brand experiences or can be the experience itself. Content marketing is the technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable information to a specific audience in order to acquire customers.

In experiential graphic design, digital technology, and other forms of visual communication, content is the basic building block. It is the information that underpins the message presented in a physical or digital environment. It shapes the choices that designers make about form, scale, color, typography, motion, and other visual effects used in experiential graphic design.

Whether presented on a digital or physical platform, content is a valuable currency in the Information Age. While it is a ubiquitous commodity available to all, its power often lies not in the information itself, but in how it is curated, presented, and distributed. This has fascinating implications for experiential graphic design and visual communications in the built environment.

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