Jan Lorenc’s storied practice is rooted in a formula resulting in anything but the formulaic: reaching a holistic understanding of each and every project that informs a totally unique experience.
Lorencrecently took his position in the pantheon of SEGD Fellows at the 2017 SEGD Conference Experience Miami, beside experiential graphic design trailblazers including Massimo Vignelli, Lance Wyman, Wayne Hunt, Robert Venturi, Sue Gould, David Gibson, Donald Meeker and Michael Reed, among others.
Lorenc holds degrees in industrial design, architecture and visual communication, and he and his multidisciplinary firm have received numerous honors and accolades over the last 39 years since the founding of Lorenc+Yoo Design. Lorenc is the author of an exhibit design textbook,“What Is Exhibition Design?” and serves as a frequent design lecturer and adjunct professor of exhibition design at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), as well as at Georgia Tech.
Despite the recognition and success, Lorenc was noticeably humble about this particular award. “Frankly I was surprised that I was awarded this fellowship, but I’m honored and grateful," he remarked. "I feel like a bit of an outsider because we approach things from an architectural standpoint, even though graphics play a big role.”
While Lorenc may be surprised, others in the community are decidedly not. “I have admired Jan's work over a period of many years,” writes Jerome Cloud, FSEGD, of Cloud Gehshan Associates. Wayne Hunt, FSEGD, of Hunt Design began his commendation with, “Jan has been a largely unsung EGD superstar for a very long time.”
Watch the Video of Jan Lorenc's Acceptance Speech.
Outside of the firm, what might we find you doing?
I kayak and bike extensively—mountain and road bike—here and in Europe. I’ve done 1,000-mile treks in Croatia and Scandinavia. I love spending time in Europe; I go at least twice a year. I am still enamored with studying Europeans towns–they are visually rich at every turn. When I was in school, we’d photograph things like peeling paint. That was interesting to me, just looking at details is a wonderful thing.
In terms of my collections, I don’t collect metal robots and cars as much anymore as I’m more into cultural masks now. And, even better, I’ve been in the sculpture studio the last couple of years. Every week I create a new piece of clay sculpture from live models; usually I create something from my head, or part from the model and part imagination. It’s been a real treat because there’s no program or criteria.
When did you first become interested in design?
As a kid, I was always drawing. I can remember drawing in Poland and certainly later, when I came to the U.S., my interest grew.
And when it came time for me to go to college I was thinking about art school, but my parents expressed strong doubts about my future livelihood as an artist. We had a friend of the family who was familiar with the Bauhaus, and he suggested I go to Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago for architecture instead.
My SAT English score was not high enough to make the cut-off for the architecture program, yet I was determined to go to IIT. So, I went to the campus bookstore to nose around—to develop a strategy to make the school accept me—and I met a guy named Greene working in the bookstore. I said to him, ‘I didn’t get accepted for architecture, what else is creative on campus here?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s the Institute of Design, which was originally the American Bauhaus.’
Everyone knows what architecture is: It’s buildings. With industrial design, however, I had to do some research. I planned to get into the Institute of Design and then transfer to architecture within a semester.
I got into the program and the first semester was just amazing; the curriculum was a lot of theory and photography. It wasn’t until later that the methodology was taught. While I was learning all these skills, I was still thinking I would transfer upstairs to architecture. So I went up to see what those students were up to—they were drawing little bricks and I-beams and windows all inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe and I thought, ‘Man, this is really boring compared to all this exciting stuff I’m being immersed in at every single class.’ Industrial Design was just an amazing, amazing way for me, so I stayed on.
What stuck with you from your schooling?
What I learned in school—this goes back to IIT—is that the methodology to what you’re doing is not just to ‘crank something out’ but rather to totally understand and immerse yourself in the topic, which I always do with every project. Everywhere I go, I look at things and how they’re put together and try to figure out why they’re the way they are.
A modern education like mine at IIT was just the process. What I learned on my own is that design history is just as important to understand.
Why Experiential Graphic Design?
That’s a good question.
Early into my career in industrial design, I served as design director at Ted Peterson Associates (an offshoot of Unimark), which had undertaken the identity and signage program for Target stores—one that continues to be used today. That was my first contact between graphic design and something dimensional, but it wasn’t all that dimensional compared to the work I later moved my firm into.
When I started my firm in 1978, I actually started doing industrial design for the first couple of years. When we moved to Atlanta, the opportunities came twofold: doing work both in industrial design and environmental graphics.
Then I got a project that was huge at the time. It was a couple-million-square-feet convention center. I started to really learn about architecture at that point: division of space, the differences in measurement conventions and how to move people through a big complex environment. At that point, the work in signage actually became more interesting than the product design and there was greater opportunity in it as I grew the firm.
When we started doing work in the Midwest, I became more interested in architecture. Coming off of an industrial design undergraduate degree and masters in graphic design, I decided I was going to go back to school in 1990 for a masters in architecture because I wanted to become a better space designer. I kept the firm active while I returned for my architectural degree. At that point, my interest started peaking in terms of exhibit design. It was exciting to do complex environments and spaces where we’d get a chance to flow people through the space and tell a story. Navigation is a part of it, of course, but the other part is discovering the narrative and bringing it to light by forming the environments. To me, it’s more experiential; the whole idea of immersion in the space was critical.
I always hunger for new challenges, whether it’s going back to school or doing projects in a different country or market. Experiential graphic design is broad enough for exploration. When I first started in experiential graphic design, it was so pigeonholed. For example, I hadn’t done fifty hospitals so I wasn’t qualified. It was that kind of attitude. At one point we did specialize in commercial developments and we learned a lot, but after awhile for me, personally, it became formulaic. I still feel like I don’t want to do the same thing day in and day out. For a small firm of ten people, that’s why we do a broad mixture and we’re able to get some monumental-scale projects and pull them off.
What was your introduction to SEGD?
John Muhlhausen introduced me to SEGD in the early 1980s. The conferences in Cranbrook were happening back then, and I just loved it—especially because I was still new at EGD then, and Cranbrook was a great place to get to know people. I met many friends there, including Wayne Hunt, Massimo Vignelli, and Lance Wyman—a lot of people who were early founders of the organization. In fact, I loved it so much that about 10 years ago, Craig Berger and I started the Cranbrook conference for exhibit design, which ran for a few years.
What projects or achievements affected the trajectory of your career?
I got my first design job in my sophomore year of college. I worked at a corporate ID firm called Design Consultants Incorporated. Over that two-year period I learned all these various tasks like Photostat work, doing key lines, etc. and was able to make these terrific models and mockups during school because I had learned all these skills that students don’t necessarily know.
After that, I worked in a small firm called E. Burton Benjamin Associates. In my senior year I became the design director there. It was a pretty well known firm at that time, but the work was humdrum. I designed this little thing that’s probably still out there: It’s a little thing with blue water in it and when it tilts back and forth it creates a wave. I designed that thing and I thought, ‘I don’t want a career filled with garbage like that.’
In exhibit design, our firm did a project for Georgia Pacific Distribution Division that I enjoyed immensely because it became so free-spirited in telling the story of a division that sells construction materials. How do you tell the story of an inanimate object? We were able to do that through the way the exhibit was designed, using 100% of the client’s materials. I think it was an important project for me as well, because we worked with artists, and graphic and interior designers. It’s always been a learning process to work with talented collaborators and people who are willing to trust us.
We’ve had a number of clients who’ve been instrumental in pushing me. Even early on in my career there was a commercial office development project called Wildwood where we designed this piece of signage that became a sculpture as opposed to just a sign. That was a launching point for my approach to experiential graphic design. It’s so much more than a pylon with nice text on it.
About 15 years ago, we began having opportunities to do international work, first in Korea, then in the Middle East, then in India, and now in China. China was a big stepping-stone for me personally as well as for the firm. We began doing wayfinding for a large residential-commercial complex and the client asked us if we’d done any architectural façade work because they wanted us to enhance the design of this building. As a result of my constant thirst for a new challenge, we said we’d do it even though we hadn’t done anything like that before. It was scarier than hell. That was how we got into what we call ‘architectural jewelry.’ That project catapulted us into designing full buildings in China.
Another Chinese project we worked on that is wrapping now is a faux version of Lucerne, Switzerland, where people live and work. It’s essentially a mini-town where we touched nearly everything. We did a signage and wayfinding system for it, as well as placemaking from the pavers to the sculptures and fountains to whole buildings.
In my career, even though it seems like a quirky project, it was a wonderful experience to be able to do all kinds of different things, not just the signage. The whole idea of creating an experience in a space came full circle for me on that project.
More typical wayfinding and placemaking projects have been important to us over the years too. We still do things like campus signage, business parks and retail centers. In fact, probably a third of our work is in casinos all over the country; we design spaces and thematic areas, crafting the whole space, look and feel.
What project are you most happy with?
It’s hard to say. It always seems to be the last project I worked on that’s my favorite.
The themes of storytelling and collaboration come up a lot in discussions of your work. What roles do they place in your practice?
None of the stuff we’ve done anywhere would be possible without collaboration. Building a trust and a friendship is critical; if you get adversarial or egotistical, things are going to collapse. By collaborating well, we've been able to grow with every single project we’ve done.
And every project is storytelling. There’s a storytelling in everything you do, from using the right font to using the right colors; it plays a role in everything we do. It may not literally be crafting fairy tales like the Opalus project, but every project has a story to tell.
What do you think will be your design legacy? What do you want to be known for?
I don’t know. I guess I want to be known for not having a design formula—but for going and trying different things.
Twenty-five years ago I was doing a project for IBM and Gwathmey Siegel was the architect. I presented my work to the client as well as Charles Gwathmey and Bob Siegel. Gwathmey was the design partner at that firm and he made a comment that my work doesn’t have a consistent look and feel. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a compliment.’ I thought it was a great thing.
Another example was with Massimo Vignelli over the years. He presented and talked about his five fonts that he uses, his square, sphere and cube. I thought it was limiting and I always got into arguments with him during meetings. As I grew to be more mature, I came to really respect Vignelli’s vision. Eventually, we eventually became friends, and I feel that he honed his craft while continuing to explore and enjoy variety.
I still don’t know if we have a recognizable look and feel to what we do because it’s a look and feel that we craft individually for each project. Is there a legacy in inconsistency, or is it just a personal joy and maybe not so much a legacy?
What’s next for you?
I’d love to be able to continue working on placemaking on a larger scale–creating beautiful experiences and bringing joy to everyday life.
Accolades for Jan Lorenc
“Jan has been a largely unsung EGD superstar for a very long time. Consistently excellent design for a wide variety of project types for many years. He effortlessly moves between important work for huge Asian resorts to elegant corporate museums and everything in between. He can do it, write about it and teach it. Plus, he paddles a mean kayak. ” —Wayne Hunt, FSEGD Hunt Design
“Jan Lorenc has actively engaged with and supported SEGD for a long time, all while doing award-winning project work at Lorenc+Yoo. I admire his calm presence, his professional dedication and his collaborative commitment. Jan represents the best of SEGD. ” —David Gibson, FSEGD Two Twelve
"I have admired Jan's work over a period of many years." —Jerome Cloud, FSEGD Cloud Gehshan Associates
"Jan's practice, as well as his writings, present SEGD in its best possible light. His thoughtful, content-function and beauty-based projects have informed, guided and entertained countless people over the decades." —Henry G. Beer, IDSA FSEGD Henry Beer Consulting + Design
>> More Lorenc+Yoo content.
>> Watch the Video of Jan Lorenc's Acceptance Speech.
>>Meet more of SEGD's distinguished SEGD Fellows, including Massimo Vignelli, Deborah Sussman, David Gibson, and many others.
>>For more great EGD/XGD content in your areas of interest, discover SEGD's Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index!