CityCenter Las Vegas Environmental Graphics and Wayfinding

Neo Las Vegas

Environmental graphic design quietly unifies CityCenter and help define a new brand of Las Vegas urbanism.

Envision a 76-acre site on one of the world’s most notorious streets. A development company commissions eight world-renowned architects, 15 fine artists, more than 250 design firms, and 9,000 construction workers to realize an unprecedented $8.5 billion “urban resort” that represents the largest privately financed project in U.S. history at the time. It encompasses 18 million square feet of building space, a quarter-mile of frontage on the infamous Strip, an extensive public art and landscape program, and a network of multi-modal transportation—pedestrian, automobile, and rail.

Now imagine that you are given the task of coordinating the $32 million program environmental graphics and signage program that must knit this massive project together. Amy Owen and her team faced such a task when, for almost five years, Gensler oversaw the development of the branding and graphic design programs for CityCenter, the mixed-use development that opened to much fanfare in December 2009.

“This was the first time on the Strip where the slated property was to be a collection of buildings instead of one big one, and there was no dedicated theme,” explains Owen. “Because there is so much density on the site, we had to completely change our mindsets about how people would experience it.”

A new model

In CityCenter, MGM sought to advance a new model for development in Las Vegas—abandoning the glitzy, gimmicky approach of the past and instead, building an urban community whose defining feature is its architecture.

CityCenter caters to a sophisticated, growing audience that comes to Las Vegas as much for fine dining, world-class shopping, and entertainment as for gambling. CityCenter’s design reflects that level of sophistication. The complex includes iconic buildings designed by a star-studded cast of architects: luxury hotels including the Mandarin Oriental (Kohn Pedersen Fox), Aria Resort & Casino (Pelli Clarke Pelli), Vdara Hotel & Spa (Rafael Viñoly Architects), and the Harmon Hotel (Foster + Partners); the Veer Towers residences (Murphy/Jahn); and the Crystals retail center (Studio Daniel Libeskind). Interiors by the likes of the Rockwell Group, BBG-BBGM, Karim Rashid, and Adam Tihany add to its status as a high-design destination.

Many have criticized CityCenter for its dissonant mishmash of architectural styles and lack of cohesion. The experience is visually immersive, although not in the insular fashion of the traditional casino resort. Visitors are up close and personal with the buildings, the landscape, and the $42 million public art program that includes installations by the likes of Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin, Nancy Rubins, and Frank Stella.

With all of this competing stimuli, environmental graphics for CityCenter had to work quietly and effectively, directing guests without distracting them. ”In the beginning, we debated the volume of the overarching CityCenter brand,”states Owen. “Would it be a master-branded destination with its own identity front and center? Or would we allow the individual resort and tenant brands to define CityCenter, almost the way SoHo is identified by what has grown there over time?”

The debate continued as the project team developed programming criteria during the first year of planning. As this plan reached consensus, says Owen, “It became clear that the latter was the correct direction, and that our project-wide graphics and signage would be a unifying yet somewhat neutral presence.”

Directing complexity

Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for MGM Resorts International, is accustomed to managing massive developments and went through a similar design evaluation process for the Bellagio Resort & Casino in 1998. But Bellagio’s signage goals were more simplified, orchestrating the movement of guests to and within only one primary destination instead of many.

“We are numbed by the enormity of projects here in Vegas, where several thousand-room hotels are the norm,” says Van Assche. “At CityCenter we had a project three times as dense as anything we had done before, with that many more destinations, points of interest, and products, and we knew traversing the site would be that much more difficult.”

The signage program required a delicate balance: provide enough information to orient guests, but not so much that it would distract from the architectural statement or dilute the identities of the individual properties. CityCenter was split into three blocks with six primary destinations within them (in addition to the common areas). The client specified that not only each block maintain its own voice, but also each property and the literally hundreds of secondary destinations within each property. At the same time, MGM also wanted to preserve the feeling of singularity that was so boldly expressed in the architecture.

The art of communication

Long before these ideas could be implemented, a dialogue began between the design leadership teams at MGM and Gensler, which not only served as the project’s executive architect, but its lead for brand strategy, naming and identity design, and environmental graphics and signage. 

Naturally, when it came to signage, MGM wanted to work with top specialists in the field. “One firm couldn’t have handled the volume of work, so we came up with a strategy for how the scope should be split,” says Owen. “In turn, we hoped the division of the work would help achieve a scalable experience for guests, and we felt it was the only way to avoid gaps and redundancies.”

This process took months and culminated in the selection of four firms for the majority of the EGD work: Selbert Perkins Design (Los Angeles), Hunt Design (Pasadena), Poulin + Morris (New York), and Two Twelve (New York). Gensler served as command central, while at the same time designed signage for the project’s common areas, Crystals, CityCenter Tram, self-service parking garage, Harmon Hotel, Residential Sales Pavilion, and massive, centralized loading dock.

The project’s complexity demanded a sophisticated organizational strategy. Simple two-way conversations were not possible. Communication channels and decision chains were articulated carefully, and a typical email copied upwards of 100 individuals. A “late” response (anything more than 30 minutes) could mean that a decision had been made without you. During the most intense months of the project, Owen estimates receiving more than 150 project-related emails every day.

Communication among the numerous layers of decision-makers proved to be both the project’s Achilles heel and its crowning achievement. Even with tools such as Buzzsaw, keeping up with the numerous daily changes to the project was more than a full-time task.  “We made the most of our design development documentation, but ultimately had to rely on fabricators to survey the actual built conditions before they produced anything,” explains Owen.

The team prepared rough order-of-magnitude estimates during several phases of the project as designs progressed, which turned out to be fairly accurate. And even though signage was one of the last elements to be installed, the team was able to stay true to the initial vision despite the bleak economic forecast and capital concerns that threatened the outcome of the project as a whole.

Fabricators’ shops ran 24/7 to meet deadlines. Hometown firm Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) produced the site-wide exterior signage as well as many areas of interior signage. Account Executive Dennis Harrison says that on typical projects, he sees designs a couple of years ahead of installation, providing plenty of time for refinement and coordination. For CityCenter, YESCO and other fabricators had to draft details and begin building from the onset.

“There was so much going on at one place at one time. It was a giant anthill. Things were shifting until the last minute and there was a lot of overlap in communication,” says Harrison. “But the complex logistics are what made CityCenter interesting. Even the people who worked on the project are in awe of what was accomplished.”

Designing restraint

Creating a successful environmental graphics program for any project in LV would be daunting. This is a city whose entire image has been built around the brazen public display and the practice of one-upmanship is embedded in the development process. Visual competition abounds and CityCenter is no exception. Yet the parameters for CityCenter were different. The spectacular architecture was intended to trump bright, blinking, oversized marquees. As a result, site signage enters the race for attention with a slight disadvantage.

In many ways, the environmental graphics for CityCenter constituted an exercise in restraint. The signs are understated and subtle, and one gets a sense that they are quietly tiptoeing around their stronger neighbors, the buildings.

“The biggest mistake we’ve made is underestimating the impact of a strong graphic design program,” Van Assche concedes. “We asked the designers to be quiet, almost to the point of invisible.”

In some instances, this mandate proved to be very successful. Owen points to the intersections between the buildings and the landscape, such as the much-cited park between Aria and Crystals that features a Henry Moore sculpture. Common areas like this serve as a palette cleanser and a place to respond to the architecture. These are the most neutral areas in terms of signage, to the point of having no signage at all.  “This was deliberate and it works because it gives guests moments of unexpected, non-commercial beauty,” Owen explains.

“From a wayfinding perspective, it isn’t just about signs.,” she continues. “A lot of elements come into play—landscaping, paving, seating, the introduction of art. Wayfinding doesn’t have to work as hard when it plays with other elements.” Editing then became an integral part of the process and helped introduce the concept of “found spaces” lacking elsewhere on the Strip.

Signs of distinction

Signage carried more weight within the individual destinations. But Two Twelve, which created the EGD program for Vdara, the non-gaming property furthest from the Strip, had to embrace the challenges of MGM’s anti-brand mentality.

“Vdara didn’t have any overpowering qualities. It is comprised of different destinations and the client wanted to maintain that feeling,” says Jonathan Posnett, creative director for Two Twelve. “So we had one project with multiple sensibilities and the signage was the glue that held it all together.” Two Twelve used the architectural context of each area—conference center, public spaces, restaurant, guest rooms, spa, etc.—to establish distinct zones, only loosely connected to each other by elements such as related typefaces.

Another way the EGD teams achieved placemaking was through the use of materials. Selbert Perkins Design developed an extensive EGD program of more than 7,000 signs that navigate guests through Aria, including its 150,000-sq.-ft. casino, a 300,000-sq.-ft. convention center, spa, pool deck, parking garage, numerous restaurants, bars and lounges, and the Viva ELVIS Cirque de Soleil Theatre.

Such massive spaces can feel impersonal to guests. But Selbert Perkins Principal Andrew Davey says the firm wanted to reflect CityCenter’s sophisticated image while using sustainable materials and processes in support of the development’s LEED aspirations.

“One aspect that made it more human was the use of wood—real reclaimed wood that was 100 years old and had nail holes,” says Davey. “Even something as utilitarian as a sign becomes personal when you add some warmth.” The firm also used environmentally preferable products such as aluminum and low-voltage, LED illumination.

Moving people amidst chaos

Whereas the overall visual approach to signage was restrained, MGM knew that providing effective wayfinding was important. Las Vegas can be a dizzying, disorienting experience. At most casinos, it takes all of five seconds to find a blackjack table, but it can take an hour to find a latte or even longer to find a door to the outside.

Van Assche says the last thing MGM wanted to do at CityCenter was to confuse people or hold them captive against their will. “This is not the LV of old that depends on the casino, where everything else is an ancillary appendage,” he insists. “Now we have to create various points of interest. That makes the job of signage increasingly difficult.” The signage had to appear distinct enough to orchestrate movement, but be seamlessly integrated at the same time.

Simply entering the complex is fraught with obstacles. The absence of a marquee on Las Vegas Boulevard is the most noticeable difference between this project and its neighbors. And it constitutes the biggest risk since marquees have been the main form of advertisement on The Strip. But MGM’s decision stemmed from a desire to make the project seem more like a neighborhood. Considering the site’s raised deck and the stringent restrictions on overhead signage on Las Vegas Boulevard, the architecture became the project’s marquee identity.

Access challenges abounded. There is only one curb cut on the Strip for four of the destination buildings at CityCenter. The entrance is a veritable freeway unto itself, with four to five lanes of traffic in each direction. To ease confusion, Gensler strategically deployed signage to peel cars off at various destinations, so that by the time guests arrive at the top, there is only one option left, Aria’s Valet—the site of the complex’s only casino. The site’s north arrival is actually an elevated circular roadway with entrance and exit ramps. It is also the only driveway in Las Vegas to service two porte-cocheres.

“It’s an incredibly complex area, with public and private lanes co-mingling. We worked with the civil and traffic engineers for nearly a year to design something that would truly work for every user,” says Owen.

She also divulges that these roadway details kept her up at night despite a careful audit of the Bellagio, where her team filmed traffic patterns for 24 hours. “Historically, this is not an area of intense focus,” Owen says. “Las Vegas developers are much more interested in making guests comfortable once they’re inside the building, and roadways are a necessary evil. But we knew that it absolutely had to work. “ Additionally, at a typical Las Vegas property, guests are faced with one decision: valet or self-parking. “You don’t have to think about the next step until you’re out of the car. With CityCenter, we had to communicate a lot more information to people while they’re still driving. With all of the sensory distractions competing for a driver’s attention, we recognized the enormity of this challenge..”

The navigation hurdles continued on the interiors. The design leadership team spent weeks upon weeks vetting ways to number the guest floors in Aria. Because it is shaped as intersecting arcs that create four wings, the footprint made it difficult to come up with an intelligible system. Jennifer Bressler, a principal at Hunt Design, worked on this aspect of Aria (as well as the EGD program for Veer Towers). She explains: “The experience is counterintuitive. We couldn’t use an east/west directional because there are no indicators that you just crossed over, like a corner. We had to place a bigger role on the signs than in a conventional hotel, and the users are directed by logical sequences.”

For all of the effort put into maintaining the individual identities of each property, there is one common thread that runs throughout the entire project: the 17,000 back-of-house signs, which were designed by Selbert Perkins and fabricated by Architectural Design & Signs (AD/S, Corona, Calif.). In a place like LV, this aspect is more important than you might think. Back-of-house constitutes a city within a city, driving everything from efficient room service and security to equipment maintenance and employee retention.

“Signage is like the icing on the cake—people forget about all the work it takes to get there,” says Jeff Debough, executive vice president of AD/S. The company had two people on the site every day for two years, monitoring the progress and resolving conflicts as they arose day to day. Debough can attest to the tremendous amount of coordination required for the CityCenter job: he still has 6,000 emails sitting in his inbox.

An afterthought

As Debough reminds us, telling the real story behind any project isn’t only about the “what,” but also the “how.”  CityCenter’s environmental graphics program was likely the largest, most diverse, and most expensive of its kind ever accomplished. Yet press coverage of CityCenter, which has not ceased since the opening a year ago, gravitates toward the end result.

Once installed, the signage became instantly absorbed by its surroundings and critical to the functionality of the site. It helped create a new visual language for Las Vegas, one that relies increasingly upon intuition rather than impulse. Like it or not, the experience of CityCenter is unparalleled in LV, and ultimately, it is the connective tissue of signage and environmental graphics—and the process behind the vision—that helps us navigate this uncharted territory.

--By Jennifer Volland, segdDESIGN No. 30, 2010

Editor's note: Jennifer Volland is a freelance writer and curator based in Long Beach, Calif. She co-authored the book Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis. Her current work focuses on the history of hotel culture and how it has been shaped by architecture and design.


Location:  Las Vegas

Client:  MGM Resorts International

Environmental Graphic Design:  

Gensler (executive architect, brand strategy, naming and identity design, program development and signage coordination; design for site-wide wayfinding, Garage 5, CityCenter Place and Harmon Circle, Crystals, Harmon Hotel, Residential Sales Pavilion, and kiosks.

Hunt Design (Veer Towers, Aria Tier 3 Suites, Aria Hotel Tower)

Poulin + Morris (Mandarin Oriental Hotel)

Selbert Perkins Design (Aria Resort & Casino podium, Aria Convention Center, Aria pool deck, Viva ELVIS Theatre, Sinatra Garage, project-wide back-of-house)

Two Twelve (Vdara Hotel & Spa)

Consultants:  Applied Storytelling (naming, writing), Axxess Industries (doorbell components, Vdara and Aria)

Fabrication:  Architectural Design & Signs (Aria casino podium, back-of-house, casino venues, Aria Convention Center, Casino tower, UUX-Garage 6); YESCO (Vdara podium and porte-cochere, Mandarin Oriental podium, Frank Sinatra wayfinding, Harmon Circle wayfinding, Las Vegas Boulevard/CityCenter wayfinding, automated people mover); Ad Art (Crystals); Ampersand (Garage 5); Casino Lighting & Sign (showroom theater, Mandarin Oriental tower); CREO (Sinatra garage); RB Industries (Aria podium pool, Aria spa/salon); Wolfpack Sign Group (Vdara tower)

Photography:  Ryan Gobuty, Jeff Green, Jonathan Posnett, Andrew Davey, MGM Resorts International (as noted)

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