Jane Davis Doggett, Environmental Graphics Pioneer

Jane Davis Doggett

Traveled through an airport lately? The graphic system standards you see today are the innovations of an EGD pioneer who harnessed color, scale, and the alphabet to humanize massive public spaces.

Trained at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture in the mid-1950s during its modernist heyday, Jane Davis Doggett was one of the first designers to envision how architecture and graphic design should work together to help people navigate unfamiliar spaces. As her colleagues in architecture were designing massive public arenas, transit systems, airports, and cities to serve the booming post-World War economy, she recalls, “I got interested in the human scale. How would a person coming to these behemoths find his way and be secure in understanding the place?”

Graduating from Yale in 1956 with an MFA, she launched a pioneering career in a yet-unnamed field—environmental graphic design. In the next four decades, she created graphic identities and wayfinding systems for a wide range of public spaces, most notably 40 international airports. Her contributions to EGD include many concepts considered standard today: She initiated the use of color-coding and super-scaled letters to help guide travelers through airports, used standard fonts to unify messaging, and introduced a family of arrows and symbols to coordinate with her “ABC” terminal identities. She has also been credited with the concept of thematic graphics that branded airports as the gateways to their communities.

“I had the privilege of working with Jane at her company, Architectural Graphics Associates, on projects for Newark Airport, Jacksonville, and Tampa,” says Sue Gould, FSEGD, President of Lebowitz | Gould | Design (New York). “She was enormously influential in her time, and deserves recognition for her innovations that are now intrinsic components of airport engineering and architecture.”

Tracy Turner (Tracy Turner Design, New York), another protégé of Doggett’s, met with Doggett recently at her home in Maine. They spoke about her days at Yale, her early career and airport work, and the ideas that still inform the practice of EGD today.

How did you get involved in environmental graphic design?

It actually came about at Yale. At the school at that time, everyone was thinking large. It was prophetic. The architects were conceiving projects on a huge scale: sports arenas, mass transit systems, airports, massive urban renewal and design. Projects were new, complicated, and big. It oc­curred to me to think about the person coming to these behemoths and what the human scale should be and how this person would find his way and make use of the place.

And how did the architects react at Yale? Were they receptive?

They were extremely open. They recognized the issues. At the same time though, no one anticipated the huge role graphic design would ultimately play. Typically the architects would run out and take a picture of their building before anyone could get a sign on it. They viewed signs like measles. But the big mass public projects scared them—because it was going to be easy for people to get lost. So environmental graphics really emerged from the nature of the demands on large-scale architectural projects and the environments they created.

How did you start your career?

My first job was with George Nelson. There, I worked on the permanent exhibit at Williamsburg—the anthro­pological part—and it is still up. Among the shards of 18th century Chinaware, we would find vintage pieces of Coca Cola bottles which we also installed, as part of the whimsy and human connection and dating the layers.

Then I moved on and had the good fortune to receive assignments from Architectural Record. They sent me to Europe to meet and photograph architects and engineers. I met Alvar Aalto and Pier Luigi Nervi and some outstanding young emerging architects, so that was a terrific time for me.

Your first big job in EGD was the Memphis Airport, right?

Roy Harrover, an architect and friend of mine from Nashville and Yale, and his partner Bill Mann won the competition for the new Memphis Airport. Roy knew I was exploring interfacing graphics with architecture on a grand scale. He said, I think this is a chance for us to do some good architecture with good graphics here. We were under 30—but we had that glorious audacity of youth and plowed ahead. Yale had given us no barriers; we just did not know we could not do things.

This commission was exciting for all of us. Roy and I went all over to look at different airports around the country. What we found for graphics was a sorry state—actually a void. There may have been a budget for “signs,” with a monetary allowance similar to the “hardware” budget, about $5,000 for the whole job. Signs were considered to be in the domain of sign fabricators, to be produced under construction contracts or provided by the major tenants, such as the airlines, rental cars, or the coffee shop. There was no design budget; graphic design as we now know it didn’t exist.

The first thing I did was to develop a standard font for use throughout the facility. This was the genesis of “Alphabet A.” It was based on Akzidenz Grotesk and it became our foundation for systemizing a graphic program. I was able to convince the airlines to relinquish their logos because in those days some were good but some were just awful. The alphabet carried each name and was a way of cutting down the visual clutter.

So you concentrated on creating a recognizable font as an organizing principle. Did you look at many fonts? How did you settle on one?

I knew serif fonts were problematic for long-distance viewing. I thought sans serif was better for distance; it’s simpler, with basic strokes defining each character and an expanded letterform was better for viewing from afar. Letter spacing is also important. Generally I favored a more open letter spacing since it was easier to read. I de­veloped a laboratory of sorts for exploring these visual issues.

I remember our visual-distance viewing experiments from when I worked for you. Specifically I remember what we learned from our study on arrow forms: that what was a clear and successful form at 100 feet was not the same at 450 feet. You always felt that only highway engineers had studied letterforms for traffic conditions, and you believed designers should be involved in this process.

Yes, and we continued to study the finest details of “read out,” as the need was there for signs to function for safety and organized traffic flow in new, unfamiliar roadways. From Memphis I went on to do the Houston Airport and it was there I expanded on “Alphabet A” using the “ABC” concept for terminal recogni­tion and then indexing the airlines to the letter.

The initial concept stemmed from a roadway/message space problem. At the exact turnoff into the separate terminal, there simply wasn’t enough space for a sign to display the airline titles in legible sizes at the automotive approach distance. The idea I came up with—which nobody had done in an airport before—was to display the airlines in advance, keyed to a huge terminal letter (A, B, C, etc.). Then airline titles were dropped and just the big letter was displayed, preferably on large overhead roadway signs. The result for the driver was a read-out from 2,000 feet, in advance of his decision point. In subsequent DOT traffic studies it was found that my system approach of advance indexing significantly enhanced the safety and ordered flow of traffic. It also eliminated the number of signs required. The savings in sign elimination while achieving attractive, well placed, and legible directions helped my firm get many other airport projects.

You also designed sign systems for hospitals?

Yes, and sports arenas, universities, and subway systems. We did Fairfax Hospital, a large project in Virginia that serves as a major DC facility. Hospitals are so similar to airports in benefitting by display of destination goals and color coding. The planning and thinking are the same process. There are some hospital wayfinding trends I avoided, such as floor markings. They can be obscured by people, wheelchairs, etc., and they bring maintenance problems.

Do you have a favorite airport? Yours, or another?

Well for me it is still Tampa—a landmark for me and very special. They have taken such good care of it, even today. They still use the logo I created for them, and the blue and red color-coded icons.

Tampa wanted to achieve a special and unique travel experience. They were a great client. The airport director, George Bean, had a “walking-distance budget.” The first public use of the Westinghouse shuttle “people mover” came into being—what we called a “horizontal elevator”—to zip passengers from the Landside Building to satellite airside buildings where the airplanes docked. My red and blue color-coding concept designated the north side serving one group of airlines and the south side serving another. (I had argued that calling them “North” and “South” zones, as the engineers had originally done, would be confusing for the public. People don’t always reason like engineers, and at night, who would ever figure out North and South?). The red/blue split goes through information space in all levels, from lead-up roadway signs to departing passenger zones and baggage claim. The passenger just follows the big red or blue symbol to the airside and through to the baggage claim zone. This greatly simplified directional flow. The big color icon can also be seen across a great distance, whereas the airline title would be too small to read.

You also innovated by creating themes for airports and other public spaces, didn’t you?

I innovated and encouraged “gateway themes” for the airports, with the philosophy that the airport must serve more than as a house for airlines. It needs to express the unique part of the world and the people it serves—geographically and culturally—much as the train stations served as grand entries in their day.

At Memphis, with my “Greek frieze” message bands, I complemented the architect’s theme of elegant white column ceiling supports in the spirit of the Greek Revival architecture of the South, which the Memphis area personified. At Baltimore-Washington, I used nautical signal flags in a spirit of patriotic flag-waving to express the airport authority’s goal for the airport to serve and compete as the Capitol’s third national airport. At Tampa, the first of the new Florida jetports, I used Florida sun and sea colors to enhance the authority’s “Gateway to Florida” image. And at Miami, my design concept was a grand roadway entrance of white sculptural arches to support signs, in the vein of the Spanish arches that typify Miami’s Latin architecture. The avenue of arches is often displayed as Miami-Dade’s thematic icon.

The airport experience has changed quite a lot, hasn’t it?

Everyone used to love to go to the airport, to go to the shops and good restaurants. Now you spend time in line going through the “cattle chute” and taking your shoes off. The airport experience has become such an inhuman ordeal to go through. The domination of the security apparatus is crushing the aesthetic. And also the cost of maintaining this security system is crushing.

Tell us what you have been doing lately with your new artistic efforts.

It started with a Christmas card I sent to friends in which I used the passage from Ecclesiastes, “There is a Season - unto all things there is a season...” and I illustrated it with simple geometrics: a circle, a triangle, a square, a rectangle, trapezoid, etc. The response to this card was overwhelming and people wrote me suggesting I do a book expanding on the idea. So I did, and called it Talk­ing Graphics. It is based on the signage premise of using simple shapes and bold colors. I used Biblical and Latin quotations as text inspiration for the bold graphic expression. Limitation is the key. I also thought these images and text might be expressed in a larger context so I created large panels in an exhibition context. I have been designing all this by working in Adobe Illustrator Vector forms, and it is just amazing what the computer tools allow.

Do you have an assistant or do you do everything yourself?

I hand draw everything and my assistant transposes it in Adobe Illustrator sketches. Then we tinker back and forth. In 2010, Yale asked me to do an exhibition so I selected panels for a Talking Graphics exhibition that showed for six months. I became so intrigued with the medium that I started doing scenic images—waterscapes. My medium is what I call electronic silk screening. I render each design segment in selected colors by Pantone and adjust the color percentages as I need. It takes me back to an earlier period in my life artistically. I am having fun!

Photos: Courtesy Jane Davis Doggett

--Interview by Tracy Turner, Tracy Turner Design, eg magazine No. 07, 2013


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