Being Aware: EGD as an Experience Building Tool

Being Aware: EGD  as an Experience Building Tool
Associate Professor Cheryl Beckett and Associate Professor Fiona McGettigan
University of Houston
College of the Arts, School of Art, Graphic Design


Seminar 1

Art of Walking

In the Art of Walking seminar, walking serves as a metaphor for understanding space and place. The designer, as conscious pedestrian, establishes a more intimate relationship with the surrounding environment. This closer insight leads to a more meaningful relationship with people and public space. Walking is experiential–a sense building action.

Through a series of ever expanding walks and site visits, the students focus less on place in relation to navigation and more on how meaning of place may be articulated through man-made and natural artifacts.

Content for the Art of Walking is inspired by numerous moments in art and design history that utilize mindful walking to incite analysis and making. Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, contributes a very accessible approach to walking and its broad connections to a myriad of topics. Francisco Careri’s Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice provides a clear synopsis of site based art movements such as: the visit-excursions of the Dadaists and deambulations of the Surrealists with their practice of “a sort of automatic writing in real space,1 the dérive (drift) of the Lettrists in which the walk is an action to be experienced in the present; and the Situationists, whose psycho-geographic maps reimagine the city as a place to playfully waste time. Artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton conduct extreme treks and present their art as the act of walking, the experience itself. Stalker, a collective of participatory architects, also look at playful intervention and “through listening, making use of creative tools of mapping, walking, interventions and participation, [they] initiate processes of self-organization that create convivial, social spaces.” 2

Architecture and walking have always been intrinsically linked. To navigate a site and its surroundings helps the architect read the space. If the experiential graphic designer taps into a location’s history and meaning, it encourages construction that intersects the inherent story. This enables a responsible transformation of pedestrian spaces—shaping narratives that interpret the location and make visible history, information, poems, practices, stories.

Walking, like writing, has become highly mediated in our technologically accelerated world. Plugged in, the pedestrian is often removed from the here and now, oblivious to surroundings. In other cases, technology augments the experience of surroundings as with Pokemon Go and social media sharing of selfies. It is imperative to maintain an intrinsic relationship with the world. How we experience and know physical space cannot be taken for granted, and walking provides an intimacy with public/private space—a way to understand and define our place in the world.

Walking as an action and idea inspires a dialogue about observation and speed. The observations are keener when we move at a pace that allows attentiveness and focus on the situation and surrounding details. As pedestrians, we are keenly affected by the elements: wind/rain, hot/cold, dark/light, indoor/outdoor, safe/dangerous. On some level, it may be likened to Diane Ackerman’s opening line of A Natural History of the Senses, where we are reminded of  “how sense-luscious our world is.” 3 Ackerman’s call to engage with our surroundings relates to the field of Experience Design–which augments, emphasizes, alters and articulates our awareness. Walking as an analytical and aesthetic act pushes the realm of experience to the forefront.

Project 1 : Personal Geographies

To walk the same route again can mean to think the same thoughts again, as though thoughts and ideas were indeed fixed objects in a landscape one need only know how to travel through. In this way, walking is reading, even when both the walking and the reading are imaginary, and the landscape of the memory becomes a text as stable as that to be found in the garden, the labyrinth, or the station. 4

Where to begin walking? To begin with the familiar, or seemingly familiar, allows us to practice an investment of meaning and observation into a routine act. To walk the familiar with careful observation and attention to the act of walking—the place, time, space, motion, process, signs and indicators—alters and enhances our read of the experience.

In Project 1: Personal Geographies, the students draw from Rebecca Solnit’ and Denis Wood’s call to walk the same route again and again. In the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, Wood takes one neighborhood and maps it over and over again, each time presenting another nuance, story, detail of the visible and invisible in his pursuit of a “poetics of cartography.” 5 Since the framework for all of his maps relies on a straightforward, navigational map, his approach is an excellent model for the student’s first walking experience. Starting from their residence, they walk their neighborhood and draw a basic map. Through repeated levels of observation, exploration, and research, a conceptual map is created based on personal discovery.=

Why maps? One of the earliest visual creations based on walking is the map. Map-making traditionally serves a functional need, but often transcends the practical to the beautiful. In You Are Here: Personal Geographies, Katherine Harmon describes how the making of maps can lead to a personal and analytical practice: “Maps intrigue us, perhaps none more than those that ignore mapping conventions. These are maps that find their essence in some other goal than just taking us from point A to point B. They are a vehicle for the imagination, fueled up and ready to go. The coded visual language of maps is one we all know, but in making maps of our worlds we each have our own dialect.”6



Project 2 : Urban Drifing

In Project 2: Urban Drifting, a dart thrown at a map of Houston determines the next destination. Though they might aim their dart toward a location close to home, students are quickly moved outside their comfort zone. They arrive at a place, or often a non-place, that is unfamiliar and more difficult to approach.

The initial task is to document the experience through: observation, writing, photographs, drawings, maps, etc. Although the site might be distinctive, more often than not, it is only made special through the developed narrative.

A series of readings provides the student with an historical context for walking and analyzing the city. They are introduced to Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, defined as an aimless drifter, moving about the city without an objective, consciously observing—reading the city. The Dadaists organized walks to places with no reason to exist. They avoided locations that were picturesque, historical or held sentimental value.7

The students analyze the site within the context of Houston and the urban environment. That the pedestrian is often a marginal figure in this context, and that many rarely walk anywhere beyond the nearing parking lot, gives extra weight to the assignment. Developing a critical perspective is nearly unavoidable. Since a part of the project is to develop a written narrative, the following quote is meant to inspire not only a unique view of the city, but also a consideration of how language shapes that view. In Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston, the editors write, “In Houston, the idea of the city as an organic, historic, genius loci is hidden away in the cracks and grooves and margins and in things discovered by looking at a smaller and larger scale than ordinary. Behind the corporate city reaching for seamless resemblance there are still lazy bayous harboring mysteries as they move in a different time frame from the mechanical pulse of the city of our creation. There are still distinct chunks of the city’s old patchwork quilt that reflect places without names or maps. There is a city of profit-making beyond civic control. There is a city of mobility—always restless, always on the move, slipstreaming through space in pursuit of a million individual dreams and destinations.…its existence is formed in a series of conjunctive episodes that hold onto their relationships for relatively brief periods. In the ephemeral city, time conspires to fashion a sense of place.” 8

Through artifacts, evidence, and research, the students construct a narrative of place.  For the final project results, they create and package a series of related statements about the site. Through a process of assessment and redefinition of form and idea, all the parts of the series are brought together to present a specific narrative about the site. The three main parts of the project are all packaged together: Documentation, Description and Evidence.

Documentation: Photographs of the location serve as a form of documentation. Though the process of selection, editing and cropping to create a series of four “postcards”, students realize the choice of representation—the orchestration of how the audience reads and understands the space. Consider the goal of the typical tourist postcard and how the location is photographed and presented. What does it mean to document—to captures a moment, a location, cropped and edited from the entirety of the situation? Although the format is a postcard, the goal of the imagery is to support the overall narrative, which may differ significantly from a tourist postcard.

Description: The accordion fold booklet presents a written/typographic interpretation of the site, told in a few words or phrases. The booklet summarizes the main concept derived from the site. History, observation, interviews, research, imagination, or fiction may inform the text. Knowledge and research alter the language used to describe the place.

Collection | Evidence: Physical evidence or artifacts are collected from the site when possible. Evidence may be collected through implication or objects may be fabricated, repurposed, and/ or purchased to support the story and overall aesthetics. All the components are packaged into a cohesive containment system.


Project 3: The Dérive (Walkable Cities)

With a growing knowledge of the history and theories of walking, Project 3: The Dérive offers the students a chance to define a pedestrian encounter. The art movements provide alternative ways to consider the city: the Surrealists’ Deambulations—journeys without aim or destination in which we enter a dream world “as a form of automatic writing in real space; getting lost, disoriented, a call to experience the sensation of everyday wonder. The Situationists’ dérives, described as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society; a technique of transient passages through various ambiances.” The SI’s replace the dream city with a playful, spontaneous city that encourages breaking rules and inventing your own activities free from socio-cultural restrictions, to design aesthetic and revolutionary actions that undermine or elude social control.” 9 Their psychogeographical dérives were meant to strip the city naked, to develop a place of play, a place to awaken desires. To develop pleasure zones rather than work zones—a space for collective living and alternative behaviors.

For the project, teams of students work together to conduct a dérive, a site-based experience. Each team selected the location, agenda, nature and format of the walk. Along with designing the journey, they design additional artifact(s) used to alter, supplement, or enhance the experience.

Teams were responsible for creating a participatory venture in which their classmates performed some level of analysis, documentation, observation, process, and/or dialogue. Beyond the actual experience, the final results included physical representation. This could take on many forms. Teams might provide their classmates with kits of note taking devices, collection containers, video or sound equipment. Data collections might be assembled and organized into a final result. Classmates could be assigned design and fabrication projects based on the excursion.


Project 4: Spatial Alterations

“Space appears as an active, pulsating subject, an autonomous producer of affections and relations. It is a living organism with its own character, a counterpart with shifting moods, with which it is possible to establish a relationship of mutual exchange”. (Carreri 82) 10

For Project 4: Spatial Alterations, the class visits a malleable environment. Inspired by the artists Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, and Andy Goldsworthy, the site is altered in ways both large and small to reconsider the materiality and conditions of a place. Occurring in public, the site installations become a performance and open dialogue with the passing audience.

Artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton conduct extreme walks. In the case of Richard Long, interventions are made upon the landscape. These interventions are impermanent, quickly returning back to nature. Hamish Fulton believes the walk itself, the process of walking, is the art. He does not alter the landscape, but makes typographic and photographic statements derived from the journeys. On some walks, Richard Long predetermines various aspects of the journey—walking to define a shape, a maze, a distance, time, route of significance or destination. This makes us think about how we move though a space. Long uses mapping, not in a literal sense, but of space and time, which may be portrayed through star positions, wind direction, sounds, word sequences that define journey, or time increments. The land, if altered, is only altered by what he is capable of physically accomplishing on his own. The land is meant to return through the course of time. Fulton also presents the walk, the art itself, in a way that does not document or describe it in a literal way. Instead, he captures a moment—as haiku provides the essence of the experience—a fragile glimmer.

Andy Goldsworthy, unlike the long distance trekkers, is a locationist. Carefully selecting a site, Goldsworthy meticulously builds a piece in the environment using only native materials. These materials will also return to nature, and serve as a brief interjection of the artist’s voice.

In documenting their work, the trekkers do not describe the complete journey or experience in literal terms. Their selection and use of language and typographic form— its content and arrangement—describes by setting up a sense of time, space, distance, or by providing an alternate read of the image.

The day-long site visit to a gulf coast beach for Project 4: Spatial Alterations provides an accessible and malleable public space. Students work alone or in groups to assess the location. Although they may have brought some supplies, students primarily work with the conditions and materials on site. The goal is to shape an idea as they reshape the landscape. The articulation of language and form is inspired by a location filled with beautiful nature: coastal marshes and wetlands, migratory birds and dolphins. This is juxtaposed with a massive industrial zone, recognized more for petrochemical plants and flares than marshes and estuaries. This dichotomy may come into play as the students build a narrative through altered natural materials or man-made detritus. The final objective is to create a diptych or triptych that juxtaposes a typographic statement with the photographic documentation of the land intervention.


Seminar 2
Text in the Landscape

Critical observation, classification and analysis are used to explore and examine typography in the environment. For the graphic designer, words and text are visual. The word as form—typographic, sculptural, and material essence—becomes a signifier or a sign where meaning is exposed. The physicality of the word becomes dominant. So too does its relationship to context—the site, or place in the landscape, its function, and the experience we have—which cannot go unnoticed. The nature of language in the landscape forces students to address the relationship of the words and their function. Language can be forthright, ambiguous and at times speculative. It can be functional, instructive, and can guide us. Our understanding of the role of the language and its formal response is critical to our understanding of the role of language in context. From Lascaux in 15000-10000 bc, Celtic symbols on stone, early unofficial signage in Pompeii, Roman inscriptions and memorials, signage and billboards, language has existed in the landscape for a variety of functions and intentions. Language in the environment is a powerful tool, which can be used to influence, educate, inform and seduce a diverse audience.

Text in the Landscape brings an awareness of the variable roles, attributes and impact of language in the landscape. This is addressed through observation, exploration and critique and is supported by essays, lectures and presentations from the history of communication in the environment. Additionally, we review works by public artists, poets and designers including Ian Hamilton Finlay, Lawrence Weiner, Joan Brossa, Gordon Young/Why Not Associates, Jim Sanborn, Marc Ruygrok, Ruedi Baur, BJ Krivanek, Stefan Sagmeister, Catherine Griffiths, Hector Guimard, Paula Scher, Martin Firrell, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holtzer, Gary Breeze, Alexander Branczyk, Bettina Furnee and many other contemporary environmental designers and architects.

Primary to the course is an understanding of the fundamentals of typography as it relates to public lettering, classification and form, notating details that inform legibility, beauty, structure and material considerations. We study the linguistic and symbolic system of language acknowledging that choices related to typefaces or lettering styles—from classical to contemporary, scripts to grunge—infuse meaning that affects the message, function and the experience with the site or building. From there, we consider issues of typographic scale, dimensionality, and material, as well as interaction, narrative and context.

Letters and words surround us. This course aims to critically move from the page to the street with a better awareness of historical form, an understanding of environmental and physical interaction considerations and a view of the potential for typographic form and lettering that informs our public spaces in more meaningful ways.


Project 1: Letterforms from the Street

Letterforms are primarily symbol-signs that have meaning, and visually represent our spoken language. In the first project, Letterforms from the Street, students begin by exploring their surrounding environment with a goal of critically studying the abstract formal qualities of public lettering and typography, and its linguistic value. They follow with an examination of typographic classification, assessment of scale, materiality, site and sign function and context. Site related functional, social and cultural narratives are analyzed through the typographic variables. Form affects the meaning. Students are asked to notate the differences from one letter to another, one type family to another. Through this study, we become more aware and attentive to the ubiquitous nature of language and letters in the landscape—from signs, to graffiti, billboards, interpretive graphics, donor walls, monuments, sculptural and narrative forms, street pavers, water/sewer covers, gravestones/markers.

Meanderings throughout the city allow students to find variety in type or lettering styles and materials. They become more conscious of distinctions in typeface/lettering styles that express the history, culture or function of a community or neighborhood from hand-painted lettering, to decorative tile or ethnically specific typographic forms, to the backlit and channel letter formulas punctuating many of our strip centers. In the process, they notate the specifics of location and narrative. What is the neighborhood culture or function? What function does the public lettering serve—directional, informational, call-to-action, warning, provocative, inspiring, etc.? How does form relate to the function?

For their final deliverables, they choose letters from their photographs that are varied and unique (style, class, materials and narrative). They redraw each of the letterforms considering the details of the stroke, line, weight, flow and balance. The 26 letters are presented in the form of a packaged instructional object or book and include typographic classification, site context, function of the sign, material and how the letters are fabricated or produced.


Project 2: Wordscape

Building from letters to words, Wordscape poses questions and challenges related to narrative, experience and interaction in the landscape. Language does not merely identify, it can influence and challenge us to reconsider our relationship to the context. Students select a location and through research and site visits, they develop an understanding and potential for engagement or activation using language. Based on research, they select words, or write a statement, phrase or quote. The choice of messaging directly relates to the site story or history. The language aims to provide insight, provoke, instruct or create speculation. This process gives the student experience with research questions that relate to language and audience engagement. The final projects include scale models that include 2D or 3D typography or lettering. The students become critical of the meaning of the phrases or words, and examine how the presence of language, our physical interaction with public lettering, and our material choices can influence meaning and our experience with the site.

Wordscape projects have involved outreach and cross-cultural collaboration. For the park project, students gained insight from a community critique where members of the park board evaluated the practicality and form of the proposals. We have also had an opportunity for a cultural collaboration between the University of Houston, Graphic Design students and students from the Introduction to Type Media at Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge, England. Students from both schools began with Skype presentations, followed by social media critiques and went on to design a concept for environmental typography in selected sites both in the UK and in Houston.


Project 3: Language in Context

In the third project, students expand upon what they have done in the Project 2: Wordscapes by collaborating in teams to produce work in context. The goal is to further develop a methodology for concept development and theme analysis, while addressing new issues related to fabrication, materials and interaction. Field trips to various local signage and fabrication shops expose students to the technical aspects of materials and fabrication.

Some of these projects focus on lettering or type as the primary form or feature, while others use language for instructional purposes or as a vehicle to create physical or spatial interaction. For an event that celebrated the restoration of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, students created large-scale typographic illuminated lanterns that became a poetic depiction of the Bayou. The words “float” along the procession route—forming and deconstructing meaning, expanding and breaking apart—reordering letters to create playful chance combinations.  The students gained rich insight into making, performing, interaction and play.

Regardless of the intention, or the extent to which language is central in the projects, the typographic or lettering form and the material and fabrication choices become the primary basis for critique. In doing so, we are highlighting the power of the form of language, as a means to impact our engagement and experience with place.



Through courses such as Art of Walking and Text in the Landscape, students expand their concept of the role of design in shaping people and place. First-hand experience and an analysis of their surroundings—public space, the city, urban nature—develops empathy and awareness. The narrative role of place/site, the environment, observation of behavior in public spaces—achieves a new level of value. This model of site-based interactions offers a particularly strong methodology for reshaping students’ understanding of design to people and how we experience place.

1. Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aestheic Practice Editorial Gustavo Gili SL; 1st. edition (January 4, 2002), pg. 80


3. Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses, Vintage (September 10, 1991)

4. Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Penguin Books (June 1, 2001) pg. 77.

5. Wood, Denis. Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas Siglio; First edition (November 12, 2010)

6. Harmon, Katherine. You Are Here: Personal Geographies. Princeton Architectural Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2003)

7. Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Penguin Books (June 1, 2001) pg. 77.

8. Scardino, Barrie (Editor), William F. Stern, Bruce Webb (Editor), Peter G. Rowe (Foreward), Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston, University of Texas Press; 1 edition (December 1, 2003). page 7

9. Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aestheic Practice Editorial Gustavo Gili SL; 1st. edition (January 4, 2002), pg. 106

10. Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aestheic Practice Editorial Gustavo Gili SL; 1st. edition (January 4, 2002), pg. 82