The University of Oklahoma
This paper discusses the potential for environmental graphic design (EGD) in emergent and small communities where both EGD and the value of design are unknown. When designers arrive in a community for the first time, they tend to notice things other people do not. Things like how information and experiences are integrated into a cityscape or neighborhood, or how a vision of a community shapes the delivery of their identity or message. When I arrived in Oklahoma nearly a year ago, I was told that there were huge opportunities for design to make an impact. Designers in Oklahoma are aware of what could be possible, but “the bridge” to make design a community focus had to date not been completed. Leaders in these communities have not been connected to the full potential that design offers. Without this knowledge base, the users of these communities do not understand what design is. A common misunderstanding that complicates matters is that design is equated as marketing. Design is mistakenly understood as the way to “dress things up” or make something “eye catching.” The incomplete part of “the bridge” is the notion that design can be a transformative mechanism that goes beyond the surface, and has the capacity to change the way we experience our present moment and envision our future.
The community-based projects described in this paper were conducted by bridging a relationship between the academic and research community of The University of Oklahoma and local communities in Oklahoma.
Student projects were executed in a design studio during the Fall Semester of 2012. Students were presented with the opportunity to situate their projects within the context of conceptual realism. Projects were located in a real physical location, and students were encouraged to work without the limitations and nuances of politics and economics in order to create a strategic vision for the future. Students worked primarily in two person teams selected at their own discretion. The studio was structured as an open lab with daily desk critiques between me and the students, and weekly group critiques that frequently involved the input from outside visitors including faculty and other local designers. The community projects were conducted in concert with the respective local stakeholders and designers through an intensive multi-day workshop. The project in Depew was initiated with the support and desire for the local community to have a plan for an executable project, with real yet finite budgetary definitions.
In Oklahoma, professional groups such as the AdClub and Art Director’s Club are the dominant professional organizations, followed by AIGA, for both firms and individuals. SEGD has always had a handful of members, some longstanding, in Oklahoma. However, the need for an increased presence by SEGD was evident.
As an educator, I have been an integral connector and collaborator who is engaged in bridging EGD and design understanding to small and local communities in Oklahoma. This education process goes beyond the project-practice model by connecting across and within communities to show how design can incite change and enable transformations for the future.
The mechanism for community education has occurred at three key engagement levels: with the community at large, with students, and with other designers. SEGD is playing a role in this transformation. In August, SEGD OK was established and the process of connecting to the community was started. The Oklahoma design community is largely focused around the advertising industry. By partnering with the Norman Arts Council and The University of Oklahoma Arts District, a PechaKucha Night (also known as 20×20) presence was established to create a platform for creative sharing and exchange. The two joint events to date have spawned new relationships between key links in the community, and with emerging creative professionals. These new bridges have confirmed that a desire for a local design community exists and will continue to evolve.
Within The University of Oklahoma (OU) faculty, I was the first new hire in the Visual Communication program in the past 20 years. This type of shift is being experienced at design schools across the country, where the next generation of educators is ushering in new experiences, new models, and a new bridge to the designers of the future. The Visual Communication program is situated within the School of Art & Art History in the College of Fine Arts. With over seventy students, it is the largest program by number in the school, and is experiencing growth due to shifts in market-based demands. Being situated in a school where the majority of the educators are fine artists creates a unique set of challenges where design is frequently viewed as an inferior trade-based discipline. This particular misconception of design is perpetuated by a mentality that links design to an advertising and marketing culture versus strategic value systems.
Each Spring, over 60 students compete for a finite number of seats in the Visual Communication Program. Those who are accepted into the program experience all facets of design and visual culture during an intense six-semester curriculum. Traditional aspects of print design, branding, and typography are coupled with motion graphics, interactive, and interface design. I was interested in integrating EGD and the broader value of EGD thinking into upper level design courses. This effort is in a large part due to the recent alignment and fusion of the parallel aspects of EGD and experience design with interactive and interface design. Emerging technology and media based platforms are creating massive change and are precipitating a shift in the definition of EGD that has for the most part remained a relative constant over the last forty years. This paradigm shift that has expanded the breadth of the designer’s role in general (i.e. designer as advocate, designer as strategist, etc.) has been embraced in emerging practices and has now shifted to education. This shift is occurring not only as a necessity to rebalance the system that produces the designers of the future, but is also reflective of the economic, social, and political evolution of the last decade.
It is obvious that we are in a time period where the need for change exists. More importantly, we must recognize that transformative change occurs with the alignment of these current possibilities and a community based desire for a continued evolution of new and existing bridges.
As a new faculty member representing the next generation of design and education models, I was presented with the context for ushering in an era of change. This is a unique challenge in essentially an uncharted context. Students at OU come from many diverse locations, urban and rural, in both Oklahoma and Texas. Many of these students’ professional experiences are constrained to on-campus marketing jobs where the client is the university, and the immediate mentor or supervisor is not a trained designer. This precarious relationship creates an immediate need for the undoing of bad practices that have been embraced in the workplace. These situations represent a valuable opportunity to break from what has been endorsed as “good” and challenge students to rethink and elevate the way they strategize and present design to an immediate community-based audience. The following case studies represent my efforts to elevate design in the context of a community that can be enlightened by the potential for change.
CAMPUS-SHOWING: NEXT-GENERATION DESIGNERS
During the fall semester, senior design students completed a project called Campusshowing. The intent of this studio was to analyze the OU Norman Campus for specific placemaking, information, and interface enhancement opportunities. The project’s intent was to show what could be possible with meaningful and relevant design strategy and execution in a context that has not yet met its fullest designed potential.
The OU Norman Campus is situated roughly 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. OU is the flagship research university in Oklahoma. Due to the close proximity of the National Weather Center and abundant local energy reserves, OU has positioned itself as a national leader in science and engineering. The campus architecture is situated in the niche vernacular of the Cherokee Gothic Style—the Oklahoma variant of traditional Collegiate Gothic. Mid-century modern structures and a few recently added contemporary building extensions are in the minority.
For the most part, non-designers have largely been responsible for curating the existing campus information and messaging infrastructure. As a result, maps and directional elements are non-existent, while buildings and destinations are undersigned or completely left without significant identification. The information infrastructure of interior spaces consists largely of legacy signage and messaging elements, some dating back to the early 1970s. Old-style building directories, engraved room and name plaques litter both old and renovated structures alike. Any new users to the campus environment, including the yearly entry of freshman, are left to their own devices. Building occupants frequently implement ad-hoc mapping and directional solutions out of pure necessity to help eliminate the barrage of questions from lost individuals asking for directions to frequented destinations.
From the perspective of the design students and design faculty, the overall campus environment is an untouched target for the work of environmental graphic designers. It remains an incomplete bridge between campus users and the interfaces they navigate and interact with. The potential for an integrated approach to both branding and information management is massive. The potential for the academic design problem was clear. Present the students with the status quo, and incite within them the potential for believing that design can not only make things better, but can inspire a community to want to make it perform better.
While the students largely understood that the campus was underperforming in its information organization and expressive graphic potential, they were initially met with reservations about how any of their forward-thinking design dreams could be integrated into a largely conservative and top-down-managed campus. The response to this was largely focused on allowing them to have the opportunity to think big, and continually ask themselves “Why not?”
In a studio of 17, the students broke into teams and started a broad analysis of the campus focusing on specific areas that presented opportunities for design interventions. The most significant opportunities for EGD-based interventions included the Union, Stadium, the Arts District, Parking Garages, and the Dorms. Students’ research indicated that the information systems they were engaging were lacking basic organizational hierarchy, a consistent brand message, and were void of options for users, ranging from visitors to students and faculty. The graphics in the addendum of this paper present three specific case studies from the Campusshowing project that illustrate interventions at three key engagement spaces on campus. Specifically they are the Union, the Stadium, and an outdoor space near the center of campus that students coined as “The Maze.”
In the project concerning the Oklahoma Memorial Union, students updated the building directory and directional information system using a combination of brand, traditional static graphics, and the introduction of a dynamic system called UnionTV. The design concept and execution was focused primarily on student and campus visitor needs. The strategy integrated the core OU brand colors, an evolved and unique mark for the Union, as well as the thoughtful use of interactive display technology to better showcase meaningful events, news, and timely information to multiple audiences.
OU is known for Sooner Football. Game Days on the OU campus are a unique experience for the first timer and seasoned alumni alike. As the campus flexes its capacity to accommodate the influx of an additional 50,000 fans, location-based directional information becomes critical to keeping the crowds moving smoothly between their destinations. Again, any nominal existing wayfinding performs in the most minimal sense, leaving first time visitors to the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium lost and confused. Students created key information and graphic components to celebrate the OU Game Day experience through both physical and digital application based strategies.
Monumental BOOMER and SOONER typographic sculptures that flank the north and south entries to the stadium and practice field provide a photo opportunity for alumni, students and fans. The Game Day app for mobile devices provides a useful countdown clock until the next game. The app also includes game day wayfinding and information functionality. A route is mapped out to your seat in the stadium, GPS marks where you parked your car on campus, and push notifications keep you in check with the score while you enjoy a tailgate event during the game.
The OU campus is also home to a diverse collection of both contemporary and figurative sculptures. Students in this team situated their placemaking project, The Maze, into an idyllic interstitial space that consists of figurative sculpture, lush landscaping, and integrated concrete seating. A unique brand mark was created, derived from the intersections in the plan diagram of the area. This mark was then dimensionalized into the form of a colorful contemporary sculpture. Conceptual inspiration was drawn from stone forms in the landscape as well as the runic alphabet. Both digital and physical forms were integrated alongside each other. A motion graphic sequence featuring the formation of the mark is displayed on an integrated media panel with information about adjacent building locations and service destinations. This crossover from physical to digital allows for the experience to extend to a dynamic platform allowing for more ephemeral user experiences.
Change-driving engagement requires not only the participation of the next generation of designers, but also requires an openness and trust by the stakeholders of a community. Community engagement is dependent on relationships. The OU brand maintains a longstanding and trusted reputation in Oklahoma due to its alumni base and by the fact that all Oklahomans to a degree consider themselves Sooners.
Concurrent with the ongoing student based projects, an opportunity to work on a community project was presented in collaboration with the Institute for Quality Communities (IQC). IQC is an OU Presidential Initiative, directed by OU Alumni and urban designer Blair Humphreys. IQC is uniquely situated within the College of Architecture and affiliates with architects, urban designers, planners, landscape architects, and environmental graphic designers. IQC’s primary activity is focused around community-based projects with an emphasis on urban design and renewal. I was invited by IQC’s director to engage with their team on a project for a small community located halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Depew, Oklahoma, is a community with 500 citizens situated on an old and forgotten loop along Historic Route 66. Depew was once directly on Route 66, but has been bypassed three times. The first two times occurred with new road alignments of US-66 (now OK-66). The third and final bypass occurred with the construction of the Turner Turnpike (Interstate 44) which runs directly parallel to Route 66. The goal of the workshop was to design a new gateway for Depew, celebrating its history and geographical situation along the original Mother Road in Oklahoma.
During the two-day visit to Depew, IQC ran their signature designWorks community workshop and involved designers from both the OU Norman and Tulsa campuses. Also participating were key stakeholders from Depew including the mayor, city council members, and key “history” keepers from the community. Our interdisciplinary design team worked through several schemes incorporating concepts for community gateways. The initial studies included elements such as roadside billboards, sculptural supergraphics, and illuminated erector-set-like towers. As we neared the end of the first day of the workshop, economic realities began to set in. Knowing that the forward thinking designs we were fervently sketching would never be cost feasible, we strategically decided that it would be appropriate to define and create a new symbolic brand for the City of Depew. This brand would allow for applications of various scale to be implemented over time as the community’s budget allowed. ”
The central component of the brand platform was the creation of a postcard attraction on Main Street, on the original US-66 loop in Downtown Depew. Project Postcard focused on the iconic image of a white church pew, with a graphic “Route 66” icon applied to the pew. The brand tagline, “Have a seat in Depew on Route 66,” is a playful reference to “The Pew” and becomes an instantly unique and recognizable roadside destination.
The brand strategy was easily scalable, and could be applied to strategic touchpoints for both visitors and residents alike. The town’s hilltop water tower would receive a refresh with dual branding highlighting both the new Depew logo as well as the identity for the Hornets, Depew High School’s mascot. Primary and secondary directional signage would direct people to Main Street from OK-66. Placemaking elements such as custom banners would extend the brand message to the pedestrian scale on a seasonal rotation. The Pew would be a unique and memorable social media opportunity that visiting families, young couples, and community members can engage to unite alongside as a base for economic and social growth.
The City of Depew, having never been impacted by the capacity for design, embraced the brand concept and proposed platform with resounding support. A plan was immediately strategized to implement the project. In April 2012, the official Depew “Pew” was unveiled on Main Street during the annual “Depew Fest.” The pew was skinned in a white vinyl graphic that was prepared by the local vocational technology school. The State of Oklahoma provided four new official “Historic Route 66” directional signs leading people off OK-66 onto the Main Street Downtown loop. T-Shirts with the Depew logo were handed out during the unveiling, and plans to extend the brand to additional platforms are currently in the works. While the actual design execution may not have been what was initially anticipated prior to the workshop, the lessons learned by the Depew project were clear. Meaningful design can make a significant emotional, social, and economic impact in small and unexpected places.
Community engagement, education, and the adoption of the mindset that design can make a difference create the opportunity for change. All of these elements are afforded by the potential possibilities that EGD and design offer communities through our “bridging” efforts. As educators and stewards of design, we as a collective must continue to promote our common set of values to ensure that our communities and the next generation of designers can compete and continue to improve design’s incredibly important role in the global cultural landscape.