Environmental Graphic Design: Changing the Perceptions of Divided Communities through Cultural and Social Connectivity

Andy Schwanbeck


This project explores the value that environmental graphic design elements can create to help promote and improve the perceptions of a neighborhood within a segregated urban landscape.

Urban segregation occurs when a city’s diversities create perceived barriers around concentrated clusters of social groups. When these divisions are extreme enough, communities become shut off from the rest of the city and often fall into a perpetual cycle of struggle and degradation. Research has shown that the success of a neighborhood rests in its ability to connect with other neighborhoods and economies throughout a city. It also demonstrates that cross- participation enhances the overall capacity of a community to operate both socially and economically. In a segregated city, there is an opportunity to use environmental graphic design elements to help improve the perceptions of a divided neighborhood and reconnect it to the greater city population.

During this research, a case-study project was developed with the neighborhood East Liberty, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Historically a thriving neighborhood, East Liberty has been plagued by over two decades of neglect and failed renewal efforts. Despite recent development efforts, many locals still avoid this area. This case study uses a combination of research tactics and design prototypes to produce elements that attempt to improve the experience of East Liberty and create more positive perceptions surrounding this area.

The results from this project measured a significant improvement to the negative perceptions of East Liberty and demonstrated the potential to entice more people to visit and participate within this neighborhood.


In almost every city in the world, there is a certain level of geographic segregation between the different cultural groups who occupy it. It’s a natural phenomenon that’s rooted in the history of how cities were first formed. Such diversities typically enhance the overall quality of life for those in a city. However in other cases, such diversities can build barriers throughout a city. These barriers are built by the perceived cultural and economic differences between social groups. When these barriers become extreme enough, their separation can cause economics to plunge and neighborhoods to fall into urban decay. Research has shown that the more cross-participation a city has between its communities, the better it will be able to operate both socially and economically (Stern and Seifert, 2008, p.2). In order for cities to collectively progress into the future, segregated neighborhoods must become more integrated with the rest of the city.

To re-connect segregated neighborhoods a number of development efforts need to happen. Commercial and retail corridors need to be revitalized, crime and violence must be addressed and other infrastructure elements like traffic control and public transportation may need improved. But development alone is not enough. What needs to coincide with development is a communication process between the neighborhood’s different social groups and the rest of the city. Both the perceptions of a place and of the cultures that occupy it need to be changed. Development can take care of the environmental elements but it cannot change the perceptions of the people who live there. This study suggests that there is an opportunity for design to communicate a positive identity of the people and culture that occupy these neighborhoods and help to reconnect such areas with the rest of the city again.

This project analyzes a framework for implementing design elements that can promote the cultural, historical, and economical connectivity of a city. It explores storytelling, interpretive visuals, and placemaking tools as means to give a meaningful identity to a segregated neighborhood. As part of this exploration, a case study was performed on a portion of the city of Pittsburgh, a large metropolitan area with a rich industrial history. Pittsburgh currently ranks amongst the top 20 most segregated cities within the United States (United States, 2010). This case study develops a plan that focuses on understanding how these visual elements can help combat the perception issues surrounding segregated neighborhoods.

Kevin Lynch said that Environmental Images are a two-way exchange — “the environment suggests distinctions and relations and the viewer with great adaptability selects, organizes and endows with meaning what he sees” (Lynch, 1960, p.6). When considering the vast collection of reasons that a neighborhood becomes segregated; economic despair, ethnic separation, failed revitalization efforts— ultimately it is the image that each place represents outward to the rest of the city that informs how it is perceived and represented in the greater city makeup.


Cities are filled with signals, both architectural and other, that help inform communication between the environment and those who interact with it. Signs and maps help to direct people to nearby destinations while address numbers work to identify buildings in a larger urban framework. Public art communicates the unique characteristics of an environment and other pageantry elements pave the way for distinct neighborhood identifications. These visuals along with many others, make up the field of Environmental Graphic Design. Environmental Graphic Design, or EGD as it is commonly referred to, is a design discipline that concerns itself with three specific components of a place: identification, in order to distinguish it from other places; navigation, so that each place can be found in the context of its surroundings; and interpretation, sharing information about the environment that describes its context in the broader scope of society. Together these components work to enhance the environmental image of a place and evoke a “sense of home” that helps achieve a positive feeling of emotional security (Lynch, 1960, p.4).

There are a number of services that environmental graphic design can provide that will help raise the overall perception of a neighborhood. Robert Fleming describes environmental graphics as being capable “of humanizing the essential elements of a cityscape” (Fleming, 2007, p. 21). However in order for this to happen, much care must be given to understanding the specific and unique qualities of a place. Applying a one-size fits all design approach can lead to a blanketed feeling of sameness that dulls an environment with a sense of anonymity. In order to avoid this, extended efforts must be made through research and community engagement. Ruedi Baur exclaims that, “In a world where everything is tending towards resemblance, the extraordinary — or at least the appropriately different — is acquiring great value. Creating places that are unique, unreplicable, and therefore contextualized could be the great challenge for towns and cities of our times” (Mollerup, 2005, p.304). Recently, new strategies have enabled designers of all disciplines to take a more human centered approach with their work and focus more on the experiences design can create. Andrew Blauvelt of Design Observer writes that, “Lately, I’ve sensed that we’re in a third phase of modern design, what I sometimes call its ‘ethnographic turn.’ We’ve seen periods of great formal experimentation, exploding the visual vocabulary of modernism. We’ve seen periods focused on the meaning-making of design, its content, symbolism, and narrative potential. For me, this new phase is preoccupied with design’s effects, beyond its status as an object, and beyond the ‘authorship’ or intentions of designers” (Blauvelt, 2007). The notion of research in design commonly refers to a focused investigation that informs the action of design. This investigation tends to be very qualitative focusing on uncovering the “why” behind a design problem. Quite often these research tactics are centered around the strategy of Ethnography. Ethnography is a “research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting” (Blauvelt, 2007).

Its goal is to understand a phenomenon through the perspective of the actual community being studied. For example, to understand why a neighborhood is highly segregated, a researcher would need to understand the culture of the people who live in the area. Factors such as the physical infrastructure, the beliefs of those who live in it as opposed to those who do not, its history and it’s range of citizens, would be just a few of the key elements to realize. This type of research can inform all aspects of the design process: everything from understanding the appropriate construction materials for a sign element to realizing the ability to create effective messages that communicates to the intended audience.


This project began with a very basic problem in mind – How can EGD and its power to communicate information, make a difference in a segregated city? The city of Pittsburgh was chosen as an area
to explore this idea further. Its status as a working class, rust-belt city, demonstrated it to be the perfect archetype for countless other cities across the country. Furthermore, it is ranked as the 15th most segregated city in the United States (United States, 2010). Before beginning any detailed research, multiple city visits were made to explore the different neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Field notes were used to capture the details of these environments. In addition, primary areas of interest were observed and documented through photo documentation. Using Kevin Lynch’s five elements of the city, basic maps were constructed to diagram physical structure and basic environmental characteristics of various neighborhoods. Through conducting this research along with studying census demographics, a focus area of Pittsburgh was determined for this study. After some consideration, the neighborhood East Liberty was chosen for the concentration of this work. Its rich history and troubled reputation, alongside a current redevelopment effort, made the neighborhood the perfect example for testing this project further.

The research strategy for this case study was created to include a mix of both primary and secondary research tactics. Literature reviews showed the most potential to understand Pittsburgh’s history, the number of issues surrounding segregation, and the precedent for what existing design projects could bring to this problem. For primary research, surveys, interviews and a prototype test experiment were chosen. Each of these tactics offered a different benefit to the research: surveys answered broadly to overarching project questions, interviews allowed for a deeper engagement where more specific information could be learned, and the prototype test provided an outlet for very specific and contextual feedback of design prototypes. In addition, self observation and photo documentation were used for further analysis of the existing environment in East Liberty. Careful consideration was given to choose a variety of sources and engage participants with various tactics to ensure as much triangulation to this research as possible.

Primary research helped to discover the basis of the perceived barriers that divide East Liberty and what truly fuels its negative perceptions. This information also helped to establish a framework for where the opportunities were for design interventions, and what areas of the experience of East Liberty needed improvement the most.

Observational Notetaking and Visual Anthropology

Throughout the course of investigating East Liberty, note taking was used to record observations of the neighborhood. Much of the information recorded provided a context for the many conversations that came later in the research process. The existing characteristics of the neighborhood and its inhabitants were thoroughly documented. It was noted that the area is still very much under development, and that newly developed clusters exist directly adjacent to areas of neglect. Signs of history in the architectural details of building facades and street furniture were evident, but mostly appeared neglected, foreshadowed by a lingering sense of struggle.


Through this tactic, a number of events throughout Pittsburgh were attended to gain a better perspective on how different community practices can bring together a diverse group of people. Experiences such as First Friday gallery nights, public art scavenger hunts and pop up retail events all demonstrated that an interesting mix of people could be brought together and experience a neighborhood through some kind of universal connection usually made with art and culture. These various experiences helped solidify concepts for different forms of engagement that could be applied in East Liberty.


A survey was developed to better understand the attitudes and behaviors towards Pittsburgh’s neighborhood divisions. Both city and suburb residents were asked to participate in two nearly identical surveys. Each group was asked to express their general opinion of East Liberty as positive, negative or no opinion. Nearly 50% of residents in the suburbs responded as negative, while only 30% of city residents replied negative. The survey also uncovered general facts like 79% of residents living in the suburbs said that they visit the city primarily for entertainment and that nearly 60% of city residents replied that they have felt unwelcome in a Pittsburgh area neighborhood.


Interviews with East Liberty residents and community organizations helped to establish the sense of pride that locals have for their neighborhood. Whether old or young, new or longtime resident, everyone who
was interviewed spoke with enthusiasm for where they lived. However there were varying opinions of uncertainty for the future of the neighborhood. When asked, “how do you think the rest of Pittsburgh views East Liberty,” a participant answered, “I know that they look at it as a downtrodden section. But they hear a lot of up and coming things about it. My step-mom is from a small town 45 minutes from here, she knew it as trashy, and the reason why is that there was a huge section 8 complex. That’s why it was perceived that way and thats how she still thinks of it, and the people who don’t experience it day-to-day, that’s how they still think of it. But you know you can’t judge a neighborhood by who’s standing at the bus stops when you drive past, and again that’s a huge perception issue with East Liberty.” Interviews with suburban residents helped to establish that lack of exposure to the neighborhood was the primary issue for their negative perceptions. Most of their notions of East Liberty were formed by either word of mouth, or distant judgments made from very limited experiences. For instance, one participant suggested that “I’ve always heard it was a bad neighborhood in the city. I’ve never really been to it, but just based on what I’ve heard, I probably won’t. Not until I hear more positive things anyway, there’s just no point. There’s plenty of other nice places in the city to visit.”


In this stage, all of the information gathered from the previous research was analyzed and distilled into information frameworks that summarized the findings. These frameworks were used to identify design criteria and locate opportunities for design solutions. They also worked to make the overall findings more accessible. This enabled the research to articulate a concise value for design that demonstrated it as a viable option to project stakeholders.

The 5E’s Experience Model

The 5E’s experience model was used to illustrate what the experience of visiting East Liberty was like. The 5E’s stand for Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit and Extend. The data was informed from the previously discussed research tactics. The goal of the 5E’s model is to plot out the existing experience of visiting East Liberty and compare that to the potential change that elements from this study might bring to it. Each stage of the experience is rated for its effectiveness on a scale of one through five, and potential weaknesses in the experience were identified for further analysis.


In order to summarize all that was learned from the surveys and the interviews, personas were developed that embodied the various groups who engage with East Liberty. A persona is a fabricated archetype of an end user that identifies their motivations, expectations and goals (Visocky O’Grady, 2006, p.72). Three personas were developed for both visitors and East Liberty residents. Each persona has a small written summary along with a How, Think, Do model (example shown below). The How, Think, Do model was used to show how this persona forms their perceptions of East Liberty, what they think about East Liberty, and what they do in East Liberty. From that chart, basic criteria were developed to try to best meet each of these persona’s needs and work to change their perceptions of the neighborhood.

Outcome of Synthesis

The outcome of the synthesis phase was a summary of all research findings and a list of criteria to guide the design development. The generated criteria for this case study was as follows:

  • Engage visitors beyond the typical destinations of restaurants and commercial retail
  • Create a narrative that can break down perceptions of inequality—racial, economic, and cultural
  • Create a welcoming identity that entices visitors to enter and explore
  • Celebrate neighborhood differences while creating a feeling of connection to the rest of the city
  • Create a variety of ways for different personalities to form their own attachments through open ended storytelling and a variety of experiences
  • Bridge the culture of old to the culture of new
  • Be specific to the history of the neighborhood and help inform visitors about where they live and its significance in shaping the city of Pittsburgh


Producing a test that provided a measure of success to the initial problem statement was the most important element of this study. To do this, an experience needed to be created where participants with different backgrounds and viewpoints could engage with East Liberty through the aid of various design elements and validate whether or not those elements had any impact on their experience. If successful, that validation would be integral to articulating the value for further exploration of this theory. If not, questioning the research and design of the experiment could also lead to other explorations, or it could prove the ineffectiveness of this theory and stop someone else from investing time and resources in it. Either way, testing was crucial to provide closure to this study.

The concepts for this case-study were developed around the idea of creating a self guided neighborhood walk. A self-guided walk provided an open framework for various communication tools to be applied to. It also allowed for a comfortable experience for participants to visit the neighborhood and feel open to experience it in any way that felt natural for them. In addition, it created a system that anyone could discover while in East Liberty and use to explore the neighborhood further.

The various design elements created for the neighborhood walk were created by referring to the 5E’s experience model which identified the phases of experiencing East Liberty that design could impact most.


To entice participants to come to East Liberty, an online website was established. The website created a crucial line of communication between planning and the research participants. It also became the home base for all of the important information regarding the study. The website also became a useful promotional tool. The about section pointed out all of the information relevant to the study such as what it was trying to do, and why participation was important, while the main blog offered a venue to speak about the interesting qualities of East Liberty through the “you might not have known” posts. Here, various tips about the history and current interests of East Liberty were leaked out prior to the event in order to increase excitement for visiting the neighborhood.


Multiple components were created to foster a more memorable engagement with East Liberty. A simple sign family was designed to provide directional orientation and additional interpretive information about the environment. The first step in this design process was to establish the route of the walking tour. From there, a simple loop was mapped out that traveled throughout the commercial corridor of the neighborhood. The path was pre-tested before the case-study test to ensure it was easy enough to follow.

To help designate the route of the loop, an overall mapping exercise located all possible locations of interest. Secondary research complimented this effort to learn more about the most significant sites. The decision to feature five primary destinations was made based on their interest and proximity to the downtown corridor. The remaining destinations were identified on the directional signage and wayfinding map.

A simple orientation sign was made to provide additional accessibility to the neighborhood. Many of the principles evolved by Joel Katz in the Walk Philadelphia sign system were used to develop this map. The design was simplified as much as possible in order to be easily and quickly understood. It also utilizes a heads up orientation and a rolling map feature to provide for an optimal user interaction.

The bulk of this experience relied on an effective system of interpretive sign elements. These elements carried the responsibility of engaging visitors and informing them of the unique and positive character of East Liberty. A system of different markers was designed to point out landmarks and share information about the neighborhood. Secondary research was used to extract the content for these signs. The primary interpretive marker was created to give site-specific information about a landmark. Its layout features a contextual photograph that enhanced the main story, along with a sidebar area to provide additional written information.

A printed brochure was designed for the participants to use during the experience. The brochure featured a overall map of East Liberty with step-by-step instructions to follow the walking tour. In addition, the map highlighted a complete list of local destinations to allow participants to set off on their own exploration. It also provided a brief summary of the history of the neighborhood, along with a neighborhood scavenger hunt. The concept for the brochure was to add an additional level of comfort to the experience by providing the users another element to help them navigate the tour and feel more at ease with the area.

A local coffee shop, Zeke’s, agreed to help participate in this study. Adding a business to the walking tour gave visitors a comfortable spot to take a break from the experience and get something warm to drink. Zeke’s became a destination on the tour when they agreed to allow the timeline element to be hung in their shop. Here, users stepped in from outside, had a drink, and found themselves in a comfortable setting to engage with the timeline. Zeke’s also contributed coupons to participants for discounted coffee and contributed a good bit of neighborhood character to the experience.


After finishing, users were asked to return to the website and view the “What I Love about East Liberty” page. Here participants were urged to share their thoughts about East Liberty and spark the conversation for what the identity of the neighborhood should become. This act allowed for an extension of the experience and also provided a way to help to entice new participants to visit East Liberty.

Prototype Test Results

When the participants returned, they were asked to fill out the second portion of their survey discussing any change in their feelings towards the neighborhood. Small discussions about the experience also provided additional information. Most participants were eager to share their varied comments: “I don’t really care about how nice the neighborhood was, if its crap now, then I’m not going feel like it’s worthwhile,” or “That was fun! It was really interesting to learn about the history of the area, it definitely made me want to come back again.” The test results provided an overall support for the statements in this study validating the argument for further exploration. Overall, 65% of the participants answered that their experience in the experiment improved their overall perceptions of East Liberty. That statistic became even more significant when observing that nearly 70% of participants rated their overall opinion of East Liberty before this experience to be somewhere between very poor and just OK. In addition, 50% of the participants replied that they would be likely, or very likely to return to East Liberty again. All of the elements in the design concepts were rated valuable to the experience. The interpretive signage received the most support, but many also noted that they enjoyed the opportunity to engage with a local business. Other comments that followed the survey were, “seeing the before and after images helped to influence my opinion on how much potential the area has,” and that “the news gives a negative view of the area, walking around today was great, there are lots of new businesses and things to check out, I would love to come back more.”


The research presented in this paper demonstrated support for the theory that environmental graphic design, along with other visual communication elements, can be used to improve the perceptions of a developing neighborhood. The results in this study depicted a 65% improvement in the perception of East Liberty. Furthermore they articulated the value in pursuing this research further in both East Liberty and other similar neighborhoods across the country.

In spite of that, there was a bias to these results. If the label of a “research experiment” was removed from this study, and no participants were actively recruited for testing, would these tools yield the same results? Could they entice random people to go to a neighborhood they thought badly of? How would someone rate the experience if they didn’t know what was being tested? These will be crucial answers to seek in future iterations of this research.

It can be said with certainty that the prototypes in this project did not achieve success alone. Much of the redevelopment in East Liberty also created a positive impact on this experience. Looking to the future, this development will also play an important role in attracting more people to the neighborhood. As East Liberty continues to re-invent itself, there is a strong opportunity to use these concepts alongside other development efforts to continue to improve the perception of the neighborhood.

It also remains to be seen what the long-term effects of improving a neighborhood’s perception will be. It is apparent that it does break down some perceived barriers to a place, thereby making it inherently more integrated with the rest of the city. But what does that integration lead to? Stern and Seifert argue in their paper, “From Creative Economy to Creative Society,” that an increase in cross-community participation will lead to a more economic and culturally inclusive society. Their research declares that “cultural engagement fosters the collective capacity of people, especially in low- wealth communities” (Stern and Seifert, 2008, p.5). It is also unknown if an improved perception of a place can lead to a better appreciation for its current people and culture. If so, can that impact redevelopment efforts to work harder at preservation and integration over replacement? This test was one small experiment designed to validate further exploration.

In the future, it is suggested that the following measures are taken to continue to develop these ideas:

  • Design a more integrated communication system that crafts specific narratives directed to the personas developed in this case-study. Conduct multiple prototype tests that allow these elements to circulate for longer durations of time in order to understand whether or not they can randomly entice individuals to explore the neighborhood further. These tests should feel more natural, removing as much of the previously discussed bias as possible, and engage more participants.
  • Develop a measurement for how effective these elements are in encouraging deeper exploration of local commercial areas and analyze the positive effects they have on the long-term qualities and development of a neighborhood.
  • Develop implementation plans that work to determine what characteristics an environment should have in order for these tools to be present.
  • Design a full neighborhood system that works to connect a larger area of one or more neighborhoods together.
  • Produce additional case-studies that continue to communicate the value of this research to other segregated cities.

In conclusion, this research indicates that much promise lies ahead in future explorations of this theory. Simple foam-backed paper signs along with
a basic walking tour and a cup of coffee created a 65% improvement in the perception of East Liberty. That alone shows promise for future research. If more time and energy are spent on developing these ideas further, the results shown here can only be magnified to greater levels in the future iterations of this work.


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