The Sustainable Challenges and Opportunities in Environmental Graphic Design

Dr. Wu Duan, Dr. An Dadi, Dr. Gao Bo
College of Design & Innovation
Tongji University


This paper examines the sustainable challenges and opportunities in environmental graphic design through the lens of two projects implemented in Shanghai. The first, a wayfinding program for the Shanghai South Railway Station, is a study in using EGD to support and enhance sustainable behavior—in this case, the use of public versus private transportation. The second, a signage and EGD program developed for a practice center at Tongji University, demonstrates EGD’s ability to support cultural sustainability, particularly in the use of typography and symbols to connect users and create a unique sense of identity.

The projects, research, and considerations outlined here have led us to conclude that EGD can encourage sustainable behavior among users and deliver significant environmental and cultural benefits. The two projects have received positive testing data and feedback from both users and managers. We believe this demonstrates the ability of EGD projects to encourage sustainable behaviors, and will encourage us to continue the research.


Shanghai South Railway Station occupies 60 hectares of land and serves most trains to the Southern provinces of China. After extensive renovation completed in 2006, the station features a modern circular design, the first of its kind in the world. The station itself is elevated 47 meters above ground and the above-ground area is 58,145m2, with 122,916m2 underground. The area is a huge transport hub integrating the railway station, coach station (40,000m2), three subway lines (one line still in plan), 14 bus stations, taxi facilities, and private cars. Above that, a shopping center of 60,000m2 underground makes this site a commercial center for the surrounding area (Yu Wei, Gu Ying-qi, 2010).

After the station was opened in 2007, daily average passenger flow reached around 300,000 people. Soon, station users began to complain about the legibility of signage and the clarity of the wayfinding system. Station volunteers assigned to help people navigate the complex received 100 to 200 inquiries per day, and passengers also frequently asked security and cleaning staff for guidance (Zhang Hai-ye, Yan Ke-fei, 2007). Passengers were frustrated by the complicated space and unclear signage system. This not only affected the efficiency of traffic circulation, but also had a negative impact on passenger perceptions.

The South Railway Station was considered the most important transport center for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and passenger flow during the Expo was projected to reach 400,000 to 500,000 persons/day, further challenging the wayfinding system. (In fact, passenger flows reached 600,000 persons/day.)

In this context, the Construction and Transportation Committee of Xujiahui District and the South Railway Station Management Committee invited our team to research and redesign the wayfinding system. The research and design began in September 2008 and the project was implemented in April 2010.


We studied the site and the existing sign system and reviewed similar design and research cases to identify the major issues. In the course of our research, we met with officers from the station’s management committee and interviewed many passengers. Our research process identified several key issues with the site and the existing wayfinding system.

Site issues
• The round shape of the building makes orientation difficult.
• Station exits are underground, which increases the difficulty in navigating.
• There are numerous passages and gateways, also adding to passenger confusion.
• High, instantaneous volumes of passenger flow reduce the readability of common signs.
• Bus stations are located underground and difficult to find.
• There are a total of 16 entrances and exits with different destinations. 

Sign system issues
• The hierarchy of wayfinding information is not clear.
• There is a lack of ground transportation information at the exits of underground spaces.
• Most of the signage uses standard font and symbol sizes with inadequate readability distances.
• Sign location needs improvement.
• The readability of the sign maps needs improvement.     

As Fewings stated, the principles of wayfinding are simple but the practicalities are very complex (Fewings, 2001). Our aim was to identify a practical solution to improve wayfinding and outline the principles of a train station signage system that aids rapid circulation. A more effective wayfinding system would help users understand the site better and encourage them to take public transport.
In redesigning the signage system, we were mindful of what matters to the different types of station users, including railway passengers, coach passengers, subway transfer passengers, and shoppers. All of these have legitimate concerns that must be reconciled to make a system work.

The defining characteristic of the existing situation, viewed as a whole, was that it was provider-led and not customer-led (Yin Zheng-sheng, 2008). As Patricia Brown noted, we know from the worlds of commerce and industry that this is not the best way of meeting the needs of the very providers who, by default, have had to institute these systems. In other words, we will be more effective in guiding passengers efficiently through the space if we think about their needs rather than focusing primarily on the operator’s need to promote a particular route or destination (Brown, 2006).

Our interviews revealed that many passengers avoid taking public transport if it requires them to navigate through an unfamiliar territory. The sense of the unknown—how long will it take, where a street leads to, etc.—creates “risk,” especially of getting lost or increasing journey times. In contrast, taking a taxi may be an easier choice even if they have to pay more, wait in line, or encounter traffic jams. This situation increased the demand for taxis, private driving, and parking, consequently burdening the South Railway Station’s taxi and public parking capacity (Figure 2).

It is for this reason that the station management committee cooperated with us to redesign the signage system, aimed to not only create a more integrated wayfinding system, but also to encourage more sustainable and economical behavior.

Shanghai South Railway Station is a complex site comprised of indoor, outdoor, and underground spaces; the signage system serves a wide variety of needs. Any new system would have to achieve all the functions of the existing system as well as improvements to smooth circulation flows and provide clear navigational guidance to passengers.

To solve the problems of the existing system, we adopted a traditional method of Chinese medicine: acupuncture. Acupuncture is a type of alternative medicine that treats patients by insertion and manipulation of solid, generally thin needles in the body. The wayfinding system redesign adopted the acupuncture approach, working on the assumption that single initiatives unified in a general framework can have a systemic effect. In the same way as acupuncture adequately stimulates key acupoints to affect the whole meridian system, we believed that finding and redesigning the key points in the old system would form a strong cooperative network to generate effects throughout the site (Lou Yong-qi, 2010).

The “acupoints” in the South Railway Station were several key decision points in the passenger journey, particularly the North and South station exits leading to railway lines, bus stations, parking, and taxis. At these decision points, we sited large, highly legible signs to help passengers read, accept, and process options and directional information and make decisions in the shortest possible time. In this case, the acupuncture “needles” are overscaled signs with simple graphics and eye-catching colors keyed to the subway line colors (Figure 4). Adding these signs at the acupoints greatly improved the hierarchy of the sign system and the efficiency of the wayfinding experience through the station.

Through our research, we learned that people are willing to take public transport if they feel the transfer trip is manageable and reliable. This means we can achieve a considerable benefit (and encourage sustainable behaviors) by providing information about alternative public transport options at the point at which passengers are making decisions. Siting these overscaled signs at railway station exits—and providing information about metro lines, close-by bus stations, and taxis—is likely to have a significant impact on users’ route choices and encourage them to take public transportation instead of taxis or private cars. This approach can be maximized and supported with a hierarchy of information support, including directional signs, site maps, and route signs.

User testing
By April 2010, 241 sign panels were redesigned or added to the signage system. During 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the highest passenger flow reached 600,000 persons/day, successfully guided through the system via the new signage. 

Statistical data
We compared flow data in 2007 and 2011, examining the numbers of passengers taking the subway, taxi, and self driving. Table 1 summarizes the data provided by railway station management. Subway data were also influenced by improvements in network coverage.

User research data
In collaboration with the South Railway Station management committee, we conducted field research questioning passengers as they left the station in March 2011. The findings are summarized below.

Respondent profile
• 192 people surveyed
• 67% were railway passengers, 27% were coach passengers, 5% were subway transfer; the remainder were shoppers.

Key findings
• 73% of railway and coach passengers had looked at signs or maps inside the station before exiting.
• 98% were comfortable with signs in the station.
• 86% of railway and coach passengers intended to take the subway or bus to their destinations.
• 87% could correctly identify the direction to the subway or bus station.
• 93% think the direction sign of subway and bus station is clear and easy to find.
• 65% of visitors think the map on the sign is easy to understand and 74% said they will read the map for navigating.


The case study, research, and considerations set out in this project have led us to conclude that properly researched and designed wayfinding systems can encourage more sustainable behaviors among users and deliver significant environmental and economic benefits not only for transport building but for all public spaces.

Guiding user behavior requires integrated, interdisciplinary cooperation and research. Our team included representatives from architectural design, transportation engineering, industrial design, visual communication design, environmental design, and other professional design disciplines.

Like many fast-developing cities, Shanghai is still continuing to build and improve its urban infrastructure and public facilities. In 2011, another new transport hub was opened, and between 2011 and 2020, eight new subway lines will be built. This research project can help inform approaches to creating efficient circulation for large, clustered volumes of passengers, and hopefully encouraging more sustainable and economical behavior. Our project received positive feedback from both users and managers, and was awarded as a demonstration project by the Shanghai Construction and Transportation Committee in 2011.


Words play a vital role in EGD and also in broadcasting cultural identity. Written words in signs express basic communication needs such as the name, type, or specific function of the space; providing directions; and educating users. But they also fulfill a more important need: expressing the characteristics of a given culture, and defining how that culture is represented visually.

In a modern city such as Shanghai, there is a trend to use less Chinese characters, more symbols, and more English in EGD to meet universal needs. At the same time, we believe that the way a culture is perceived is largely determined by how it is presented. As cultural readers and interpreters, we look for characters and symbols that overcome literacy and cultural barriers to help international users make sense of the space and the culture around them.

During this research, a case-study project was developed in the practice center at Tongji University, Shanghai. Located on the ZhangWu Campus, the center takes up 3600spm in space, with two floors. It holds more than 500 students and teachers. Built based on the practice center model, its renovation focused on rezoning the many complicated functions of the space and creating a new “spirit” that would stimulate innovative thinking while teaching and learning. 

After renovation, the new center integrates different functions, including teaching, practicing, communicating, and cooperating. The space is divided into functional zones such as open teaching classrooms, discussion areas, exhibition areas, and practice areas (i.e., welding, casting, milling, etc).

Along with the renovation, our task was to establish a communication platform (signage and environmental graphics) that could motivate students to be more active and creative during the practice training. Since all the trainings are new to the students (including international students), we designed a series of symbols that would identify the various functional areas, help students and other users navigate the center, and instill a unique sense of identity for each of the spaces.

The symbols integrate Modern Chinese characters and words, much like hieroglyphics (Richards, 2010). Characters combined with symbols can overcome literacy, language, and cultural barriers to help international users make sense of the space and the culture around them.


Identifying user needs
Putting the needs of users first requires that we identify and appreciate the different types of users: local students, international students, staff, teachers, and managers. In our initial phase of research, we studied the space and met with the interior designers, managers, staff, teachers, and students to develop an overview of the design objectives.

From the interviews we identified several key objectives from the users’ perspective:
• Aid efficient wayfinding through the center
• Provide wayfinding information at key decision points
• Provide information quickly

We also identified specific requirements from the manager’s side:
• Help to build the spirit/identity of the space
• Promote each functional area
• Help evacuate students quickly (such as class breaks)
• Promote a creative and innovative teaching and learning process

Integrating symbol/characters as cultural expression
While we wanted to ensure our design met the functional and information needs of all users, we also wanted to instill an element of cultural expression in the signage and EGD elements. The second part of our research explored the integration of Chinese characters and symbols to translate the visual language of traditional characters into modern sign-making elements. The symbol/characters were designed to be effective at quickly conveying information about the studio spaces and the training provided in each, providing a key wayfinding role as well as contributing to the culture and spirit of the center.

Inspiration came from the ancient Chinese hieroglyph (Richards, 2010). Using Chinese characters as the foundation for the symbol design, we added modern icons to express the specific functions of the space (i.e., millworking, casting, etc.), similar to the historical use of hieroglyphics (Figure 5). Use of the symbols versus text-based signs helps students (particularly international students) quickly identify functional areas and navigate their way through the huge space (Figure 6).

We also created two mascots to help tell the story of the space (Figure 7). The characters are in the shape of a screw and nut, appropriate to the engineering orientation of the practice center. Appearing in the discussion areas and stairwells, they add an element of fun and are also colorful and make the environment more vibrant. The characters also appear as safety graphics on windows and glass space partitions, as well as on videos, the center website, and digital signage displays.

User testing
In the third part of the project, surveys, interviews, and a prototype experiment were developed to test the symbols’ effectiveness. Each of these instruments offered a different insight. The surveys answered directly to the readability of the character/symbol design. Interviews allowed for a deeper engagement that allowed us to gather more specific information about the character/symbol design, and the prototype test provided very specific feedback on the wayfinding design prototypes. Observation and photo documentation were used for further analysis and development. Careful consideration was given to choosing a variety of test participants with various agenda to ensure triangulation of the results.

Prototype testing results
After the first design version of the symbols was developed, we printed and pasted prototypes into the space. We assigned 30 students (including local and international students with different backgrounds, but all new to the space) to find a specific destination using the prototype signage. When they completed their wayfinding experiment, participants were asked to complete a survey discussing their understanding of the character/symbols and whether the signage information matched the wayfinding process. Small discussion groups provided additional insights.

Most participants were eager to share their comments, such as:

  • “I could almost understand the type of training from first sight of the symbols; they helped me to get knowledge before I entered the space.”
  • “I like the relexed atmosphere of the space and the Chinese characters are a great way to make the space special.” or
  • “That was fun! It was really interesting to learn about the character of each function area; it definitely made me want to come back again.”
  • Overall, 85% of the participants indicated that their experience improved their overall perceptions of the practice center. That statistic became even more significant when observing that nearly 70% of participants rated their overall opinion of the practice center experience to be somewhere between very good and just OK. In addition, all of the elements in the design concepts were rated valuable to the experience. The character/symbols signage received the most support, but many also noted they did not clearly understand the symbols. Other survey comments underscored the importance of involving users in the design process:
  • “I feel our opinions were valued through this experiment, and those mascot and symbols make the center a culturally rich space.”
  • “Seeing the images helped to influence my opinion on how Chinese characters work in communication.”

Figure 8 depicts students during the prototype testing process. Figure 9 shows signage developed as a result of the process.


Environmental graphics and signs are complex objects that involve various functions: expressing information, aiding in wayfinding, identifying functional areas, advertising, promoting values, and helping create a sense of place and spirit. They rely on patterns of form, material, proportion, ornamentation, and symbol to convey meaning to their users. Each of their elements, alone and together, has the potential to convey ideas to the users.

In this research, the “idea” is about promoting local culture. Our research demonstrated support for the hypothesis that environmental graphic design, along with other visual communication elements, can be used to promote and improve the culture sustainability within an international environment.

Results from this project showed the redesigned characters on signs are powerful coded symbols that communicate a wealth of space and cultural information. It is also apparent that they can break down perceived barriers such as language, culture, and experience among international users. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of improving a space’s cultural perception will be.

This project, and its research method, suggest a design approach that creates visual and cultural uniformity. Consequently, the value of the proposed design solutions is not based on originality or authorship, but on expanding the cross-cultural effort with solutions that have the potential of being extended by other EGD elements. Through the design and production of a series of prototypes that explore the possibilities and the limitations of cultural expression, this body of work aims to expand the range of design solutions available to international users by translating visual language into culturally sensitive solutions.

The study was supported by the Chinese Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities.

About the author
Dr. Wu Duan is an associate professor of environmental design in the College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University, Shanghai. In her 10-year career she has worked on a board range of projects including environmental graphics and wayfinding, branding, exhibition design, landscape, and urban design. As an educator and researcher, her research is mainly focus on environmental graphic design and public design. She is also interested in innovative design education research with cross-disciplinary students. She is a leader of the environmental graphic design studio in Tongji Tiandi Institute of Art & Design Innovation, and the founder of Public Design Lab in Tongji University. Her recent work has taken on a strategic research-based approach where she explores the sustainable challenges and interactive opportunities in EGD. She has presented at numerous professional and design education conferences. 


  1. The new Shanghai South Railway Station features a unique circular design that makes wayfinding challenging.
  2. Due to the fear of getting lost of losing time, some commuters may elect to take public transportation.
  3. The systemic philosophy inherent in the traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture. can apply to a wayfinding system.
  4. The team designed “acupoints,” large-scale graphic interventions that provide commuters with clear information when they need it.
  5. At Tongji University, the wayfinding system is based on Chinese characters integrated with modern icons to express specific functions of the space.
  6. Use of the symbols versus text-based signs helps students (particularly international students) quickly identify functional areas.
  7. The design team also created two mascots to help tell the story of the space.
  8. Students tested the prototype signs.
  9. A wayfinding experiment aided in testing the effectiveness of the signs.
  10. Testing informed the final design and location of signs.


  1. Flow data comparison, 2007 and 2011


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