Social Engagement through Environmental Graphic Design: Design for Struggling Small Communities

From the SEGD Research Journal: Communication and Place, 2015

ISBN: 

978-1-940297-24-8

Lisa Fontaine
Iowa State University

ABSTRACT

Struggling downtowns and retail districts of small cities and towns have been completely overlooked by graphic designers, since these independent businesses often cannot afford, or aren’t aware of, the services of designers.

In the graphic design department at Iowa State University, we see this problem as an excellent opportunity to engage our students in community-based design. For over 15 years, our senior graphic design students have been introduced to Environmental Graphic Design while working on the re-design of a downtown district. Working through the downtown districts, we have engaged with communities to reinvigorate their retail districts in an effort to enhance the quality of life for local residents.

Depending on the community’s needs, we have approached this challenge in three ways. The first is to work with existing businesses to communicate more accurate and targeted messages about their service or product offerings. In the second scenario, students design the identity, signs, and storefronts of “imagined” retailers to show developers how vibrant the district could look. In the third scenario, students propose new businesses to fill the town’s empty storefronts that respond to social needs within the community.

This project allows students to connect with communities within our state that are facing the challenges of demographic shift. It encourages them to view themselves as change agents, and to view their skills in brand experience as going beyond corporate identity. As they become engaged with a community, they become increasingly user-centered, and understand the role that Environmental Graphic Design can play in the making of place.

INTRODUCTION

In many graphic design programs, community engagement has been limited to advocacy posters and logo designs for non-profit groups. This approach overlooks the enormous potential impact of Environmental Graphic Design as a community enhancement tool. Struggling downtowns and retail districts of small cities and towns have been completely overlooked by graphic designers, since these independent businesses often cannot afford, or aren’t aware of, the services of designers.

Small retail districts can thrive only if their storefronts communicate a vibrant, contemporary message. With little money to invest, however, independent retailers often forego identity or façade improvements, resulting in a message of neglect and an outdated product line. In small and midsized cities and towns, this problem prevails in Main Street districts, making it difficult for them to compete with big box retail and the mall. The message of neglect can also influence the vitality and overall quality of life within a community. Clearly, the consequences of derelict districts go far beyond aesthetic concerns. (Figure 1)

The graphic identity that represents any business should be planned and implemented with great care. With their limited budgets, however, independent businesses often go straight to sign fabricators to make important decisions about graphic identity and sign design. This results in confusing or inaccurate messages, since it’s unlikely the fabricators are applying branding methodology to the “identities” they create.

In the graphic design department at Iowa State University, we see this problem as an excellent opportunity to engage our students in community-based design. For over 15 years, our senior graphic design students have been introduced to Environmental Graphic Design while working on the re-design of a downtown district. This paper focuses on the most recent engagements in four Iowa cities and towns: Dubuque (pop. 57,000), Boone (pop. 12,500), Madrid (pop. 2,500), and Ogden (pop. 2,000).

A healthy downtown district is key to attracting and maintaining residents, and contributes to the satisfaction of place. Unlike their big-city counterparts, however, the downtown districts of small cities and towns often lack the attractive, eclectic qualities that could distinguish them as dining and shopping destinations. Instead, their neglected appearances and low occupancy rates become a reminder to locals that their town is not thriving. Downtowns have been struggling for years across America in both large and small cities, but the smaller ones have suffered the most.

While design cannot—on its own—solve the economic problems of a struggling community, we believe it can play a surprisingly big role in turning things around.

METHODOLOGY

Working through the downtown districts, chambers of commerce, or county extension offices, we have engaged with communities to re-invigorate their retail districts in efforts to enhance the quality of life for local residents.

It is vital for the students to begin this project with a user-centered approach. By empathizing with the community’s needs, they become engaged with the local culture and are more likely to design solutions that fit the community rather than ones that seem to be imposed without any regard for place. If not presented to students with a user-centered focus, a “small-town” project can easily go awry.

Our students often have a preconception of these towns as laughably provincial. When this happens, the students mistakenly believe that their job is to “improve” the town by imposing a hip, urban aesthetic, resulting in the clients rejecting the proposal and losing respect for what design could do for them. Clearly, we must ensure this doesn’t happen.

Students begin by researching the history of main street districts, to understand why so many have fallen on hard times. For this effort, we make extensive use of the National Main Street Center and its resources. Students then meet with their client to discuss challenges and goals. Typically, these small businesses have no idea how to present themselves to their audience, and this is an important discovery for the students. In meeting with the business owners, they come to realize that these people are not stupid, but simply have no idea of the relationship between message and audience. (Figure 2)

This project builds on prior coursework in branding, so the students are expected to assist their clients in reviewing such questions as: Who am I? Who needs to know? Why will they care? How will I tell them? While on site, students analyze the existing conditions, then write a summary of how their client’s business is falling short of communicating the appropriate message.

Students then review the basic principles of visual communication theory (sender/message/channel/receiver), to see how it contributes to successful sign design. According to Berlo’s communication theory, the message is broken down into its fundamental components of content, elements, structure, treatment, and code, each of which requires careful consideration. Students study existing sign design from the U.S. and Europe to recognize each of these components of a message; this prepares them to develop clear and authentic messages in their own work.

They also learn how to research and interpret the demographic data on a community, with the guidance of the director of the Iowa Retail Initiative, who visits as a lecturer in the class. Another visiting lecturer is a community planner who speaks about place-making and how residents engage with place. These visiting lecturers strengthen our efforts to present the Downtown Design project first and foremost as a community engagement experience, an opportunity to contribute to the betterment of society.

At this point, students develop 5-6 design objectives based on their understanding of the problem and their client’s communication needs and those of the community itself. This prevents the tendency to base the design on personal preference.

Students begin their design proposal with a logo or logotype, and then develop a comprehensive system that applies to the signs and storefronts. (Figure 3) Finally, they present their proposals to the client, including the summary of existing conditions, design objectives, and design proposal. (Figure 4) Depending on the community’s needs, we have approached this challenge in three different ways: working with existing businesses to communicate more accurate and targeted messages to represent their services or products; interacting with communities to envision a more vibrant business district; or proposing new businesses that would fill the town’s empty storefronts and respond to social needs within the community.

Working with existing businesses to create more targeted and accurate messages
Allison Clem presented a small-town florist shop in a way that makes it more appealing and eye-catching to the many locals who don’t even realize it’s there. (Figure 5)

Jessie Fullerton felt that Mama Moya’s was downplaying their most significant asset: Mama, who makes the tortillas from scratch each morning. Jessie’s new identity features Mama, along with a lively and appropriately Mexican color palette. (Figure 6)

Ashland Floral was concerned they weren’t getting much of the annual wedding business; Jenn Koon’s proposal reaches that young audience. (Figure 7)

Interacting with communities to envision a more vibrant business district

In the second scenario of interacting with communities, students design the identity, signs, and storefronts of “imagined” retailers to show developers a vision of how vibrant the district could look when empty storefronts are filled with commercial clients.

Students meet with community leaders who have suggestions about the kinds of businesses they hope to attract to the district. Students then propose a set of imagined businesses whose eclectic mix shows the potential vibrancy of a renovated district. This can be used as a draw for potential investors.

Kake Derksen proposed the Quick Fox Cafe after researching the local coffee options; she found there were few such options for downtown workers of this part of Dubuque. (Figure 8)

Some students chose to propose commercial businesses that might draw upon existing tourism from nearby areas. The town of Madrid sits adjacent to the popular High Trestle Bike Trail, whose bridge was recently listed by the BBC as one of 8 amazing footbridges in the world. Ben Stokes proposed a community-owned rental shop, Rustic Rental, for outdoor equipment that would exploit the town’s newfound attraction to canoe and bicycle enthusiasts. (Figure 9)

Lu Lawrence also focused on the High Trestle Trail, and noticed that visitors had limited options for places to eat while riding the trail. She proposed the Cycle Bistro, a café that celebrates Madrid’s relationship with visiting cyclists. (Figure 10) Like Rustic Rental, this proposal encourages the town to take advantage of the trail’s enormous potential as a catalyst for new business.

Lauren Ehlers proposed Andouilles, a Cajun restaurant to take advantage of Dubuque’s riverboat tourism and the Mississippi River, which is just 6 minutes to the east. (Figure 11)

Proposing new businesses to fill empty storefronts and respond to social needs within the community

In the third scenario, students propose new businesses to fill the town’s empty storefronts and respond to social needs within the community.

In this case, students meet with community leaders, who often express little hope of bringing in new retail to their faltering districts. Students inquire about the local culture to understand if social needs are being met locally. Students propose solutions such as teen centers, senior centers, play spaces for moms and toddlers, or art collaboratives. Students then design an identity and sign designs for their proposed business that could work for two different empty storefronts in the downtown area.

Alex Huston proposed The Connection as a teen center for Ogden to keep high school students connected to their community. His research showed that the town lacked gathering spaces for teens, prompting them to drive to larger towns in search of something to do. (Figure 12)

In Ogden, Lauren Juenger also heard of the lack of gathering places. Locals told her they wished for a place to bring the kids, especially after an event. Lauren invented Brain Freeze, an ice cream shop whose name and logo provide a youthful appeal. (Figure 13) At Sola Luna, Emily Werdel envisioned Madrid high schoolers gathering both day and night to listen to music, play games, and engage with their social community. (Figure 14)

Bomi Yang proposed Climb and Chill as a play space and coffee shop for toddlers and their moms in a former pizza parlor in Madrid. Her research indicated that this small town lacks a place where moms and children could gather, especially in the colder months when outdoor playgrounds are uninviting. She envisioned a place that enhanced the sense of community for young families by responding to the needs of both parents and children. (Figure 15)

Hannah McKinley learned that the residents of Dubuque’s Central Avenue district were living in what’s called a “food desert,” with no nearby grocery store. She proposed Snap Pea, a green grocer that could provide healthy food options. (Figure 16) 

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE FIELD

By taking this approach to teaching EGD and brand experience, we are encouraging our students to view themselves as change agents, and to view their skills in brand experience as going beyond corporate identity.
At the same time, we are offering the communities innovative solutions to the vicious cycle of unappealing/unoccupied storefronts. When we propose community-centered businesses, we also present them with ideas about how their empty storefronts could serve as a catalyst for residents to re-engage with the downtown district, since they now feel it serves a social need.

IMPLICATIONS OF THEORY & PRACTICE

This project is taught at the senior level. The students have previously designed hypothetical brand identity systems, but most have not worked with a real client. This project allows them to connect with the real world by asking them to work with communities within our state that are facing the challenges of demographic shift. It also encourages our students to broaden their interpretation of “designing for social change.” As they become engaged with a community, they become increasingly user-centered, and understand the role that Environmental Graphic Design can play in the making of place.

While few of the communities will be ready to implement our proposals, this is an important small step toward educating small business owners and community leaders about the power of design.

About the author
Lisa Fontaine is Associate Professor, Graphic Design, at Iowa State University and an active member of the SEGD academic education community. She has presented her research and curriculum innovations at numerous SEGD Academic Summits and other educational events. Her research interests include graphic design in the built environment, Main Street design and revitalization, interactive exhibition design, wayfinding design, placemaking, symbology, and ecological issues in graphic design education and practice.

Figures

1. Derelict retail district
2. Small businesses often have no idea how to present themselves.
3. Logo and storefront design for Haven Restaurant
4. Design proposal for Sutters Bakery
5. Design for Everlastings Florist (Allison Clem)
6. Design for Mama Moya’s (Jessie Fullerton)
7. Design for Ashland Floral (Jenn Koon)
8. Design for invented business Quick Fox Café (Kake Derksen)
9. Design for invented business Rustic Rental (Ben Stokes)
10. Design for invented business Cycle Bistro (Lu Lawrence)
11. Design for invented business Andouilles (Lauren Ehlers)
12. Design for invented business The Connection (Alex Huston)
13. Design for invented business Brain Freeze (Lauren Juenger)
14. Design for invented business Sola Luna (Emily Werdel)
15. Design for invented business Climb and Chill (Bomi Yang)
16. Design for invented business Snap Pea Grocery (Hannah McKinley)

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