Read Time: 7 minutes
As a celebration of Women’s History Month and SEGD’s upcoming Wayfinding and Placemaking symposium, we are highlighting speaker Robin Perkins. Robin is a Founding Partner of Selbert Perkins Design and a 2011 SEGD Fellow. Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, interviews Robin about her professional journey and the highlights of Robin’s career in design. To hear more about Robin’s recent projects, join the SEGD community in Los Angeles on April 27 and 28 for the 2023 SEGD Wayfinding and Placemaking symposium.
1. Did you always know that you wanted to be a designer?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist, then I learned about the design field when I was in high school. But yes, I always knew.
2. How did you end up in the field of EGD? Tell us a bit about that career trajectory.
I studied Graphic Design at RISD. After I graduated, there was a recession and design jobs were hard to find. I ended up working at an architectural firm and learned about environmental graphic design, signage and wayfinding—and SEGD! It wasn’t the most exciting place to work, but I learned how to read architectural plans and the other skills required for EGD. I eventually left that firm and started working with Cliff at Clifford Selbert Design, and then we became partners and renamed the firm to Selbert Perkins Design. Shortly after I graduated from RISD I began taking sculpture classes at Massachusetts College of Art—welding steel. I became interested in pursuing sculpture from that point on. I had my own welding studio where my work became increasingly bigger and bigger. I wanted to be a sculptor, and I wanted to work outside at a large scale, and I wanted to work with Cliff. So our design studio gave me the opportunity to explore all of my sculptural ideas at the same time we were developing branding and signage and wayfinding systems for our clients. And the rest is history!
3. Did you have any mentors? If so, how did they impact the direction of your career?
My high school teacher, Ms. Messini, was a big mentor to me. She was very invested in my success and introduced me to the idea of graphic design. She was very supportive and helped me with my college portfolio. When I told her I was accepted at RISD, she started crying she was so happy. One teacher can change your life! And Cliff of course—he is my lifelong mentor and partner!
4. Were there many women in the field of design/EGD as you were getting started? Any that you admired, collaborated with?
Yes there were quite a few—it was wonderful. When I first joined SEGD and attended the conference at Cranbrook, Sarah Spear was the Executive Director. I met all the women leaders in the field at the time—Tracy Turner, Sue Gould, Deborah Sussman, Paula Rees, Debra Nicols, Chris Calori, Kate Keating—to name a few. All of these women inspired me a great deal.
Highlights of Your Work/Career
What have been your top 3 projects of your career? Ones you loved, most proud of, had the greatest user impact/experience? Tell us a bit about them.
Seven Hills Park – Seven Hills Park was a pivotal project for me as it served as a catalyst that drove my passion for sculpture, storytelling and placemaking in the environment. This was really before storytelling and placemaking were a “thing.” I was taking sculpture classes at the time, so that study combined with this project created what would be the focus of my career.
Canal City Hakata – This project was such a milestone project for me. It was our first international project and our first project with the Jerde Partnership where we formed lifelong friendships. We continued to work and travel the world with the same creative team and are all still very close friends. It was one of the most fulfilling co-creative projects we’ve ever worked on with a team that inspired one another on a daily basis. Canal City Hakata is another example of our focus on public art and sculpture, storytelling and placemaking.
LAX – We were challenged with the task of creating a timeless gateway to LAX that represented the LA experience and that could be seen from 30,000 feet in the air. The column is the most timeless architectural component, the circle represents the sun and the halo of the City of Angels, and the rainbow of colors represents the diversity of our City. This landmark public art piece serves as a gateway not only into the airport, but as a gateway to the City of Los Angeles, the State of California and the United States of America. Someone once said to me, “Seeing that makes me happy.” That is the type of comment I live for!!!
Pacific Design Center – The chair and lamp sculptures are 30 feet of brushed stainless steel. They are communication devices and landmarks. The chair and the lamp represent the basic components within the interior design profession. I remember following the chair on a flatbed, predawn, the morning it was being installed—such a thrill!
Las Vegas Gateway – This gateway represents the work I love to do best: landmarks, monumental public art and sculpture, gateways for cities and countries and placemaking and storytelling. The Las Vegas Gateway was a bright spot during the pandemic as we got to see the construction day-by-day via a live cam that was installed onsite. It’s become a social media sensation and destination for selfies. And I love working for the City of Las Vegas—they are the best!! Viva Las Vegas!!!
2. Did you have any major setbacks or pitfalls? If so, how did you overcome them?
Yes, of course! Having one right now!! They’ve mainly been the cyclical national and now global crises that inevitably are part of life, they happen fast and the recovery is slow. But you keep moving forward!
1. When did you first learn about SEGD and how?
At my first job out of college. The small group of signage and wayfinding designers introduced me to the organization and we would attend local events.
2. What was it like to receive the Fellow Award?
It was a true honor and a highlight of my career.
3. What do you value the most from the SEGD community?
I have fond memories of conferences at Cranbrook—like we all do—and I value the lifelong friendships we’ve made. The community has grown so much since those Cranbrook days. SEGD is now a global resource for the worldwide design community.
Advice for Emerging Leaders/Professionals in the field of Design
1. Do you have any insights on how you continue to push for excellence in design either personally or in your studio?
I don’t feel like we need to push that much for design excellence in our studio. Our team is incredibly talented, and they inspire me on a daily basis. But I think the key to continually achieving design excellence is to remain curious, to learn about other cultures and to be inspired by people, places and history. Our philosophy and tagline is “Every Place has a Story, Every Story has a Place.” That is the criteria for each project. When we uncover the story of each place, that’s what inspires the design—and the designers.
2. What takes you to your creative "zone"?
The ideas just kind of come quickly. Often it’s the first idea or the last idea that gets chosen by the client. For the Las Vegas Arch, it was the last design option. Originally, there was one arch diagonally over the street. Then at the last minute I added another arch, and that’s what the client chose.
3. Why is the EGD field of design so important? Why does it matter?
The field is important because it unifies all of the other components—planning, architecture, landscape—and makes a place understandable for the public. We help people know they’ve arrived, figure out where to go and inform, educate and entertain them along the way by connecting the place with the person.
Leaving thoughts/just for fun
1. What have you learned from the past year?
Things can change in an instant, that we are adaptable, resilient, hardworking, persistent and dedicated to getting through the hard times as a team. That we can be just as productive working from home. We all spent way too much time in our cars or public transit getting to work. As we reopen, we can offer much more flexibility in how and where people work so we can all have a better work/life balance.
2. What do you think is your superpower?
I’m not afraid. I’ve never been afraid to present big ideas even if some people think they are—or I am—crazy, I just do it!
3. A guilty pleasure or creative muse?
My daughter. She is just so cool and creative and kind and thoughtful. I want to be like her when I grow up!
4. What do you want to be doing in 5 years?
I’ll still be here! I’d like to be focusing more on the monumental gateways, public art and sculpture. Our Partners will continue to assume leadership positions within the firm. It will be interesting to see how we will be working after COVID. We have a building that has been empty for a year, and we don’t know what going back will look like, but we’ll figure it out. We have a great team, and I miss seeing everyone.