Environmental Graphic Design: Shaping an Experience

Environmental Graphic DesignWhen you hear “environmental graphic design”, what is the first thing that comes to mind? You may imagine that it is indicative of the larger shift towards sustainable and ecologically friendly design trends and themes that we see more and more of in the design world today, but the fact is that the two are not explicitly related.

Instead, environmental graphic design is part of a larger, more holistic design theory that involves creating an atmosphere through the use of graphic design fundamentals. It is a type of graphic design all its own. It encompasses many disciplines, like landscape design, architecture, and industrial design alongside traditional graphic design and its aim is to develop a complete sense of place: an environment, if you will. If you’re interested in getting into this particular type of graphic design, there’s a lot you’ll need to know. Besides having a general understanding of basic graphic design, you’ll also have to familiarize with the unique language that surrounds environmental graphic design. For instance, the words “wayfinding”, or “placemaking” may not mean much to you now, but we will explain both, among other terms, in depth.

Environments that Communicate

Environmental graphic design is also commonly known as experiential graphic design, which is used to not only define the term but to differentiate it from ecologically conscious design. Though the word “experiential” has a rather broad definition–“involving or based on experience or observation”, it’s a necessary one. Environmental graphic design exists to create an “experience” with a space, as opposed to supplying a passive observational object. Think of the difference between graphic design that we often see in the marketing of products–say, for instance, a cup of Starbucks coffee–versus the design that makes up the whole atmosphere of a larger immersive space like a city center or museum.

What makes environmental graphic design different than what we consider to be traditional graphic design is the manner in which we experience it; to be an effective environmental graphic designer, you need to first understand the elements of intuitive design with a class like this one. 

Now, just because we use the word “traditional” to classify older models of graphic design doesn’t mean that environmental design is particularly new or modern. In fact, it’s been around for awhile!

A Quick History of Environmental Graphic Design

To get a clear understanding of environmental graphic design, let’s point to an  early example that helped inspire and, you could argue, breathe new life into the overall idea of the experiential design model.

The first is the Paris Metro. In the early 1900s, Hector Guimande famously designed the very recognizable signage and entryways to Paris’ public transportation system–commonly referred to simply as “metro” style. This is environmental graphic design at it’s core; the design was easily recognizable, so moving bodies could quickly recognize metro stops by their swirling art nouveau style and cast iron and glass entryways. It’s purpose wasn’t to market a product, as traditional graphic design is so often used to do, but to denote a place or environment–The Metro. We see the same kinds of design elements in the London underground with it’s iconic red circle or the now infamous “Keep Calm and Carry On” signage from World War II-era Great Britain.

With these examples, we see how creating environmentally designed spaces has become somewhat en vogue. It was always there, but as we develop an appreciation for the design elements that create timeless iconography, we strive to incorporate that into new spaces.

There then, is the easy answer to “what is environmental graphic design?” It helps tie an entire space together through the use of well designed utilitarian elements that help a person or people find their way.


It is easy to see why wayfinding is so important to environmental graphic design, once we understand that the two are inextricable. But while it’s a neat little buzzword, what is it exactly?

Well,  its main purpose is to help people find their way, but it goes a little bit deeper than that. You can think of it as a kind of visual path through an environment, through the use of like colors, iconography, design elements, and more. While environmental graphic design can be applied to private spaces and marketing, say, for instance, a shopping mall, wayfinding is particularly important in large, public spaces like urban settings.

Wayfinding’s largest benefit is how it enables people within a setting to make a visual map of unfamiliar environments in their minds. Imagine you are on a large college campus. If the green spaces of the campus were ringed by light posts with a distinct flag bearing that university’s school colors, you would quickly train yourself to recognize those areas, and connect them in your mind. A map can be what we traditionally think of as a map, or it can be a series of design elements linked by something that they have in common. More and more, we see that beautifully designed logos and typographical designs are being used to demarcate pathways in modern wayfinding.


Placemaking is like a subset of wayfinding, and much easier to describe. Do you know those maps in large shopping centers that have a small dot or arrow that says “you are here”. This is an example of basic–though not particularly beautiful–place making in environmental graphic design. It’s the element in an environment that can serve as a landmark: a very distinct visual cue that says, “Hey, you are here.” This is often achieved through signage as opposed to other graphic design elements like color or typogrpahy.

Instead, placemaking relies very strongly on easily recognizable symbols–think of a no smoking, hospital, airport, or handicapped parking sign. Each of these symbols direct you to or explicitly describe the prescribed use of a space.

Interdisciplinary Design

We mentioned earlier that environmental design relies a lot on other disciplines to be effective. Let’s take a look at a few of the other design disciplines that help establish environmental graphic design principles.

Architecture– Arguably the most important discipline to work side by side with environmental graphic design, architecture is what typically makes up the “environment” part of the entire discipline. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but as new campuses, museums, and healthcare environments are constructed, the architect will take environmental graphic design into consideration.

Landscape Design– The use of organic material and landscape is useful in fulfilling the wayfinding requirement in environmental design. Topiaries and tree lines are obvious spatial marketers, but there are multiple instances where landscape design is used within the overall graphic design theme. For instance, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the words “Hershey Cocoa” are spelled out in a sans serif font using trimmed hedges and can be seen aerially.

Industrial Design-Industrial design is what makes a product easily recognizable by brand or style. Take, for instance, the iconic, crisp design used in manufacturing apple products or ikea furniture. If you have ever been inside either one of those stores, you see how the overall industrial design elements function in the overall environmental design atmosphere.

Environmental graphic design can seem a little bit tough to understand, as much of it revolves around the more abstract concepts found within design, color, and composition theory. The main takeaway is that this kind of experiential design is meant to be interactive as opposed to passive. Understanding design theory will give you the confidence that you need to delve into this fascinating field, while a software course in Photoshop and Illustrator can help you apply what you learn to real world design situations.