Signgeist 1: Views on Visual Communication

Curbside observations on the workings of environmental graphic design

Conversation with a New York City cabbie:

Cabbie: “So, whaddaya do?”

David: “I’m a designer.”

Cabbie: “Oh yeah, a designer? A fashion designer, right?”

David: “No. I’m a graphic designer. I design signs.”

Cabbie: “Whaddaya mean, you design signs?”

David: “I design signs. I mean, when you have to drive passengers to the airport, how do you know where to drop them off?”

Cabbie: “I look for the signs. Wait, you mean someone designs those things? Never woulda figured that somebody did that for a living. Who knew?”

Yes, someone actually does design signs. Professionally, we are known as environmental graphic designers, or EGD-ers. Our field is relatively new, little known, and often misunderstood. When people hear “environmental,” they immediately think it refers to being “green” or dealing with issues like pollution or climate change. In our world, the term refers to graphics in the environment aka, signs…and they are always around us.

While signs are indeed everywhere, speaking silently to us—try counting the number of them along a single block in New York City—their visual quality, message clarity, and shapes and sizes vary tremendously.

From shop signs to window decals for credit cards, there are hundreds of signs per block in commercial areas of New York City.

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden, Ltd.

The vast majority of signs that appear on our streets and in our buildings are not generally imagined by an EG designer or design firm. Many are provided by sign manufacturers, are standard issue (“No Parking” signs), or are ordered out of catalogs.

Street signs are plentiful and ubiquitous.

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden, Ltd.

They can be a major source of visual clutter and, often, confusion.

Go left, go right, just don’t go here.

Courtesy Unknown.

Pioneers in our field, my partner and I have consistently worked to cut through this clutter and eliminate, or at least minimize, the confusion and chaos of sign overload. Every day, our mission is to help people find their way to and from destinations easily, safely, efficiently…and, visually appealingly. We accomplish this using the tools and skill sets of related disciplines including graphic design, industrial design, and architecture and interior design, among others.

We’ve been fortunate to have worked in just about every typology you can think of…academic, cultural, corporate, retail, civic, healthcare, residential, transportation…with projects ranging from Amtrak’s Acela to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the University of Pennsylvania campus. Along the way, we like to think that we have helped shape our profession and establish EGD as a key component of architecture, urban design, and transportation systems around the globe.

In the coming months, our Signgeist posts will focus on the silent (for now) communication going on all around us and how we interact with and are influenced by signs and graphics. We’ll cast a wide net in our observations, addressing themes like educating EG designers, examples of excellent design, signs as an extension of brands, and, on the flip side, bad translations, graffiti, and humor.

Now, back to the taxi…

A single lamp post often carries more than its fair share of signs.

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden, Ltd.

Cabbie: “Where did you say you were headed?”

David: “Corner of 7th Avenue and 25th Street, left side, far corner.”

Cabbie: “Ha, you design the street signs, too?”

David: “Not yet!”

Next month, celebrating our three decades in business, we’ll take you on a fun trip down memory lane with an EGD retrospective of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s through today.


David Vanden-Eynden, AIGA, FSEGD, and his partner Chris Calori, AIGA, FSEGD, lead Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE), an internationally recognized, New York-based design firm specializing in the planning and design of signage, wayfinding, branded environments, identity, and user navigation systems. Chris literally wrote the book on the subject—Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems—which was recently published in Chinese and will be issued in a second English edition in 2014.

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