Signgeist 2: A 30-Year Itch

A romp through three decades spent in environmental graphic design

The year was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president, Michael Jackson’s Thriller topped the Billboard charts, and Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi ruled the theaters. A gallon of gas cost $1.25, Tom O’Reilly’s bar was our Manhattan watering hole of choice, and our studio, Calori & Vanden-Eynden, was born.

New York was the design world’s epicenter in the ’80s, but our field of environmental graphic design (EGD) was still in its infancy. Few designers knew much about it or had an interest in it, but EGD was fascinating to me and to my partner Chris Calori. It represented an opportunity for us to have immense impact on people’s lives. Naïve enough, talented enough, and driven enough, we opened our design studio at the end of a recession. Thirty years on, we are still going strong. Feeling celebratory, we thought it would be fun to flash back through our long, strange, sobering, yet enjoyable, rewarding, and fulfilling history…and EGD’s evolution along the way.

Our goal out of school was to have our own design studio by the time we were 30. So, in 1980, we set our sights on Manhattan, targeted the best design firms in the city, and hit the ground running. Chris found a job at the landmark design firm of Chermayeff & Geismar Associates. I landed at the studio of Lance Wyman, designer of the groundbreaking 1968 Mexico City Olympics graphics program.

Fast forward to 1983.

Home sweet home—our living room studio in 1983. We don’t recommend this.


Like many design studios, ours started in our living room as a sideline to our day jobs. Coming from established firms, we were accustomed to big budgets and large projects—the cold-shower reality of being able to make a living as fledgling EGD designers came as a shock…we only had small projects with even smaller budgets. The big ’80s, however, were about to take off. We were in the right city at the right time, and our work had the right look.

A logo for Public Access Systems (PAS), a company that made computer directories for office buildings. The design was derived from the green-line screens of early computers. WOW!

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants


A window display for the now-defunct Eastern Airlines. We shrank South America and eliminated Canada in a show of airline dominance. Neon was in!

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants

When we were ready to graduate from our living room and hang our shingle, we sublet some space in a now-demolished tower overlooking pre-scrubbed Times Square. We looked and dressed like hip designers—two-toned hair, leather pants, and attitude—but we were serious about what we were doing. We became early members of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD), helping to influence and guide it as it grew to become the premier EGD design organization. Eventually, while we loved the seediness of Times Square, we decamped to 27th Street on the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) campus in 1985, thinking it better for business—and safer.

Our office on 27th Street. Very Miami Vice pink!

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants

Our first big break! A job with a suburban office parks developer—large, sculptural numerals to identify their buildings. The project received an SEGD award and was published in several magazines. 

Courtesy James R. Morse


As we established ourselves, our design philosophy began to gel, too—to make life a little easier, less complex, and more beautiful through thoughtful planning and design. I remember we had a retail client that paid us in cash at the time—a brown paper bag full of 20 and 50 dollar bills! In the cosmic scheme of things, it wasn’t a lot of money, but it was HUGE to us then. Fairly quickly, we started landing larger clients—Corning Glass Center, ABC Broadcasting, the Rockefeller Group, New York University, and Thomson Electronics. Suddenly, not only were we able to pay the rent, we were able to move into larger offices on West 25th Street.

Thomson Electronics embraced postmodern architecture—trendy in the late ’80s—and C&VE was signage and graphics consultant for their checkerboard building.

Courtesy Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants


Next, we signed our first significant five-figure contract. We bought Mac computers, a small laser printer, and an external hard drive—a whopping 20 megs. We were on the cutting edge of technology! Though we had better clients, bigger projects, larger budgets, and real life employees, we decided to remain small—the energy and collaborative nature of a small studio suited our style and our outlook.

By the early ’90s, EGD had grown and was beginning to be a part of most major architectural and urban planning projects. International travel and commerce were expanding rapidly, and the need for signage and wayfinding that addressed the needs of a growing multi-national audience became critical. Established experts in the field by this point, we started work on our first international project—in Asia.

In 1998, we teamed with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates for a project in Hong Kong. Since then, we’ve completed nearly a dozen Asian projects. At the same time, our transportation work here grew to include clients like Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, the New York Subway, and New York Waterways.

“Connect 12” was the name given to a project that unified the 12-building portfolio of Hongkong Land Holdings Limited. The ’90s brought increased competition from adjacent developments, and signage was a way to add value to their properties.

Courtesy Graham Uden








By the end of the decade, the term “branding” dominated the design lexicon. Amtrak ushered in the first high-speed rail service, and we unified its 16 Acela stations with a system of branded sign elements that snagged the Industrial Designers Society of America’s (IDSA) Gold IDEA Award.

Courtesy Elliott Kaufman

In 2000, the transition to the new millennium brought its own set of opportunities and challenges. EGD expanded to other countries, and a field of like-minded designers began to make life a little easier, less complex, and more beautiful for people around the world. And the term “placemaking” entered the EGD vocabulary.

We landed several major projects in Singapore (the frequent-flyer miles allowed us to have some very nice vacations). In 2006, Chris published her seminal book, Signage and Wayfinding Design, which has become the go-to reference for professionals and is used in college classrooms around the world today. And, although we can’t read it, the book has also been translated into Chinese. A second English edition is scheduled for 2015.

What are we up to now? One of our major projects is New York’s Second Avenue subway, an initiative that has been in the works for longer we have been in business. Another is an ongoing urban placemaking project in Detroit.

The Second Avenue Subway will give New York a transit line that incorporates 21st-century technology. (Rendering shown for visualization purposes only and does not represent final configurations. This image and others can found on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) website.)

Courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)

A Woodward Avenue Tribute in Detroit, one of a series of illuminated towers symbolizing the city’s renaissance and pride of place.

Courtesy Curt Clayton

What’s in store for our next 30 years? Who knows?! But we’ve enjoyed the trip so far, and we eagerly anticipate what lies around the next corner. After three decades, what we know for sure is that focusing on the future will point us in the right direction.


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 2015.

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