Signgeist 9: The Sustainable Rewards of Forensic Design

Cracking the case with design analysis

In 2003, Metropolis Editor in Chief Susan S. Szenasy gave a keynote address at the AIGA conference in Vancouver. She spoke about the responsibility designers have to the environment and sustainability, ending the talk with a request that designers in all disciplines conduct investigations into sustainable materials, processes, and solutions for their work. She referred to this process as practicing “forensic design.” 

Today, I would add to Szenasy’s definition that determining which objects in our environment are worth preserving—thus keeping them out of the waste stream—is also part of our responsibility. Which is more sustainable and responsible? A product (or pop-up store or sign or display) that gets discarded after a short while either because it wears out or is fashionably un-hip, or a product that has substantial durability and stays in use for decades? 

My office defines forensic design as the following: the systematic analysis of physical evidence in the development of design solutions. This analytical process allows us to build consensus among stakeholders and determine what to keep, what to change or replace, or what to discard. It allows us to fully consider the impact our decisions will have. 

Our environmental graphic design (EGD) work in historical buildings often requires assumptions about existing physical conditions. Information about the buildings, if available, is often minimal. We conduct visual inspections, research archives and repositories for drawings and photos, consult with various experts, and coordinate with State Historical Preservation Offices (SHPO), among others. On occasion, we are left to make assumptions about what could have been or should have been.

For many years, Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE) has enjoyed working with the National Passenger Railroad Corporation, otherwise known as Amtrak. Amtrak is among a growing group of organizations concerned about their buildings and how to preserve them while making them functionally up-to-date. When it was created in the early 1970s, Amtrak began service to a tremendous collection of stations built across the country by various railroad companies over the span of a century or more. Therefore, there is no central storehouse of original drawings and documents about these stations to reference when upgrades need to be made.

Triangular sign forms (see lead image) were later fitted with hinged, perforated sign faces and loud speakers years after their original installation.

Today, with the resurgence of rail travel—a sustainable means of transportation—train stations are being refurbished and upgraded. We are helping Amtrak achieve its goal of improving the functionality of it stations while preserving those that have historical qualities. 

For example, we designed a new station-wide sign system for 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, a 1930s era national landmark both inside and out. We knew that in order to make the station function as a 21st-century intermodal transit facility—the third busiest rail hub in the U.S.—it was critical to upgrade the station’s existing signage. 

The triangular signs were later enlisted for supplemental lighting. Bird spikes are yet another non-historic addition.

After conducting extensive research, we determined that the removal and replacement of existing sign faces would damage the underlying structures. Hinges had been painted over, screws and other connections had fused or corroded, and HVAC louvers were best left untouched. As a result, we elected to resurface existing signs rather than replacing them—keeping the underlying structures intact. 

Our new signage system uses historically-referenced forms to retain the original flavor of the interior spaces. Typography, symbols, and colors provide a juxtaposition of contemporary graphics with traditional sign forms. Our application of forensic design techniques allowed us to allay the understandable concerns of preservationists, historians, and railroad buffs. Our research revealed that the original signs, messages, and colors disappeared decades ago. In the end, we were able to accommodate the concerns of all of the stakeholders for a win/win solution.

The front faces of horizontal signs were modified to accommodate modern HVAC systems.  

An obvious HVAC addition to the back of a horizontal sign.

The original sign faces are long lost to history, replaced with dimensional letters applied over painted letterforms, neither of which are original.

As signage designers, we try to be as sustainable as possible by using renewable resources, eco-friendly coatings and finishes, and recycled or recyclable materials. However, not all materials are created equal: some last longer and wear better than others. What this means is that we need to be mindful of a product’s shelf life, so-to-speak, during the design process. It also means being sensitive to the existing structures and environments in which we work. If we can reuse existing structures rather than replace, we will do so. 

Dynamic signs will provide passengers with useful train and schedule information. This rendering shows the design intent of the boarding gate pylons. Durable low VOC coatings will be used in high-traffic areas.

Rendering of triangular and horizontal signs overlaid with new sign panels to protect the existing historic structures. New panels will be coated with water-based paints to eliminate off-gassing and solvent contaminants in passenger areas.

In the course of this and other projects, we've developed a forensic design skill set comprising the systematic analysis of physical evidence in the design and development of appropriate EGD solutions. This methodology allows us to successfully undertake signage and wayfinding programs within renovated, restored, and refurbished buildings, especially historic or landmarked structures.

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.

Recent Viewpoints