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Importance of Graphics in Urban Design

Composite image showing different examples of urban graphics

Graphics in the built environment come in all shapes and sizes, materials and locations. Their purpose can be commercial, information giving, commemorative or purely decorative.

A Sign Design Society talk on urban graphic heritage, has prompted much discussion within the team about the contribution graphics make within the whole area of urban design. The talk was delivered by Dr Robert Harland an academic at Loughborough University who has been exploring the relationship between graphic heritage and the urban context.

It was a quadrant diagram, attributed to J. Lang, summarising the procedures and products that contribute to urban design typology, that made a particular impression. Alongside architecture, landscape design, city planning and civil engineering, Dr Harland had inserted graphic design. By implication, indicating that in urban design research circles, the contribution of graphic design to the design environment of our towns and cities is not universally recognised.

All urban environments are awash with graphic objects that perform a range of functions. From highway safety signs, shop branding, advertising, interpretative information, wayfinding through to graphics on manhole covers and even zebra crossings.  In many instances it is this graphic layer that endows meaning and helps people understand the context. There are even places you could argue where it is the graphics that gives a place it’s unique character. Without the illuminated advertising signs, would Times Square, New York and even Piccadilly Circus in London, still have the same cultural significance?

Compared with architecture, civil engineering, landscape and city planning compatriots, graphic design in urban environments is often more temporary in nature. Advertising content changes regularly, retailer signs will be replaced to reflect new offers, but there are many examples where graphic objects stand the test of time. Transcending their original purpose to become landmarks and heritage assets in their own right. You need only think of the iconic Welcome to Las Vegas and Hollywood Signs. The latter was implemented as a temporary advertising sign for a real estate development as far back as 1923.  Nearly a century later it has a degree of permanence, that competes with other components of the urban design typology.

Welcome to Las Vegas Sign
Hollywood Sign

Images courtesy: Las Vegas Weekly and LA Times

While these signs are recognised the world over, there are plenty of graphic objects in urban environments that hark back to earlier eras. A walk through the streets of London and you’ll stumble across milestones. A wayfinding legacy system from past centuries, when we travelled on foot or by horse drawn carriage.  

Although new by these standards, anyone working, living or visiting London is likely to come across Legible London. A unified city-wide wayfinding system, that arguably has set the standard for city wayfinding across the world. Since its inception in the early 2000s, it has become established as part of the urban landscape and a graphic object that is uniquely identifiable with London. When Tottenham Court Underground Station was being reconfigured to accommodate Crossrail, there was uproar. Not about the architectual design of the station, but the potential loss of the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics (completed in the 1980s) that decorate the station.

So yes graphic design does very much warrant recognition as a key contributor to urban design typology. It’s the graphic objects that give a place its colour; encourages us to explore; keeps us safe; communicates (directly or more subliminally) its purpose and why we should be interested. It’s what ultimately helps us to connect with a place and can inspire just as much passion as the more accepted urban design typologies.