Enhancing a Sense of Place While Respecting the 'Less Is More' Principle

As I continue gathering comments regarding art and wayfinding programs across the country—thanks to those of you who have been sending me links and suggestions!—I want to make sure that I distinguish between art/design that enhances sense of place versus art/design that creates visual clutter. “Less is more” may sound trite but given how saturated we are with information, whether in the physical world or digital realm, maintaining a degree of clarity becomes increasingly important.I am an unabashed supporter of wayfinding systems as a means of helping people navigate an environment as well as a proponent of public art that reflects the ethos of given community. And I come to expect that my experience in a city is going to be different than in a town of roughly 30,000 people.

To put it another way, as much as I enjoy the frenetic energy of New York City’s Times Square, I’m not sure I would appreciate downtown Goshen quite as much if I were constantly inundated with the same level of visual stimulation at all hours of the day. Simplicity and clarity are, at least in some respects, easier to preserve when you’re working within the context of a location Goshen’s size.

But regardless of size, environmental graphics are a necessity in any town or city. In his book Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems, Craig Berger describes systems that, developed successfully, keep us anchored in the midst of our “transient identit[ies]” where buildings and spaces may change hands and identities over the course of several years. Moreover, as the country’s demographics shift and our communities become more diverse, the language we use to communicate also shifts. Multilingual signage, for example, may inevitably become the norm.

Given all of these changes, how do we advance the idea of making Goshen a more visually dynamic/distinct place without generating clutter and filling spaces with more stuff? Or, building more signs that must accommodate even more information?

This is somewhat of a rhetorical question given that there is no right or wrong answer. But it opens up numerous possibilities for collaboration between wayfinding, public art and even landscape design into one, comprehensive plan. A sculpture or mural designed for a specific place serves as a landmark that can orient just as well, if not better in some cases, than a sign.

So, in fact, finding ways to integrate a variety of design approaches can enrich a space while simultaneously mitigating the need for more content-heavy information. The beautiful thing about art, of course, is that it is a visual language many people can understand regardless of their respective native tongues. Consequently, imagery and symbols can help fill in communication gaps and signal that we are embracing the growing diversity we are currently experiencing on a local level.