Symbols Speak Universal Language With Local Flair

When we live in spaces where we read, write and speak our native language, we sometimes take the ability to function in the environment--without difficulty--for granted. Traveling in another country, however, is at least one example of the barriers that language potentially creates; navigating new places while simultaneously immersed in a different language and culture can be a humbling experience. And when we need help or find ourselves lost, how do we find our bearings? Thankfully, we have symbols, which transcend language and even cultural context. In other words, there is an existing visual language that we can quickly learn to read and interpret regardless of where we are in the world.

AIGA transportation symbols

Just as typography is an integral part of design, no discussion about wayfinding would be complete without mentioning symbols. Because they provide a way to quickly and efficiently communicate information in its most basic form, they play an important role in helping us navigate unfamiliar places. Public venues, hospitals, airports, highways and even the villages that are constructed during the Olympics employ universal symbols—usually in the form of pictograms (that is, symbols that represent an object, word or concept)—to orient visitors.

One need only think about how frequently each of us utilizes arrows on a daily basis to appreciate this universal, visual language that we share.

Lance Wyman—one of my design idols and a superstar in the design world—is more commonly known for the system of pictograms he developed with Manuel Villazón and Mathias Goeritz for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Beyond serving as information graphics and beautifully stylized images in and of themselves, the symbols are imbued with Mexican cultural and historical references that make them simultaneously global and unique to a specific place and time. Even today, the average person can easily read the system of icons and understand what they mean.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation, has also played a significant role with regard to symbols, helping to standardize pictograms that are used internationally:

“Prior to this effort, numerous international, national and local organizations had devised symbols to guide passengers and pedestrians through transportation facilities and other sites of international exchange. While effective individual symbols had been designed, there was no system of signs that communicated the required range of complex messages, addressed people of different ages and cultures and were clearly legible at a distance.”

Hablamos Juntos and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design are two additional groups working together to develop a system of symbols, specifically for wayfinding in healthcare facilities here in the United States. Throughout this process, designers are proving their collective ability to develop graphics that are practical and accessible but with the kind of nuance that makes them beautiful. (Yes! Symbols can be beautiful!)

Here in Goshen, universal symbols and an accompanying waryfinding system aren’t necessarily going to play the same role as they do at, say, an airport such as O’Hare International. However, in making our city a place that visitors enjoy coming to, it’s in our best interest to consider how we develop a visual language that is both unique to who and where we are, yet welcoming to the “outsiders” in our midst.

Trying to See a Familiar City With Fresh Eyes

Through the course of writing about design, public art, placemaking and environmental graphics, I’ve come to an awkward realization. Namely, that there is a great deal that I don’t actually know about my hometown. I was born at Goshen General Hospital and spent my formative years here, attending a mix of public and private schools from kindergarten all the way up through college. And yet, aside from the people and places that have more or less remained the same, the city has changed; I have been humbled by the knowledge that I must learn to look at this familiar place with newer—and perhaps more acute--eyes.

The intellectual in me would like to think that I’ve already done so. After all, many of the changes that have taken place, at least in terms of infrastructure and local businesses, are difficult to ignore. But still. I have done a fair amount of research about Goshen as of late and have been both frustrated and motivated by the fact that I don’t know quite as much as I thought I did.

There are subtle, more nuanced—or perhaps just less pronounced?—shifts that I have been somewhat oblivious to, that have taken place over time. Taken together, these overt and understated transformations have subsequently altered the general ethos and demographic makeup of the city.

I have plenty of opinions about the role of art/design in helping to define a sense of place for Goshen. In looking back over previous posts, however, I have struggled when confronted with questions about how sense of place could or should manifest itself more visually. And there’s a temptation to rely too heavily on my own perspectives and assumptions about the Goshen that I grew up with rather than the Goshen that exists.

I am only one person, so am inevitably limited when it comes to understanding the extent to which local residents feel a sense of pride or the degree to which people living in our area make conscious efforts to support local farms and businesses. I’m not necessarily aware of the neighborhood relationships that are growing into distinct, identifiable communities within a larger community or the ways in which changes in infrastructure will affect these neighborhoods. Or, if I see changes happening, I may only be able to appreciate them from a certain amount of detached distance.

In a recent Goshen Commons post, Adam Scharf stated the following:

“The 'North Connector Route' will leave this railroad corridor almost unrecognizable from what it is today. And with other crossings of the tracks – those cultural and those constructed – further closed and cut off by columns and concrete, Cottage Avenue will become a central collector and a carrier across a divide. Might those whom it hosts for a crossing still feel … at ease, welcome and at home.”

This excerpt struck me for a number of reasons, in part because it draws a connection between the structural foundation of the city and the part of the city that lives and breathes -- that is, the people, within that structure. Development can have an enormous impact on how we function in communal spaces, influencing how well we can or cannot maintain relationships and a sense of belonging. It also reflects the reality of change.

Art and design can provide us with a means for helping to preserve the aforementioned idea of “home,” and creative expression can be a thread that keeps us linked in the midst of transitions. Lastly, though we should not ignore the past, we must appreciate what is actually in front of us, learning to know who we are now in order to imagine who we will be in the future.

Narrowing Goshen's Visual Definition (Think Brick, Not Neon)

Good typography and good design go hand-in-hand, however, the two are not necessarily synonymous. That is to say, good design is based on the effective use of type yet also begins with a strong, overarching concept. But even then, any creative object or endeavor is scrutinized with a certain level of subjectivity; there is no definitive way of classifying art/design as “good” versus “bad,” and we all have opinions about what we like or dislike. A given design installation or wayfinding system will not be pleasing to every single person, and regardless of whether or not everyone can appreciate it equally, design—or, rather, good design—should strive to be more than just layer upon layer of information that fills up our collective spaces. Design can (and should) be both functional and engaging in a way that brings coherence rather than confusion.

How, then, does one go about developing an entire system of environmental graphics that will serve a practical purpose in providing people with the information they need, visually complement the surrounding area and create a sense of place that is site specific? And once we begin to put a system in place, how do we know if it qualifies as “successful” on all fronts?

Despite some of the challenges of weeding out bad design from the good, we can become more discerning about why certain visuals work better than others. As in the case with clearview, there are subtle yet significant differences that average people can detect and appreciate.

The downtown area reflects a variety of aesthetics. But when we take stock of the buildings and landmarks, we can begin to call out some of the strong visual components--such as the red brick or historic architecture--and subsequently make a few judgments about what does or doesn’t define us and the downtown area.

Planting a large “Welcome to Fabulous Goshen, Indiana” neon sign (á la Las Vegas) somewhere alongside the aforementioned Main Street buildings, consequently, would not make sense. Nor would highly stylized art nouveau signage inspired by the Paris Metro structures. An argument could certainly be made in favor of such ideas but questions regarding authenticity and a well-defined sense of place would remain. (Keep in mind that I’m talking about a system of graphics, not individual storefront signage.)

The mismatch between these examples of famous signage and downtown Goshen, Ind., might be too obvious. At the very least, however, they begin to set a reference point for what works and what doesn’t, what helps visually define Goshen and what is simply window-dressing that has no aesthetic connection to existing infrastructure or community ethos.

If we were to envision new wayfinding signs cropping up in the downtown area, what would—or, rather should--they look like? I intend to find out.

Hospitals Invite Art to Help With the Healing

"I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way--things I had no words for."--Georgia O'Keeffe

"Nature always wears the colors of the spirit." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

My childhood recollections of doctors’ offices and hospitals might be summed up with words like “clean,” “sterile” and “white.” These spaces certainly gave the impression, understandably so, of being utilitarian, and in an intimidating sort of way. Though it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me (at the time) that hospitals and doctors’ offices should look like anything but what they did already, times have changed. In this day and age, children’s hospitals in particular utilize wayfinding and placemaking systems to create warm, friendly environments for spaces that might otherwise generate fear and anxiety.

Wayfinding and placemaking are sophisticated concepts. That is to say, they require a great deal of planning and organization, and even anthropological study, in order to determine human patterns of behavior. At the same time, taking a concerted, thoughtful approach to the design of spaces is not simply for grownups. The Rwanda Healing Project  is one instance of how the perspectives and experiences of children can play a significant role in defining sense of place. But there are many other examples, especially when it comes to addressing feelings of fear and anxiety that we associate with certain places, like hospitals.

A few months ago, Seattle Children’s unveiled a new wayfinding system  that “focuses on the patient and family experience” and helps visitors navigate the expanding campus; the hospital shifted its previous six-zone system into four zones broken down into themes based on geography: Forest, River, Ocean, Mountains.

The system is intended to create efficiency. Just as importantly, however, the zones “feature family-friendly art, including colorful murals and carved surfaces, which correspond with zone themes and support a healing environment intended to calm anxieties and offer discovery, amusement and positive distractions. The art complements other wayfinding elements like signs, symbols and colors.”

In other words, the Seattle Children's hospital wayfinding is not simply about navigation--it utilizes color, art and forms inspired by nature to bring a bit of the outside world inside. What a profound yet sensible idea.

This is yet another example to add to my ongoing list of the successful integration of art/design for both practical and seemingly not-so-practical purposes. Colorful, “family-friendly” art lining hospital walls may seem superfluous…until we consider the perspectives of children and their families.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, boasts similarly impressive graphics and art installations, complete with a magic forest and 6-acre park. These spaces may not be able to change the reality of why families are there in the first place; they aren’t meant to.

However, even as an adult, I can appreciate the appeal to the imaginative nature of human beings that can, even under strenuous circumstances, put us at ease and help us find some sense of peace in the midst of the challenges beyond our control. Art can help achieve this in a way that institutional spaces, however practical and functional, cannot.

One of the downsides of growing up is that we inevitably lose our creative instincts. Realistically speaking, the needs of children and the needs of adults may not always be the same. Yet, there is something that these whimsical environments, designed primarily for children, can teach us about appreciating the beauty of the visual places and spaces around us, regardless of age.

Oakland's Wayfinding Mosaics Suggest Direction With Beauty

As I continue thinking and writing about wayfinding, and how a more comprehensive system could serve to benefit Goshen, the questions I keep coming back to include the following: How is our city visually distinct? Beyond the obvious landmarks, how do we distinguish ourselves in ways that highlight our uniqueness? And how can we can we emphasize these characteristics yet avoid cluttering up our communal spaces with more stuff? Moreover, figuring out how to bring wayfinding and public art/design elements together in a complementary way is not necessarily an easy feat to accomplish. The two elements are certainly not in opposition to one another; both can beautify and improve the safety of public spaces. However, each ultimately serves a different purpose. Whereas an art installation may not have an intended aim other than existing as a form of creative expression, wayfinding is meant to help orient and provide direction.

In California, Oakland’s Dimond wayfinding mosaics, a beautiful mix of artistic aesthetic and practical directional information produced by the artist Gina Dominguez, seem to strike just the right balance. Embedded in the sidewalk, the pieces are integrated into the environment without overwhelming viewers with visual information.

The designs also draw on imagery and symbolism that relate to the area: “Each sidewalk-embedded marker points to four different destinations within the neighborhood and the outlying areas of Oakland. The mosaics are functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. They each have a separate design all celebrating something special about the district: the Native American Collection at the Dimond Library; the Redwoods; the native flora of Dimond Canyon, Sausal Creek and the Leimert Bridge that spans Dimond Canyon.”

One need not be an artist to appreciate these works of art or the way in which they contribute to the cultural richness of the Dimond District. The series of mosaics has the added benefit of creating a pronounced sense of place for every single person, whether they live in the area or are simply passing through.

Though the Goshen community is generally a strong proponent of the arts, we seem to struggle a bit when it comes to demonstrating our support through visual art and design. Perhaps it’s more of a reticence than a struggle. Regardless, there is a great deal we can learn by looking at what other communities are doing—not so that we can copy and paste (that is, take something that is working in once place and transplant it into our city).

Rather, observing the interesting projects that are taking place in other cities might help move us a step beyond our collective comfort zone and consider how we might translate our appreciation for everything Goshen has to offer into a visual statement that communicates something special to visitors and lifelong residents alike.