The Strategic Use of Color in Environmental Graphic Design
Our daily lives involve constant communication with the city. As we move through different spaces, we ask ourselves questions like “Where am I now?”, “Where am I headed?”, “What am I looking for?”, “What is this building for?”, and “How do I experience this space?” While spatial encounters may feel intuitive, environmental graphic design (EGD) provides the answers by serving as an important interface between us and the built environment. It involves the design of graphic elements that merge with architectural, landscape, urban, and interior designs to make spaces more informative, easier to navigate, and memorable. EDG comprises three major elements: text, shape, and color. Text and shapes typically encapsulate the graphic information, but color projects it, amplifies it, and helps communicate it within the packed scenes of the city. In spatial experiences, we perceive colors first, since our senses mostly register visual sensations. Therefore, the strategic use of color is critical for environmental graphics to provide a layered experience of identity imagery, sense of place, and emotional connection.
One of the earliest forms of incising graphical text on architecture is the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which layered stories on buildings as a historical document for the civilization. Today, environmental graphic design has grown to encompass more than just storytelling. It is present in signages, billboards, traffic signs, post boxes, public installations, and other experiential spaces of the city visually translating the operations of complex societies. It is able to communicate all these through color as a facade that has a direct impact on perception. Color does not only layer information in a pleasant and beautiful way but also creates a sense of coherence, relaxes people psychologically, reduces anxiety in large-scale structures, and creates order in urban environments.
In graphic design, certain colors are known to evoke specific psychological responses. Red evokes strong emotions such as passion, excitement, and urgency. Blue is often associated with calmness, trust, and reliability. Yellow represents happiness, energy, and optimism. Green mostly symbolizes nature and can denote health, harmony, and balance, while purple represents luxury, creativity, and spirituality. Strategically combining these colors and layering them with the existing aesthetic of buildings and the city allows information to not only be perceived but also elicit an emotional response. For instance, in hospital designs, green and yellow are commonly used for graphical elements on white interior surfaces to reduce patient anxiety and improve overall well-being.
How Color Affects Architecture
Furthermore, recent research on the influence of color coding on environmental graphic design in children’s hospitals has demonstrated the power of thematic coloring and design in easing young patients. The authors Asri Dwiputri and Wirania Swasty propose that all signages of a particular section can be interrelated through a common design and color-coded theme. This could entail using a blue ocean theme for a particular floor, a green forest theme for an outpatient department, or a yellow desert theme for an intensive care department. Through this approach, color in environmental graphic design can make complex spaces that induce panic feel more comfortable.
Color is a strategic tool used in the design of way-finding systems that help people navigate through a place or city. It is used to curate the visual hierarchy of messages, controlling what viewers should see first and then read after. For example, the title of a location can be projected with bright colors and its location in warm colors, reflecting a hierarchy of how the message should be perceived. This, in combination with size, scale, and typography, is used to effectively orient people in complex spaces such as train stations, airports, and stadiums.
Additionally, When designing such buildings, the choice of color for signage depends on the visual surroundings, including the background colors of walls and windows, the amount of daylight in the space, the lighting, and other spatial elements. In visually crowded spaces like airports, the power of contrast is used to enhance the readability of signage. This ranges from the singular color contrast between the letters and their signage background to the difference between the signage and its border visual environment.
The choice of color becomes more complex in the city, where multiple visual catalogs of different buildings hosting signages and advertisements all compete for perception. For example, Times Square, the popular commercial intersection in Midtown Manhattan, is an urban area defined by multiple layers of color contrast in environmental graphic design. The choice for new signage in the area strategically depends on the visual perception of adjoining buildings, the color code of the graphics they project, and how the new color stands out within the existing color-scheme.
Times Square also shows how the collage of colors in environmental graphic design (EDG) contributes to placemaking. The use of color in relation to fonts, patterns, and animation can completely transform an area, bringing character to office spaces, restaurants, shopping centers, and unique places in the city. By drawing on the emotional properties of color to tell stories in graphics or create images that resonate with a community, a sense of identity can be built with the occupants.
Graffiti is a famous example of the role of color in placemaking within cities. Color through graffiti is used on city walls for self-expression, exhibiting socio-cultural tensions, and asserting a claim to a particular place. When a simple color scheme is chosen in graffiti, perception is drawn to focus on the geometric shapes. Meanwhile, swirls of bright primary colors have great movement and energy, appearing to dance. These strategic uses of color in environmental graphics in graffiti are crafted to make the art memorable and draw emotional connections from communities.
The use of color is paramount in every aspect of environmental graphics. It affects how individuals navigate through space, interact with others, and feel a sense of belonging. Through properties such as visual hierarchy, emotional perception, contrast, identity, and other aspects of color theory, strategic use of color is employed to design better wayfinding systems, exhibitions, public installations, and unique spaces in the city. As we unpack different aspects of the city, our visual communication with color forms a foundational layer of environmental graphic design that informs our experiences.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Color in Architecture presented by Sto.
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