• graphic design
    for architecture

    a book in progress


    Before attending graduate school at MICA, I worked as a graphic and product designer for several different architecture firms. Throughout that experience, I was frequently disappointed by the vast misunderstanding of graphic design among architects. While most architects never receive graphic design training, many still choose to do their own graphic design—and usually not very well.

    Drawing from my professional experience and the knowledge of architects and designers around the world, I am writing and designing Graphic Design for Architecture, a book that examines the relationship between the two fields. Through site visits, case-studies, essays, and interviews with influential practitioners in both fields, my book will chronicle recent examples of architecturally-oriented graphic design and establish a set of best practices. Graphic Design for Architecture will bring attention to leading interdisciplinary designers and elevate the bar for design quality in architecture and graphic design. My book will help architects utilize the visual tools of graphic design, encourage a more open discourse, and facilitate better relationships between graphic designers and architects.

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    • ESSAY

      “I insist that all of your text is at least 14 point or larger.” This was how one of my coworkers, a landscape architect untrained in graphic design, ended nearly every meeting with me. It didn’t matter to her that point-size was only one factor of legibility, or that 14 point was generally much too large for body copy in a book. It also apparently didn’t matter that I was nearing three years as the firm ’s lead graphic designer, and had built a strong track record of good work. Even though I had explained my type-size decisions on numerous occasions, I was still constantly subjected to unwarranted art direction from nearly every landscape architect in the firm. I always responded to her requests with, “I promise the text will be legible.”1

      Few architects set out to be graphic designers. But the organization of visual and textual content comprises a large percentage of an architect ’s daily responsibilities: architects must produce proposals, presentations, and other printed and digital materials to communicate with clients and collaborators. And architects sometimes produce graphic-design elements such as signage and wayfinding or environmental graphics in-house to reduce expenses. A do-it-yourself approach has worked well for some architects, but the majority of architecturally-produced graphic design lacks technical prowess and stifles the transmission of information. Even when an architecture firm employs or collaborates with graphic designers,

    • architects do not always respect the roles of responsibility. After working with architects for nine years and lamenting the state of architectural graphic design, I decided to use my graduate thesis as an opportunity to address the problem.

      The majority of my thesis research consisted of interviews with graphic designers and architects who have worked together. I knew the interviews would contribute significantly to my book, but I initially did not realize the extent to which they would inform my work. Collecting and condensing their experiences reinforced my perspective and expanded my understanding of common impediments in interdisciplinary and collaborative projects. The interviews also revealed an underlying and unspoken camaraderie among graphic designers: each one experienced similar joys and frustrations when working with architects. Alicia Cheng, partner at MGMT in Brooklyn, summed up the difficulties facing interdisciplinary collaborators by saying, “As much as we like to talk about collaboration, it is important to have points of distinction. Graphic design is not rocket science, but we did go to school for it and we’re not trying to do architecture. It’s a very difficult time for graphic designers to prove their worth.”2

      My interviews with architects demonstrated a common theme, as well: architects will always produce their own graphic design, in one form or another. In theory, there is nothing wrong with architects producing their own graphic design,

    • especially in the case of smaller firms with limited resources. And while all architects realize they are not technically trained as “graphic designers,” most believe they do a decent job at faking it. But judging by the architect-produced graphic design that I have seen, I believe that most architects need more guidance.

      Architects have long practiced some form of graphic design and, through their own work, understand spatial relationships, symbolism, and visual communication. The concept of architectural graphics as message is not new. In Learning From Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour elaborate on the functional symbolism of the Guild House sign, which “[d]enotes meaning through its words; as such, it is the heraldic element par excellence. The character of the graphics, however, connotes institutional dignity, while, contradictorily, the size of the graphics connotes commercialism. The position of the sign perhaps also connotes entering.”3 Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour understood that their signage communicated several different messages and used that communication to their advantage. The existence of the sign, its placement, its size in relation to the building, and its typography express their own meanings while reinforcing and the “ugly and ordinary” nature of the architecture.

      But many architects producing their own graphic design today rarely seem to consider the details of typography and messaging. It is baffling to see detail-oriented

    • architects produce presentations that are carelessly designed and lack clear typography or hierarchy. And on a more permanent scale, poorly-designed building signage can become a longstanding eyesore on a carefully designed and constructed building. Given the amount of detail and consideration that a building requires and the inherently meticulous nature of architecture, it is surprising that the intense rigor an architect brings to an architectural task does not always equal that of its graphic-design counterpart: “Architects are so economical in their use of materials,” says Rob Giampietro, Partner at Project Projects. “But they are so uneconomical in their use of words and diagrams.”4

      Almost every graphic designer with whom I spoke cited specific examples of architectural graphic design gone awry—examples from both their own experiences working with architects and examples of work they had seen in the world. As Charles Renfro, Partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro stated, “Because people aren’t killed by graphic design, anybody can do it. Whether you do it well or not is another question. And I think that’s the difference to talk about.”5 Architecture and graphic design are similar in many ways, but they are distinctly different fields with vastly different priorities. The problem is not architects acting as graphic designers; the problem is that most architects approach graphic-design tasks from a purely architectural standpoint. Without a basic understanding of typography and communication design, many architects are unaware of their visual-communication

    • shortcomings. According to 2 x 4 Partner Susan Sellers, “Architects tend to be much more systematic and program-based. Graphic designers tend to work much more around sensibility and big notions. That can be difficult for architects to get their heads around.”6

      It all goes back to the ceiling. My architect husband constantly looks at ceilings, especially when he enters a new space or one that has been designed by a prominent architect. While I assumed it had something to do with his interest in architecture, it always seemed a little odd, so I finally asked why he spent so much time looking up. He explained that the ceiling reveals the design and construction details of a building. If a building was well designed and well crafted, the ceiling will show it. And if a building was carelessly designed and hastily constructed, the ceiling will show that, as well. It makes sense: how many of us really examine the ceiling on a regular basis? Relatively out of sight and often poorly lit, the ceiling provides the perfect place to leave mistakes, even though they are on view in plain sight. In his article, “The Big Rethink: The Purposes of Architecture,” Peter Buchanan summarizes an essay by James Hillman: “In the psyche and dreams, the zone above our heads is that of spiritual aspiration, which is why in traditional buildings it is celebrated in domes, vaults and painted ceilings. To instead put pipes and ducts just above our heads and screen them with the tackiest suspended ceiling tiles is thus the ultimate insult to our fundamental humanity, the starkest sign of how far

    • modern civilisation has lost sight of what should be his ennobling purposes.”7 I am not an architect, but through the lens of the ceiling, I can start to analyze and understand architecture from an architect’s perspective.

      Interdisciplinary collaboration is a matter of education, technical understanding, and self-awareness. For architects to increase their graphic capabilities, they must understand the field of graphic design, its differences from architecture, and its integrated function as communication. As Prem Krishnamurthy, Partner at Project Projects, explained, “The best-case scenario is when you have architects who are aware of and really care about graphic design, but don’t see themselves as graphic designers.”8 Architects can benefit from a greater respect of graphic design, but they first need to comprehend what is missing—they need a way to see it in an architectural context. Architects need a graphic design ceiling.

      1. Alicia Cheng interview by Jenny Kutnow, taped, Nov. 4, 2011, New York, NY. 2. Izenour, Steven, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi, Learning From Las Vegas, Revised Edition. (The MIT Press, 1977), 101. 3. Rob Giampietro interview by Jenny Kutnow, taped, Feb. 6, 2012, Baltimore, MD. 4. Charles Renfro interview by Jenny Kutnow, phone call, Jan. 6, 2012, Baltimore, MD. 5. Susan Sellers interview by Jenny Kutnow, taped, Dec. 22, 2011, New York, NY. 6. Buchanan, Peter. “The Big Rethink: The Purpose of Architecture,” Architectural Review 1382, (April 2012): 83. 7. Prem Krishnamurthy interview by Jenny Kutnow, taped, Jan 27, 2012, New York, NY.


    Growing up in Philadelphia, I was influenced by the local punk scene, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Marcel Duchamp collection, and the architectural legacies of Louis Kahn and Venturi Scott Brown. After studying furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, I worked in various realms of architecture, product design, and graphic design. My work has appeared in Architectural Record, Metropolis, and Ellen Lupton’s Graphic Design Thinking, and I am a regularly invited lecturer and juror at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. I am a 2012 recipient of the Thesis Grant and graduate of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art.