Eye Of The Beholder

Here’s how it used to work: You’d create a space and then slap some art on the blank walls. Hopefully, the paintings or graphic prints chosen would jive with the company’s aesthetic. Most often, artwork was there to impress, to indicate the company’s self-worth and status. A decade ago, you’d have done your job and the client would be happy.

That was then; this is now. Now it’s all about a democratic sense of what art is. The idea of a single artist interpreting the world for us seems quaint. Now anyone can create a photograph or a digital image or an opinion piece or a presidency, for that matter. It is up to the public to decide whether these have merit or not. Like everything else in our fast-evolving world, this ceding of control to the user group can have its upside and its downside.

Open plenum ceilings, graphic branding, a panoply of furniture and seating options and the provision of a bright town hall space all act to position Aviva squarely against every global player in the technology space for the city’s top talent. Photo by Steve Tsai.

In the field of interior design, the plusses far outweigh any minuses. Experiential graphic design has been exploding in recent years, thanks in large part to new technologies that allow almost anything you can think of to magically appear. Whatever image you want can be digitally printed on vinyl or polyester and applied to a wall. It can also be transferred to a textile, wood, metal, glass or composite materials. Engraving, laser-cutting, even 3D printing are at our fingertips. Tiny LEDs provide framing, or backlighting to make an image seem to spring to life. Truer to life are high-def video projections and digital graphics that can change on a whim, or with user interaction. And they do it all at a cost that is equal to or less than a pricey piece of artwork.

They are called experiential because they do so much more than simply hang on a wall.

DIALOG inserted a ring-road corridor throughout the office that “connects employees to different points of discovery.” Along this walk are pieces of Capcom’s intellectual property, such as life-size figurines and hand sketches that stand out against the space’s Japanese-inspired refined and elegant palette, which is itself a nod to Capcom’s origins. Photo by Ema Peter.

Michael Tripp, ‎director of sales and marketing for the Canadian graphic design firm EurOptimum, outlines their attributes: “Graphics used in interior design can assist with wayfinding, promote brand identity or simply shape how people experience a space. The graphics may include subtle influences on the environment’s interior design or create a bold statement that focuses the user’s attention in a specific area. Often, companies choose graphics that align with their organization’s culture or that assist in cultivating a sense of community and collaboration for their employees. In all cases, graphics are meant to engage the users and evoke an emotional connection.”

Photo by Ema Peter.

That sense of community and connection is viewed as vital to the modern workplace, where talent attraction and retention is key. Perhaps more important, though, is branding. Graphics give staff and visitors visual cues as to what a company is all about, helping shape the company’s image and set it apart in the marketplace.

In the last 10 years, says Suzanne Bettencourt, principal with Toronto’s figure3, the business world has grown to understand the impact of branding, beyond merely stamping labels on packaged goods. “Communicating a brand internally is just as important as communicating it externally. Corporations use graphics as a shorthand to relay core values, to show that they care about their staff and the environment.”

Figure3 has its own internal graphics designers, and works with outside agencies when a job requires diving to a deeper level. Although they still uses graphics as artwork, Bettencourt says super-graphics are “coming in everywhere,” representing a significant trend. Enlarged lettering and geometrics, close-ups and exploded images that sometimes spill over onto ceilings and floors can create their own space within a space, and stretch out brand messaging to the nth degree.

Photo by Ema Peter.

Bettencourt particularly likes how “they can relay an emotion and let you immerse yourself in a theme. High-definition photography makes it easy now to create a larger-than-life, immersive image that can change the way you think of existing within four walls.” She offers the example of altering the feel of an enclosed work-station through imposing a super-graphic of a natural view. Even though an employee knows it’s just a wall, “the graphic tells your brain there’s something beyond that wall. It affects you psychologically for the better.”

So in graphics, size matters? “I don’t see it that way,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be big and bold. It can be subtle, too, a form of discovery. It’s whatever you want it to be. In wayfinding, for instance, it helps you code departments and areas, sending signals – this is a quiet area, this is a collaborative area, this is a social area. Graphics give you permission and signals to behave in a certain way.”

As for branding, Bettencourt points to a recently completed project, Aviva Digital Garage, where graphics, big and small, played a major role. Aviva Canada, a subsidiary of the U.K.-based Aviva plc, is a property and casualty insurance group headquartered in the heart of Toronto’s Bay Street district. The company has repositioned itself as a specialist in fintech — technology-driven financial services — and needed an office that spoke to this transition. It required a space that would attract computer and AI development talent, and offer staff complete flexibility in the way they worked.

Imagine, if you will, the normal buttoned-down atmosphere surrounding downtown Toronto’s First Canadian Place. Then picture a digital start-up plunked right in the middle of it, complete with a “real” garage wall banked by steel lockers, a meeting room with a backwall vinyl rendition of barnboard, “loading zone” stripes running along the floor to indicate where the invisible “walls” are positioned, and a reception area fitted with colourful twin portraits of Steve Jobs and a Renaissance woman printed on conjoined floppy discs. It all speaks to creativity, exploration and ease of movement: the garage being a toolshed where you doesn’t need a suit and tie, but can just roll up your sleeves and get down to doing something fantastic.

Multiple canvasses in order to fuel creativity were employed in Electronic Arts’ new Montreal office, by Sid Lee Architecture, and include bringing the “outside in” in common lounge areas. Photo by Stephanie Brugger.

Vancouver’s Dialog has created something pretty fantastic for their own client, Japan-based Capcom, developer and publisher of such popular video games as Dead Rising, Street Fighter and Mega Man. Given this background, you’d expect bold, colour-filled graphics spilling through the sprawling building set in a business park in Burnaby. But, according to interior design associate Janay Koldingnes and Jessica Vitale, Dialog’s national graphic design manager, that wasn’t the aesthetic that emerged. Visual over-stimulation only adds to employee stress in such an intense industry. Focus and relaxation were key to staff happiness and retention.

Photo by Stephanie Brugger.

Dialog is a little different from many other design firms, in that they have a dedicated graphics department that is brought into the loop from the very first client meeting.

Capcom wanted to tell a corporate story that referenced its strong Japanese roots as well as its link to Vancouver’s cool gaming culture. Craftsmanship, design and tranquility were the qualities identified in that initial meeting, resulting, Koldingnes says, in “a Japanese-ish approach” of blended sophistication.

Beautiful wood, transparency and serenity thus permeate the space, which is internally encircled by a glass-balustraded ring-road that leads staff and visitors through a series of experiential graphics acting as both art and subtle wayfinding signals. Collaborative areas are indicated by shoji-like walls whose slats run up across the ceiling. Studios allow a glimpse into developers’ minds via writeable vinyl walls that act as live sketch-books, or living graphics, if you will. Some meeting rooms have glazed doorways with frosted vinyl lines “etched” in origami angles; others are partially obscured with super-graphics of soft blue “ink blotches” that speak to the company’s artistry. In reception, the café and some meeting rooms, giant pencil sketches of heroes and villains in action offer energy. Yet linking and dominating the two-storey space is a sublimely tranquil digital koi pond, a 20-foot screen projection of animated koi fish perpetually emerging from “ink blotches” to swim through a soft blue-and-white background.

The reinforcement of the Harley-Davidson brand, and the celebration of the experiences of both the riders and the dealers, was a driving inspiration for Taylor Smyth Architects for all aspects of the design of the new offices in Vaughan, Ont. For example, a custom wall sculpture over the black vinyl banquet in the café is fabricated out of handle bar grips to spell out LET’S RIDE. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Capcom’s Canadian headquarters offers a primer on how graphics are now merging with interior design to create something greater. “Branding and story-telling are the future of the design world, and clients are really starting to recognize the importance of graphics in this mix,” says Koldingnes. “Regardless of whom you’re designing for, it’s our job as designers to pull out the exciting parts and highlight them.”

Jessica Vitale says super-graphics are often the best way to do this. “Scale helps them be better used by the viewer going through the space, provoking, guiding and starting conversations, enhancing end-product and user experience.”

Vitale adds that artwork of any kind has always played a role in our society, from pre-history hieroglyphics to the modern age: “It’s another way to break down language barriers and have a silent conversation that connects us.” In today’s virtual post-literate society, graphic communication has becomes more and more important in every aspect of our lives. There is now no question that it has a huge role to play in the way our spaces can and should be crafted.