I had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful David Gibson from Two Twelve. David is a world leader in Environmental Graphics, an enthusiastic member of the Society of Environmental Graphic Design and a genuinely down to earth guy.

Decorated Duck: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current position.

David Gibson: I did architecture for 2 years at Cornell University. Then my father died and my family moved back to Canada – I’m originally Canadian. So I got out of school for a while, then went to a really interesting school and studied graphic design. In the year and a half there graphic design really captured my interest. Then I left that, wandered the world, figured myself out and went back to study at Yale University and got a graduate degree in graphic design. So finally I got a serious, complete degree. And I think that set me up for my career.

DD: Was there a particular point at which you went down the signage/wayfinding path as opposed to other forms of graphic design such as print.

DG: I think it was probably always in the back of my head because I know the architectural world and the language and some of my good friends are architects. And then you get a project here and there, just by chance, that’s generally I think how it works. You may tend to do more print then someone says, “can you do a sign for my restaurant?”. My then business partner’s sister was an architect and she was working on a project – a rather large mixed use project – we collaborated them and and then one project leads to another and so it unfolds…. And I think it was my way of becoming an architect vicariously – to do the signage with architects. It is like doing the architecture without actually doing the architecture.

DD: Did you have any major influences in forming Two Twelve and how is the name derived?

DG: Two Twelve is the address of the graphic design studio at Yale University. It was 212 York Street and I set up the business with 2 classmates –2 women and a man so it was 2-1-2. Then we moved to New York shortly after school and the area code of New York is 212. So it was a kind of double entendre of our location and our education.

I think what inspired us was in fact our education at Yale, which was a sort of managers education. In the years that we were the chairman introduced us to a lot of different aspects of the graphic design discipline. We did an exhibit, a signage project, we did a type drawing, we did book layouts – of course we were just working with a phototype setter – way before computers. It showed us the breadth of graphic design. Yale was also a grant program then so you also had a sense that you could – I don’t want to say control the world – but you could work with people doing big things.

As it turned out, within the three partners one focused kind of on print work, one got involved in very early digital media (the 80’s version – which were complex IBM based programs – so were early in the digital space) and the I focused on wayfinding and signage – so I think we kind of carved up the world. It wasn’t like fixed divisions per se – but they were areas of focus and that launched me into what has now been 25 years of thinking about wayfinding.

DD: Has writing the ‘The Wayfinding Handbook’ helped to clarify ideas?

DG: One of the main things the book did was it got me really excited about what I do. Because doing the book was actually just writing down everything I know about my work. It was about thinking – well I’ve been doing this thing – now how do I explain it? It reminded me that it is such an interesting discipline. I mean I always say it’s just a bunch of metal. If you think of just signs – it’s just bits of metal with colour and type but they signify a lot. They connect to people, they speak about the aspirations of an institution. I find all the issues around it quite fascinating. It is like a story in itself.

DD: We’ve been to quite a lot of places – but NY is potentially the most overwhelming in terms of signage. Do you think that living in New York has had an influence on how you work?

DG: Well that’s interesting…I think we love urban environments. We all enjoy the density of people, the richness of the environment and how all of the information fits into the environment. And then I think NY is such a challenging place that to survive you have to have a certain ambition. I mean it is just damnedly difficult to make it through a year – or two or ten or twenty. I think it gives you big dreams and a sense of possibility. When start out you do small projects in NY and you do bigger projects out of NY. Then that gets you bigger ones back in NY – so there is this sort of leapfrog of building your reputation. You don’t get to do the big projects in NY right away – sometimes you’ve got to tour out of town, like an actor or a comedian, then you come back to get the gig in the palace.

DD: When you begin a new project how do you begin working through the process of wayfinding and identity?

DG: Firstly there is the whole process of analysis and investigation – that’s the part I quite like actually. I don’t do that much design – the guys out there are doing more of the design. I like to figure out the problem. That is where you really start to cover the core issues: What does this situation mean? What is the business problem? What is in it for us? And how can we create a solution that is going to help people? At that point, further to your questions about architects, that’s when we can really raise issues as advocates of people. Architects design buildings for people, but sometimes they forget that there is a human dimension to a building and people have to get from here to there and they have to know certain things. I think we can often cover that.

….David gets a copy of his book…

I think one of the particularly interesting parts of the book is Section 2.2 on planning and strategy. I have this idea of approach and refine – which is now expanded to plan, approach and refine and return. It explains the whole human approach of going through a space and what kinds of information you need along the way leading to the idea of wayfinding strategies. I describe models that are developed on different urban forms. This is what I think is one of the more interesting and unusual parts of the book. If you think of a hospital complex – that is Sir John Hoskins Hospital in Baltimore (pointing at diagram in book) – that is the tangle that a person like us faces when you are trying to figure out a wayfinding problem. How the hell do I make sense of a whole complex with a million destinations, all these corridors and buildings? Architects tend to see the buildings in blue and I think people perceive the yellow, which are pathways because often you don’t know in a hospital when you are going from Building A to Building B.

So I have developed an idea that there are potentially four different models you could use to build the strategy of wayfinding. One is the idea of the connector: is there a connector that connects everything? or do we actually divide it into districts Do we focus on landmarks (which could be elevators)? or do we use my streets model which focuses on corridors? Each of these is a kind of mental mapping paradigm that we could develop. This (pointing to page) is a map of a hospital in Boston (that I didn’t do) that is absolutely the connector idea. If you get on this pike, they call it, like a turnpike or highway, it will take you to everything in the hospital. This is a wayfinding system in Philadelphia (pointing to page) divided up into districts. For big complex, urban and institutional wayfinding projects these models can be quite useful as a way to build the foundation for a wayfinding system.

That is the part that happens at the beginning – where you are walking the walls if it is built or the plans if it is unbuilt. You are talking to people, you are talking to the architects, you are talking to the clients, you are talking to the users, you are talking to the guy at the security desk who answers all the crazy questions that people have about getting to the so and so. That is where you set the stage for the design process and build a foundation so that then, particularly in a complex situation with many constituents and stakeholders, you get people to agree on what it is you are trying to do – not just arguing because I like red and you like green. Working on the bigger issues.
DD: If you find something in the architecture that you don’t think works – on a wayfinding level – what do you do?

DG: Yeah, well sometimes you say “that is going to be confusing” or “that doesn’t make sense” or “why is the so and so there when it should be here”. I mean, often it is too late, the dye has been cast, the decision has been made. That is why we like to get involved early so that we can potentially have an impact on the way things unfold. On a simpler level, how many times have I worked with an architect that designed a canopy over an entrance where you can’t even put the address! At some micro level you can say, “let me help you think about how you design this canopy so that maybe we can put the name of the building or the address”. And I think sometimes we can provide useful perspective to architects on just how people are going to experience their building. It might not entirely occur to them that if you really think about the experiential quality: what am I thinking when I plan my visit? When I am approaching the site? When I am trying to figure out where to enter it? I just want to find the destination and then get out. What are the human considerations along this journey? That can be a useful dialogue.

DD: Do you have particular grids or scaling mechanisms that you like working with?

DG: Hmm…I would say that our work is pretty diverse, for a couple of reasons. Because we are very user focused we really try to think about what the people in this context would like. Also, I think it is because the ideas don’t all start at the top and filter down at this firm – often they filter up or sideways. I think we are open to a diversity of opinion. We try to create clarity and sometimes some drama and we try to produce elegance and something that is really memorable and an enhancement. We are very comfortable working with architects in creating signage that will integrate nicely with their building. I think the grid is more the process than some sort of formal system.

DD: We have more laws in Australia than anywhere else and we have very strict laws about accessible signage – in Europe they have almost none. What are your thoughts about the extent to which signage should be accessible?

DG: Well, we have legislation called the ADA, the American Disability Act, that came in almost 20 years ago. It has become a standard where you have to meet certain requirements. There is actually quite a good document that the SEGD has that explains that whole process. There are 2 different ways to think of accessibility. On the one hand, in the much larger sense, you could say that the work we do as user centred designers is to create accessible places. In other words, that they are places that are useable, where people feel comfortable, where they have the tools that they need. But in the more narrower sense of accessibility, thinking in terms of people with disabilities, there are certain requirements. And we have just taken those to heart and we just do them. You are always need to have tactile letters, Braille. I mean there is a question as to whether people with vision impairments can actually read tactile signs, or anyone actually read Braille. I mean it is a very very small percentage. But I think we are more motivated by the larger questions of accessibility than the more narrower ones.

DD: In Australia it often goes to the point where you are required to put signs in places where only a disabled person could read it – so 99.9% of the population can’t see the sign. And other extremes where you will have tactile signage on something that would be impossible for someone with vision impairment to find, like in the middle of a boardwalk or pier.

DG: It’s a challenge. What do you do to enforce a certain amount of accessibility? I mean – we have done some work at older universities, like Princeton, where you will have beautiful buildings from the 18th and the 19th century – long before there were rules about ramps – so it is a nightmare to find the accessible path. So sometimes it takes scores of signs to actually get you to the accessible pathway.

DD: Do you have particular inspirations for your work – such as people, or books or artists?

DG: I think there are two strains in me for some reason that I have never fully resolved. When I studied at Cornell in the late 60’s – it was a place where the modernists were kings. Le Corbusier was the absolute god. So my basic training as a designer came out in a modernist form. Then when I studied graphic design I was inspired by the work of Joseph Mueller Brockman and the beautiful typographic posters in Switzerland in the 1950’s and 60’s. I think I always see type in a slightly Joseph Mueller Brockman kind of way. On the other hand, I love history. History excites me in a way that sometimes the present leaves me cold.

DD: Does this show in projects like the Apollo theatre?

DG: Yes, and Radio City Music Hall is another theatre that we have done. We’ve actually done quite a few theatres.
(Showing images of the Radio City Music Hall).

The lobby is beautiful art deco. So there were a few signs like this that were historic landmarks – these we restored and cleaned up. And based on this Jonathon Hoefler, who is a great type designer, created that (pointing to page). It was actually created using this and the word aisle on another sign. There were about 7 or 8 letters. He was able to extrapolate and then we were able to create the new signs using the typeface – we built the signage around the old framework. And we did something similar at the New Amsterdam Theatre.

That is a demonstration of our schizophrenia at the new Amsterdam and at Radio City where we were using these older models and old typefaces and building something kind of historicist. And then we just finished the signage program for the David H. Koch theatre that was formerly known as the NY State Theatre at the Lincoln Centre. And there it is a beautiful, very simple but elegant modernist system that is quite minimal.

DD: I think you really need to get the commission to do the signage at the met – the signage there is terrible. Have you seen the decals? They are gold snowflakes on squares of clear vinyl. It is the first thing you see when you walk up to the building and they are all crusty and peeling off. They spent something like $5 million on the chandelier which you can only see from the outside through these decals.

DG: Yeah, its funny you know..just hearing you say decal – is that an American word? Because I think that is Canadian..I think the american’s say Deee-cal.

Theatre’s are an interesting case study in that, well, they are quite minimal – the need for signage is generally quite minimal in that you mostly need to know the vertical circulation, where the levels are. And on a particular level what the few destinations are. So it is kind of a horizontal and vertical axes that you are navigating. In general you want the signage to not stand out too much. I mean, in most theatres. There are probably a few where it might come forward a bit more for example Paula Scher for the public theatre – well the public theatre is more the banners, but within the building I don’t think the signage shows up that much. I mean she created a very bold system of graphics for that institution.

DD: Theatre’s are also interesting because often they are built by the city and then inhabited by some other organisation so that there is often a quite complex relationship. And often they have to divvy it up into sections..

DG: Yes, exactly. And that is actually what is interesting about the David H Koch theatre – it is home to the NY city opera and the NY city ballet and it has been a very uneasy relationship for years and so we were able to quite successfully bridge the two. Now the opera is in serious trouble financially and I think they are going to leave the centre. But we were able to find a balance between them. On the other hand, we have just finished a project in New Jersey – the meadowlands stadium – it is a big arena and it is home to 2 football teams – which is very unusual. Often sports are combined – but not two competing football teams with totally different colours. The system has a lot of electronics – so there is green on jets days and blue on giants days or whatever the specifics are. So there you can change the paradigm. But the NY state theatre was designed by Philip Johnston so it has a distinguished history that one wants to respect.

DD: A lot of the places we have visited have been not just theatres but cultural centres – so there will be a cinema and a café and an admin section and a bar and some have sound booths and lecture halls and some of them are quite involved.

DG: Actually – you are not going to Toronto are you?

DD: Yes, we are.

DG: Oh! You should definitely go to the Bell Light Box. Have you heard about that? It is where the Toronto film festival is held. And actually that is a fabulous place. And if you think of a place like radio city…or we have done a couple of symphony halls – one in Nashville and Severance Hall in Cleveland. In a place like that the signs should melt into the environment because the architecture is beautiful and grand and you don’t need stand out signs. But at the bell light box, which was just opened last year, it is the home of a film festival and somehow the energy is very different – it might be interesting to compare. Gottschalk & Ash designed the signage for that and they did a nice job. I suspect that that building has transformed the life of this institution in making it much more public and accessible with programs all year long.

DD: The theory behind what we are calling “Decorationg the Duck” comes from Robert Venturi – in his theory with the duck being the architcture as form and then the decorated shed which was placing the importance on the sign as the exterior to a generic building. Here we are investigating the possibility that we can decorate the duck – so that you combine the two. Do you have any thoughts?

DG: So, did he ever talk about the combination?

DD: No.

DG: Well… if you think of what Gehry did for the Symphony hall in Los Angeles…it seems to me that that is decorating the duck. I think it takes a lot of courage to ask Gehry to do that and it takes open mindedness for him to let it happen. I think it ups the anti – the stakes are higher when you are decorating the duck. That seems to me to be the perfect image of decorating the duck. Yeah…I guess that is what we are doing – I never really thought of it that way. So then it is a question of whether the architects are going to let us do it.

I work a lot in institutions and they are often very information intensive environments and I sometimes use those very words with architects. Sometimes they know what I am talking about and sometimes they don’t really care. It is both that the physical environment is complicated and so it takes a fair amount of information to explain it but there is also just a lot happening and people need to know what is going on. It seems as if Nuno (Gusmao from P-06 Atelier) has created a way of making this information become this beautiful artwork and vast displays. He has taken it to some new level. He must have a very strong forceful presence with his architectural collaborators. I mean did he talk as though his collaborators are very open to it?

DD: He had some collaborators that he does a lot of work with – they trust each other. And his theory is about presentation – about how you present it to the client and how you get them to think your way.

DG: Yeah! So that is really embracing the information intensity to become a tool and to become part of the foreground rather than the background.

DD: We went to visit the TAP theatre in Poitiers that he designed – and the signage was so much more impressive than the builidng.

DG: That’s the thing – to actually work with slightly second tier architects and to make their building more than they realise. That would be an interesting strategy, wouldn’t it?!

DD: If you have a bit of paper, could you just quickly draw a decorated duck. We have a little gallery – I think it is an easier to do as a doodle – it’s harder if you think about it too much…

DG: Well…lets think about that…that is an interesting idea. I mean I am thinking there is a theatre marquee…I mean I have this image in my head…maybe I should just draw that because it is the one that came to mind – so I’ll do my interpretation of a Frank Gehry building.

DD: Perfect…straight to the pool room!…as we say in Australia. Thanks so much for your time David.

DG: Thanks for your time and we’ll catch up with you in Montreal.