I was particularly inspired by the closing address of the SEGD (Society for Environmental Graphic Design) Conference 2011 by Sylvia Harris of Citizen Research and Design. Sylvia passed away suddenly not long after the conference, so I felt honored to have heard this EGD legend at her vibrant best. This is a transcript of the speech to the best of my ability as I am sure other people will be inspired by her words too.

You can also see more of the important work that Sylvia’s firm, Citizen Research and Design, is doing here.

” I don’t know why the asked me to do the wrap up. I’m known very often by the design team that I work with as a killjoy. Because I am the person that is constantly making the team stop – grabbing them by the nape of the neck when they are going off to do some cool thing. I say “wait, wait, wait – how is this going to work for people?. Do we really need this?” So I thought instead of being a killjoy this afternoon I’ll talk a little bit about the users and the people that we serve and put a positive spin on it. So what do we do? Well, we make things – all of us make things. We make things clearer. We make things compelling. And we make ourselves work really, really hard. We are one of the hardest working professions that I know. And today I want to talk about why we do what we do.

Frankly, I think it is because we love doing it and it starts really young. I don’t know about you but I am here because of an Erector Set. Some of you younger ones probably played with Sim City. Lego is the same thing, Meccano here in Canada. Well, I had one of these and back in the 50’s girls didn’t get Erector Sets. An African American girl –never! But I got one and in a way I think it made me the graphic designer that I am today. I am arguing in a way that many of the projects that we all do today are glorified Erector projects. But we get to work with real life and real people.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it – why we do what we do. I asked the community to send me messages about why you do what you do and these are some of the things I heard “I want to be an artist”, “a graphic designer”, “a rock and roll star”, someone said “I thrive on challenging complexity”. Most of us Environmental Designers really love very intensive projects that we can throw ourselves into. And a number of people wanted to be architects first. And it was close enough to become an Environmental Graphic Designer.

But when I went to school we were taught that designers were really superheros. That designers would show up with a literal cape – to show the way, to squash bad ideas and to save our clients from themselves. But after 30 years in the trenches I have learned that really our job is to be more like advocates for the people. We speak for the masses, give voice to the quiet and we explain very complex things and make them simpler.

Today in our office we are thinking and looking for smarter ways for designers to be advocates for the people. And we are developing a practise that is like a human based design team and we are trying to teach our clients to value the people that they work with and that they serve. We try to design things that harness the power of the user. We are hoping to help the EGD community to focus on the people. That is why I changed the name of my firm to Citizen Research and Design. Citizen being the people and us. I am going to show you 3 projects that were positive.

The first one is about finding people at the University of Miami. It is one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country and is still being planned. Cooper Robertson and Partners did the Masterplan and they asked us to come and help fix the signs. They wanted more signs. We started, however, with the people factor and we tried to find a way to look at what the people wanted first. So we started by interviewing the folks on campus to find out who was getting lost, who wasn’t, what their experience was rather than presupposing what we thought was needed which was maybe more signs. We asked them to give us their thoughts on what their daily experience was and what we learned was just fascinating. As you can see this is true – that more people told us that they were so confused on that campus that they didn’t go around alone. People would travel together, particularly at night, because they had so much trouble finding their way. Underneath that we also learned that people rely on people more. What we discovered, however, is that asking the way to go was wonderful in terms of building community but what it did was it created inaccuracies. One person would tell you to go one way, another would tell you to go another way. So what was missing was a formal system of explaining how to get around. So what we recommended actually was creating a visitor information centre, which they never had – a central place where you could go and talk to a human. It was human contact that the people we were interviewing were asking for. I think they are just getting ready to fund it. So it turned out not to be about signs – they are just going to upgrade the signs a little bit but really put their money into the people.

The next project I am going to show you is about people and their relationship to symbols at a hospital. This is for the New York Presbyterian Hospital. When you design a wayfinding system for a big campus a lot of it is based on symbols. They asked us to let them know –how do you know that the public understands these symbols? We know they have been published, we know they have been tested but do they really work in this hospital? And we weren’t sure so we suggested that the team built full sized prototypes of signs in front of the existing ones and we left them up for a day and we did a series of cognitive tests to see how people – real people, real patients – on a real day understand what was happening. We did interviews and were talking to them while they were doing it. Then we conducted tests of the symbols. We made like a SAT test, I suppose you could call it, of all the symbols we were planning to use. And we asked people to tell us what they thought each symbol meant. And it was interesting to see how eager they were to participate in that and what we learned was just amazing. 77% of the people we talked to thought that the symbol on the far left was hand washing. The least amount of people thought that that meant prayer. That was the symbol for the chapel by the way. 88% saw the one in the centre as a church which is pretty obvious. The one that got the highest percentage of correctness was the far right which means prayer. A few people thought it was a drinking fountain. It just goes to show you never know. What we learnt from this is that when it comes to symbols there is no hard science that actually culture and context really matters. And I learned a tremendous amount because coming at it I said “You don’t need to test this. The one with the two hands is the right one for a multinational audience” and I was dead wrong.

The last project about people is one where we pretty much failed and I want to say that I would like SEGD to have more conferences where we can come and talk about our failures. We all show all the beautiful stuff that is really groovy and works really well but we learn more I think from our failures than we do from our successes. So I am going to tell you about one that failed and I was a little embarrassed by it and I am hoping to have another chance. This is New York University – it is a big school in the middle of New York City. A school in the city, a city in the school. They have some tag line about that.

We worked with Pentagram to redesign the exterior map system. We were designing the sign system for the main part of it. So before we got going, Pentagram allowed us – bless their hearts – to go out on the street and talk to students and staff to find out what they needed and just how they operated before we even hit the ground. And we found a lot of confusion about the map system that they currently had. And so the first thing that we did was we had Pentagram redesign the campus map. This is the redesign. And we decided, from our observations to try to create a map that rotated. So north was facing north, if you were facing north. So the maps were facing south if you were facing south. And we made them and we put them on the street and people had problems with them because they were expecting north to be up. The people who are good navigators expect north to be up. The people who were terrible navigators didn’t understand it anyway. It was just a mess! And we realised that we needed to do more research. And we couldn’t do more research because the client ran out of money. And it was mid August, I was going on vacation and school started September 2nd. What were we going to do? So what we did is got our own team together and went out on the street, opened up all the map cases they had and put up prototypes of the maps – some with North up, some with South up – all the variations with different ways of indicating how the rotation worked. So we put them up and we went as a design studio and tried to use them with each other. And what we learned was that we got lost and we got confused and we had co-designed these things! They didn’t work and we couldn’t make them clear enough, the north and south indications were not usual enough – we were just confusing ourselves. So in the end we just deployed regular maps that are very lovely and very pretty because weren’t convinced that the rotation worked well enough. So we decided to tell the client that we were going to put it on hold for a couple of years when we had more money to test it and we would figure out how they could rotate and we would deploy it then. But of course the client never came back. Once you are finished, you are finished. What I learned though is, and I am going to put on my designer hat, we wanted to make those maps rotate because it was cool. We thought it would work. But when we went out and tried it ourselves what happened is that we realised that we had to be true to our compassionate humanity and that we didn’t want anyone to be getting lost at the expense of our egos. So we let our empathy overrule our egos. And I still think it was the right decision. I am disappointed that I couldn’t come here and show you a really groovy rotating map. But on the other hand I think there are fewer people getting lost.

So what all these projects have in common is that we, in all of them, talk to the users, we listen to the users, we hang out with the users. Then the other thing we did that all these projects have in common is – that I didn’t really show you – is that we we created prototypes and samples so that our staff could pretend to be users too. And so I think it is the art of the human approach that we really hope that the SEGD will continue to explore in the next few years, as well as technology and all the other things. And I am wondering if in the design competitions we might want to think about asking different questions like: Do most people really want to use screens for wayfinding?, Did this project really work? How did it work out for the users? Was the client able to maintain this project? How long did it last? That is all part of what I call user evaluation. I don’t think we see enough of it in the industry. Architecture is just starting to get into that but I think there is a place for it in the EGD community. Getting to ask these tough questions about the functionality.

So to close… Why do we do what we do? We do it for people. I think what is also cool and kind of interesting is that we are designers but that all of you are also users. So the staff in our office are coming to terms with the title of users. We have to look at things from both perspectives. When we design from a users perspective it is easy to stay connected with our own humanity while we work and I think it is harder to miss the mark. It makes it a little easier to make things that really work for people. Because that is what we really do.”