Experiential vs. Environmental: Which to Use?

October 24, 2022
Experiential Design

Where once the term “environmental graphic design” was used to describe the discipline, today, we use the term “experiential graphic design.” Which one is correct?

Since the time of the Neanderthals, people have been using graphics to create environments that communicate. We’ve come a long way from living in caves, but we’re still using visuals to enhance spaces and tell stories. In today’s modern world, we use graphic design within the built environment to help instill a sense of place, to help people find their way from one point to another, to convey the story of a brand and to memorialize people and events. Just as this particular practice of graphic design has evolved, so has the way we talk about the work. Where once the term “environmental graphic design” was used to describe the discipline, today, we use the term “experiential graphic design.” Why the change? 

For many years, the term environmental graphic design was used to describe graphics in the built environment. When I entered the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry as a graphic designer nearly 12 years ago, environmental graphics meant working on large-scale graphics, mostly in the form of applied vinyl, three-dimensional features and signage. In the years since, and with the rise of eco-conscious practices, the term environmental started to become synonymous with sustainability and sustainable design. In working with clients, it was clear the use of this term was beginning to cause confusion — I imagined our clients conjuring up images of recycled materials hanging from their walls. 

In response to this growing confusion, about a decade ago, the term experiential began to gain traction in the industry. This was further solidified by the professional organization, The Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD), when, in 2013, it officially changed its name to The Society of Experiential Graphic Design. As SEGD explained, the updated name “more accurately reflects the expanding nature of communication in the built environment and the work members have been doing already for the past 15-20 years, which involves more than just the core signage and wayfinding disciplines.” What’s more, the transition from environmental to experiential “encompasses the broader notion of all communication in the built environment” and incorporates many kinds of work, from dynamic digital text and images to display content in museum exhibits to branded content in places like football stadiums. 

So, what exactly is experiential graphic design?

These days, experiential graphic design (XGD) encompasses digital experiences, placemaking, branded environments, donor recognition, storytelling, wayfinding, signage and more. In his article “What is Experiential Graphic Design?” former SEGD president Peter Dixon offers a succinct description: “Experiential graphic design involves the orchestration of typography, color, imagery, form, technology and, especially, content to create environments that communicate. In practice, this work can manifest in a variety of ways.” At RDG, our Experiential Graphic Design Studio partners with clients and allied disciplines to develop graphics, signage, branding and promotional materials for clients across an array of markets. Just a few examples of this work include:

  • In 2015, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism engaged RDG to design a coordinated system of branded graphics and wayfinding that would take its parks into the 21st century and beyond. Despite popular belief, Kansas is home to a landscape of incredible beauty and diversity, and its 26 state parks offer some of the best examples of that diversity; they celebrate a state rich with dramatic scenery and a multitude of outdoor uses. RDG set out to tell the story and give identity to each park, relay a bigger message about the state park system and share the surprising adventures most may not know about. This newly designed coordinated park graphic system provides innovative ways to brand and sign the parks in a way to grab attention and attracts more users.

  • Our collaboration with Casper, Wyoming offers a real-world representation of wayfinding and signage. Working closely with representatives from each district in the greater Casper metropolitan area, our XGD team developed illustrations to highlight the natural beauty of the waterways, mountains, wildlife and people of the region. Signage designs make use of these illustrations to create a distinct sense of place for each jurisdiction while establishing a cohesive brand. 

  • At the University of Iowa College of Engineering, the Penrose Donor Wall installation showcases large-scale imagery of engineering and beautifully floats donor recognition tiles over the surface to tell a meaningful story of commitment to the field of engineering. The donor wall, which links the existing building to a newly constructed addition, recognizes donors to the addition’s construction and presents donor names among a mathematically based tile pattern layered over a video curtain wall.

University of Iowa College of Engineering Penrose Donor Wall in Iowa City, Iowa by RDG. Photo by AJ Brown Imaging.

Though the two are sometimes used interchangeably, experiential graphic design is preferred over environmental graphic design because the latter not only more accurately represents the type of work designers do, it can also help reduce confusion among clients and colleagues alike. In its truest form, experiential graphic design approaches the built environment as a communication opportunity and aims to provide an invaluable experience for every user.

This article was adapted from Tony’s original LinkedIn article, “Experiential vs. Environmental Graphic Design.”

Written by Tony Montgomery, Graphic Designer