With apartments and high-rises popping up all over the skyline, demand for environmental and wayfinding graphic designers has never been higher. We chat with Nick Bannikoff, Design Manager at BrandCulture, about how he got into wayfinding design, how meeting the brief is the hardest part, and why he always begins the design process by sketching.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I didn’t really have a plan, which could be both a mistake and a boon for a graduate. I found that the students who had planned ahead by interning for one or more studios while they were studying were the first to adapt to the changes that working as a design professional entail. It took a few years of bouncing around between different design positions before I could confidently contribute to a studio. The negative out of this was that it took a few years to become established as a designer, but the benefit was that I got exposed to a variety of studios and working styles.
Why were you drawn to environmental and wayfinding design? I kind of fell into it. Wayfinding and experiential graphics were not widely recognised as specialties in the late ’90s when I answered a job advertisement without a lot of understanding of the industry. What I quickly found was that the particular requirements of the field – an understanding of both the macro (architectural) and micro (finite details and industrial design) – perfectly reflected my design interests.
How do you define wayfinding design? A lot of people think wayfinding design is ‘just signs’. It’s not. Wayfinding encompasses an entire environment and all of the information required for a visitor to successfully understand, rather than just navigate, a space. Sight, sound, touch and smell can all be wayfinding cues in the right context. To do it right, it’s a real collaboration. The process we go through isn’t: ‘Let’s stick a sign here and a logo here”. We analyse the space, understand what needs to be communicated and how people make decisions. We’re also interested in the science of how things are made, and the science of how things interact.
What do you look for in a great portfolio or graduate? A portfolio is selling a narrative to your audience, and poor attention to detail or structure sells yourself short. On the positive side I love seeing meaningful and confident design. The actual style that a student uses is less important to us than seeing a clear idea developed well and expressed without fear.
To become an okay, then good, then a great designer takes a lot of practice. The best designers keep working on something until they love it. The problem is that when you’re starting out this is going to take a lot of time and you’re going to get frustrated in the process, especially as a deadline looms, you’re the last one in the office, and it still doesn’t look like you imagined in your head! You need a real passion to keep going through that, and then the ability to apply what you learn to the next project. Meeting the brief is one of the hardest parts of this process for young designers. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is if it doesn’t fulfil the clients’ needs.
What role does digital design play in your studio, and how do you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? Digital tools are just that – one tool of many. I still almost always begin the design process by sketching what I’m working on, or making small models if I’m working on a 3D form. I’ll then switch back and forth between the physical and digital depending on whether I want to explore an idea quickly and in freeform (hand), or the developed details (digital). Using both techniques allows you to maximize the benefits of both.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. Act with integrity. You’re representing both yourself and your company. Plus, you never know when you’ll meet that person again.
2. Take responsibility for your work. We all mess up at one time or another, it’s what you do when that happens that matters.
3. Be the solution, not the problem. Both your clients and collaborators want to work with someone who provides them with answers.
4. Think for yourself. If you’re stuck or have a question see if you can figure it out first, that’s why you were hired after all!
5. Value and respect other people. Remember that everyone you work with brings something to the table.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt? As a studio that specializes in wayfinding, digital display and wayfinding systems are a big disruptor to our industry right now. We’ve found over the last few years that we’ve had to learn the basics, and then the advanced processes behind both the hardware and software that’s used in these systems. This is so we have meaningful contributions to how they’re used in our projects, and control over how users experience our work. These systems are only accelerating in their uptake, so the next 5 years are going to be challenging and exciting. In the modern design world you really never can stand still, luckily I still love to learn new things.