NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 41


Museum is with me! 
A debate over environmental graphic design and museums

‏Mehdi Haghshenas

Like other types of design, environmental design is linked to historical trends and the achievements of human civilization such as symbols, writing, printing, making tools, and improving the built environment. Hence, it is inevitable to think of environmental graphic design as a cultural phenomenon with the aim of preserving and recording the history of design. The following essay aims to expand visual studies through discussing this topic, and to raise issues of environmental design in relation to museums. 

The status of environmental graphic design preservation and maintenance

After a work of graphic design is introduced into society and has fulfilled its communicative functions, its lifetime (the period in which at least one version is kept in private archives, collections, or museums) depends on various factors. Many remaining immovable design works — mainly environmental graphic design — may never be exhibited in a museum. However, publications do not face such constraints. Moreover, Internet-based and offline multimedia works can be displayed in museums using screens; online access for visitors is also possible. Environmental graphic design is associated with space, environment, place, and location; these distinguish it from paper and electronic design. Additionally, environmental design works are fewer in number and rarely reproduced. Mass reproduction of print design allows for multiple applications to different situations; examples are often kept as documents and records. Secondly, due to the large scale and size of environmental works, it is more difficult to preserve them. Finally, the passage of time becomes a factor involved in destroying these works. When a design functions for several years in an environment, it is influenced by various factors of erosion and is eventually discarded as a useless element or waste. The same results from changes of spatial use, design approaches, evolution of the means and media, and fashion trends. Works are either disposed of or recycled. In this regard, a review of existing assets in our society and historical environmental graphic designs reveals that we have failed to maintain and register these works in comparison to other forms of design. 

The inevitable changes to society and design

Urban spaces are constantly changing. It is impossible to keep all historical design in its original place. Environmental graphic design is part of the external surface of environmental design, and thus it changes quickly under the influence of economic conditions and technology. Other types of design (such as exhibition design) have a short life because of their function. Store designs change as the professions or employees change over time. Organizational evolutions are normally unexpected; sign systems and way finding are transformed by new rules. Many works are subject to erosion, destruction, and deterioration. On the other hand, evolution is inevitable and sometimes the scene must be set for evolution and change because the new forms of collective life call for the creation of new spaces. These are important for the growth and development of societies and design. Hence, it is essential and inevitable to keep some historical works in museums after going through the examination process. Interestingly, the notions of design and museum share an active approach to change. One of these notions is focused on shaping environmental changes and evolutions, improving the exchange of information, and establishing better connections, while the other is focused on registering the changes, recording collective memories, and communicating these memories to future generations as a form of historical heritage and visual culture. 

Museums are on our side

There is no need to transfer all environmental graphic design works to museums — this would be impossible and would result in damage. Some environmental graphic design coexists in society and is not transferred to museums, similar to some works of architecture, statues, and wall paintings that may not be moved. These works should not necessarily be separated from their contexts and transferred to a common location because it is possible to protect and preserve these works in their original contexts. In this regard, there are various examples of such global experiences. For instance, the design of the façade of the Paris Metropolitan Railway Company (CMP) by Hector Guimard is still kept in its original place in spite of the recent changes to the other graphic parts of this subway. In fact, environmental graphic design works can be reconstructed and re-exhibited in museums in numerous forms such as maquettes, photographs, virtual reality, films, and even using online cameras connected to the actual works. It is also possible to reconstitute the work by collecting its different components and placing them in a museum or its replication by a faithful copy. However, none of these methods will offer the experience of the actual environmental design in spite of their importance. The experience of the actual design is, in fact, the experience of connecting with the work, and since “the differences in the form of connection change the signification of the message1”. By separating a work from its context and displaying it in another place such as museums it is impossible to demonstrate the actual perceptions of the work. 

Efficient processes have effective outcomes

It is possible to plan an efficient process for living with historical environmental graphic design while also valuing contemporary works (which will be part of history in the future). Perhaps designers must first consider and value the conformity of their designs to the environment, as well as gradual changes in the design process. The adaptability of designs to lifestyle changes helps humans protect and reconstruct historical works. In addition, with accurate planning, it is possible to develop a culture of vandalism prevention and increased public awareness of the significance of environmental graphic design as cultural phenomena. The role of authorities in different areas such as documenting works, controlling changes, and transferring groups of works to museums or making expenditures to protect and maintain these works in their original places is undeniable. By understanding that environmental graphic design is as important as the environment and other main structures and also its importance to its internal qualities and its sources of history and time, we can critically and effectively analyze our relationship with works.

1.Ahmadi, B. (2007). Truth and Beauty. Tehran: Nashr-e Markaz Publishing Co. p. 452.



‏Mehdi Haghshenas

(born in 1982) is a designer, author and critic on visual communication and visual culture. He often emphasis is placed on the interdisciplinary studies and activities, and the basis of his work is visual communication and Iranian-Islamic culture and art. Mehdi graduated Master of Visual Communication from Tehran University of Art and is a member of the Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS).

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