When you visit a foreign (or not so foreign) city, maneuvering the streets can either fill you with ease or utter frustration. This is all due to wayfinding, a visual language that communicates how to navigate the terrain. From the 1960s onward, designer Lance Wyman masterminded wayfinding systems around the world and defined the field of environmental graphics along the way.
Wyman built a career around vibrant, easy-to-decipher signs that communicate through pictorial graphics. “What makes him really distinctive is that all his best work has been done in the public realm, and nearly always for a mass audience,” writes Adrian Shaughnessy in the introduction to Lance Wyman: The Monograph, a forthcoming book from Unit Editions.
A Pratt graduate, Wyman cut his teeth at General Motors where he developed a packaging system that was eventually used for packaging thousands of different Delco parts. Then, in 1960, he was drafted in the military, where he part of the advanced infantry and gained experience in map making. While he was formally trained in industrial design, Wyman found that he favored graphics and logos more.
“Product design had taken a back seat, but only in the sense of designing products for sale,” Wyman said in an interview published in the new tome. “Instead of making something that someone wanted to buy and use as a product, I was making things that went out in the environment; something in the third dimension that functioned as communication.”
His big break came during his tenure in the office of George Nelson where he worked under art director Irving Harper. While at the office, Wyman created the graphic system for the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1963/1964 World’s Fair. The space featured a number of exhibits focused on how a car gets made, from design to assembly line, plus a number of other initiatives Chrysler was working on at the time. His first experience designing a branding and wayfinding system in tandem, the Chrysler Pavilion graphics featured vibrant colors and the use of pictorial communication—hallmarks of his style. This would inform his later work devising wayfinding systems for exhibitions, events, public transportation, and more since it gave him experience communicating to a broad audience of fair goers, it necessitated engaging visuals, and it required directing people through a labyrinth of attractions.
In 1966, when he was just 29 years old, Wyman won a competition to be the lead graphic designer for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which arguably has the strongest of visual identity of any Olympic games (and certainly one whose originality would never be questioned, which is the case with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics logo). Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, president of the organizing committee, challenged him to make Mexico look like a modern country. Wyman and his team, which included signage expert Peter Murdoch, eventually created a pictorial system of signage, icons, logos, posters, apparel, merchandise, tickets, stamps, and supergraphics that defined the games’ look.
“I hit on the fact that the geometry of the Olympic rings could generate the numerals 6 and 8. The three-lined structure of the 68 evolved into the letterforms for the word ‘Mexico’ and eventually the Mexico 68 typeface,” Wyman said of the project. “It was the discovery of the geometry of the rings being able to generate the 68 that was the beginning of everything.”
Wyman and his team studied Mexican history and culture, which significantly influenced the Olympics identity. Pre-Hispanic iconography especially resonated with him. “I loved the way they expressed character and personality with simple form and the way they depicted animals, plants, mythological figures,” he said. “They developed strong and understandable ways of expressing the good and the nasty with bold geometry and bold color.”
After the games, Wyman went on to design signage for the Mexico City Metro in 1969, an exercise in wayfinding that could be easily understood by people who speak different languages and have a range of reading abilities. He illustrated modern symbols of city landmarks and rendered them in the vivid hues associated with the country.Wyman would then form a studio with Bill Cannan, and the duo was tapped to design the Washington, D.C., metro icons and map. (In 2013, the city called upon him again to redesign the map.)
Since then, Wyman has continued to add to his formidable portfolio, which includes work for the National Zoo (1975); the National Mall (1975); the Minnesota Zoo (1979); the city of Calgary (1998); the American Museum of Natural History (1990); and the City of Albuquerque, among many others. The common thread tying them together is the use of graphics rather than words to relay messages—something that’s taken hold today for navigating both the physical and digital world.
“Visual icons have always been with us,” Wyman said in an interview with Herman Miller. “It wasn’t too far back that they were considered mostly as communicators for people who were illiterate. Now that they function so well indexing our digital devices they have proliferated and are accepted as communicators for all of us.”