Design disciplines are blurring. There’s perhaps no better example than supergraphics–large-scale environmental graphics that actively change the feeling of an entire space, or even an entire building. They’re 2D graphics, but they act like 3D architecture.
That’s the premise behind the new book The Field Guide to Supergraphics. Published by Thames & Hudson in the U.K., the book contains more than 60 examples of these large-scale graphics transforming spaces around the world.
“Some people think supergraphics are any big artwork on the side of a building,” says the book’s author Sean Adams, the co-founder of design firm AdamsMorioka who now teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “That starts to fall into category of street art. I wanted this to be focused more on work that architects and designers and artists did purposely for a client to engage a space, to change the culture of a space.”
One prime example is the Lisbon Bikeway in Portugal. The bikeway was an abandoned public space before the design studio P-06 Atelier covered it in large scale graphics that not only have a practical purpose–like dictating bike lanes, speed limits, and other information–but also create an ambiance that turns the area into a destination. “It’s the Lisbon version of the Highline,” Adams says. “It’s this exciting place that everyone wants to go because there’s messages! How often do citizens in the real world get stoked about typography?”
Another is in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City, where the artist collective Boa Mistura transformed a banal public housing complex into an architectural masterpiece–without demolishing a single wall. Instead, the group covered the building in great swaths of color and painted the words “Somos Luz” (“We Are Light”) across the facade. For Adams, that’s not street art. “It enhanced the architecture and modified what was a big concrete brutalist structure and turned it into something lively,” he says.
In the U.S., Adams points to Pentagram designer Paula Scher’s design of a giant mural at Planned Parenthood‘s New York offices. It envelops the walls of a three-story staircase and features graphic ephemera from the organization’s long fight for women’s reproductive rights. “It celebrates all the things Planned Parenthood stands for in terms of women’s health,” Adams says. “To take over a stairwell and make it a positive reinforcement of something that really matters? That’s what design should be doing.”
Adams hopes that the book will inspire designers and non-designers alike to think about the power of communication when it’s used as an architectural statement. “We as designers are not operating in a vacuum, working in our kitchens by ourselves, fretting over Garamond,” he says. “It’s really about changing not just culture but individuals and hopefully making their lives a tiny bit better every day. Supergraphics are the best example of that immediate impact of design in the world.”