For New York-based graphic design studio Common Name, working in exhibition design – or design for an environment – offers the opportunity to work with the otherwise elusive third dimension. “Most design applications in the print or digital space exist in two dimensions or, at least, are displayed on a 2D surface. Working in the environment allows us to think about how physical scale and perspective shift a viewer’s understanding or experience of content” co-founders Yoonjai Choi and Ken Meier tell It’s Nice That.
“How does an identity express itself in three dimensions? How does a book break free from its typical linear sequence? How does navigating a website become a metaphor for the experience of physical space?” These are all questions raised by the studio, and principles addressed across its practice, but ones that are felt particularly in its work with architects and environments.
Having both taught in architecture programmes, Yoonjai and Ken are well-versed in the nature of architectural practice: “Architects inherently understand the value of design, and we often share a common lexicon of visual and cultural references. But graphic design within this context serves an important role, helping to explicate complicated architectural narratives and reaching beyond the usual insider audience.”
Through work with institutions including Syracuse Architecture and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, or exhibition design for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Common Name has mastered the art of clarifying complex material in a meaningful way. “It’s hard to condense a building down to a series of slides, wall panels or a short book; the role of graphic design is to do that in a clear and cohesive way, which doesn’t feel impenetrable or needlessly convoluted”, Common Name tells It’s Nice That.
In Rooms You May Have Missed: Umberto Riva, Bijoy Jain, two architects from distinct urban centres – Milan and Mumbai – were brought together “via their shared approach to domestic spaces, and a parallel interest in local artisans and construction techniques.”
Common Name described its approach to the exhibition design as: “[seeking] to highlight latent similarities in their work by placing didactic texts and supporting materials on a unified shelf, connecting the two disparately designed galleries and providing a clear entry point for visitors.”
Another example of where Common Name has worked to provide clear entry points for complex environments, and complex issues, is in its exhibition design for 20/20, a show organised by Carnegie Museum of Art, in partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem. “At a time of deep political and social discord in America, this wide-ranging exhibition mounted twenty works from each institution in a collaborative first, presenting an alternate history of the country exclusively through the lens of African-American artists” explains Common Name. “The exhibition graphics highlighted the multitude of eras, styles, and perspectives included in the show by isolating disparate visual details, which were then keyed to an index of participants in the entryway. Colour-coding on the edges of these details, on didactic panels, and in the accompanying gallery guide link visitors back to the overarching themes, which help organize the galleries.”
For Common Name, the potential for design to guide people through a space, through a period, or a single piece of work, is never underestimated; but, perhaps even more impressively, the studio manages to balance this with an understanding of the importance of leaving room for an audience to work stuff out, or not. “There’s a clear line between ‘just enough’ design and ‘too much’ in an exhibition or environmental project. Design should support the interpretative experience, not replace it.”
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