Environmental graphics may be a comparatively young design field, but its fees and prominence are growing.

Environmental graphics may be a comparatively young design field, but its fees and prominence are growing. During the first quarter of this year, Greenway Consulting’s Counsel House Research surveyed 126 leading firms to see where the profession is headed, and how it is faring financially during a period when all design is in a recovery phase.

As the U.S. and the world become more urban, the importance of sound, comprehensible environmental graphics range from the practical (where to find the bathroom in a sports arena); beautiful/functional (as in Bruce Mau’s outstanding work in Rem Koolhaas’ recently opened Seattle public library); to life-and-death (effective wayfinding for a large city hospital that serves a mix of cultures and nationalities.)

Working with the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, Greenway solicited the views of respondents including Cannon Design; Communication Arts–Boulder; Gensler; Heery International; Hillier; HKS, Inc.; HOK; NBBJ; Perkins & Will; Sasaki Associates, Inc.; and Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. The 41-question survey sought current information on topics ranging from firm size (small, as a general rule) to actual and expected fees for this year and last (yes, it’s encouraging—on the rise.)

The data is interesting not only because of its content, but also because of its source: the majority (70 percent) were completed by firm leadership—an owner, president, CEO or principal.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the work, the personalities involved, or the (at present) splinter market, but three-quarters of the firms we talked with remain small when compared to a tendency toward merged and super-sized that exists in traditional architecture firms. We found that 76 percent of our respondents had 30 employees or less, and their annual revenues were $2 million or less.

But the profession is growing each year—the number of firms with 16 or more environmental graphic designers is expected to increase substantially, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2004. In 2003 there were five firms that reported fees of more than $2 million and there are seven firms expecting to report fees beyond that amount in 2004. And the number of firms with revenues ranging from $900,000 to $2 million will grow from 11.11 percent of respondents in 2003 to a projected 12.7 percent in 2004.

Still, there is a lot of common ground with the rest of design when it comes to getting hired. One survey question asked outright: “What do you think are the primary reasons that your firm is hired?” The top five reasons might sound familiar to any successful design enterprise. They are:

  • Professional reputation

  • Creativity

  • Experience with similar projects

  • Relationships

  • Prior market success

Also, it’s interesting to look at how successful firms get and stay that way. It appears that clients who find a firm they like tend to go back. And because a lot of these firms work for institutional concerns, the potential for repeat work is high.

Nearly 40 percent of our firms surveyed said they have an 80 percent or better repeat rate; another 30 percent said their returning clients represent a 51-75 percent repeat rate. They work hard to set themselves apart from their competition, as well. Firm leaders say to differentiate themselves they work on identity in ways ranging “creative fusion” to “design-build capability” to “organizing complexity to create new value, new markets.” Thus, half of those surveyed said their firm was the prime consultant, 70 percent or more of the time.

And while change is definitely shaping the field, the bulk of the work remains in the sectors typically associated with a need for wayfinding and institutional identity; this tends to drive what services the firms offer and the number of staff they devote to specialized work: The top three building sectors that use EGD are offices, schools and hospitals—followed closely by civic wayfinding. Therefore, the disciplines represented in these firms are, by rank:

  • Environmental graphic design

  • Graphic design

  • Interior design

  • Architecture

  • Web Development

  • Other

  • Planning/Urban

  • Packaging Design

  • Landscape Architecture

  • Lighting

  • Architectural Engineering

  • Video/Film

  • Acoustic design

But as commerce and industry become increasingly global, the concerns of a consistent, universally appealing (and functional) Web presence/brand identity increase. These factors, which were nearly non-existent when many of these firms were founded, are driving forces in the profession now, and will only continue to grow. The fact that arch school grads can launch themselves into Web or interactive fields with a much better starting salary and greatly-reduced licensing requirements is a real concern for the rest of the design world. (See our lead article, p. 1.) And see pages 6-7 for a graphic report on other study stats.

—Lisa Ashmore