Impactful by Design: Graphic Design’s Reach

What comes to mind when you think about graphic design? At SMMA, our team of graphic designers work with our internal branding and marketing group, as well as with clients on a wide breadth of projects spanning environmental graphics, marketing collateral, and brand strategy. We sat down with team members Allison Ucci, Jack Dombrowski, and Hillary Dutton to get their perspective on the profession and reflect on what it means to be a professional in this industry, as well as the responsibilities they hold and the impact they create.

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about your field?

Often, the biggest misconceptions seem to pertain to the scope of what graphic designers actually do and how they do it. For example, it’s common thought the graphic designers primarily make logos and business cards, or work to select colors. While we do those things, our work is more expansive. In one day, we might work on creating an interactive display or sensory experience for an elementary school, wayfinding mechanisms for a city campus, develop branding strategy for one of our Life Science clients, and work on infographics for SMMA’s website. Each project is unique and requires us to make use of different skills and techniques. 

While the end-product varies from project to project, the design process always begins with research. Much like other aspects of design, when we start an environmental graphic design project, it’s pertinent that we gain a strong understanding of what our clients wish to accomplish so that we can develop a concept and solution that is integrated into the overall design concept and supports their mission. It’s important to understand that this work doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nor is it solely about understanding how to use software. Our work is inherently collaborative, while based in research, strategy, and the result of constant iteration and feedback loops.

Our job is to effectively tell stories, communicate abstract and complex ideas, and achieve clients’ goals through visual and non-visual formats.

Q: What is the difference between visual and non-visual design, and what is the value of both?

Art, and subsequently architecture and graphic design, is intended to create an experience, which might come in a static or interactive visual format, like an installation, or something experienced tactically or audially. These experiences are the culmination of a process of inquiry and exploration, collaboration, and rigorous planning, in order to think strategically and develop innovative design solutions. 

When tasked with designing a Community Wall for Somerville High School, we formed a focus group to engage with students determine their values. The conversation sparked a photo and visual media competition, inviting more students to express their sentiments through words and images. This process was not inherently visual; however, it allowed our team to create over 4,000 sf of environmental graphics for the new school that spoke to their community’s ethos.

Somerville High School Student Engagement
SMMA Design for CSB Headquarters Employee Engagement Wall

Q: How can graphic design enhance the built environment?

Graphic design can greatly elevate a space when working in tandem with architectural and interior design elements to evoke specific feelings or improve aesthetics and functions of a space. We often work with SMMA’s architects, interior designers, and communications professionals to reinforce design concepts through a more overt expression via wall graphics, displays, or tactile experiences. 

At Cambridge Savings Bank’s headquarters in Waltham, MA, we worked with the client’s Human Resources and Marketing teams to create a series of unique environmental graphics. Specialized wall segments portray both physical and abstract textures of water, light, and air while also incorporating the bank’s brand colors. We also created a large community engagement wall that welcomes interaction from its employees through written prompts. This tangible information-sharing aims to provide a creative public forum for human connection.

Q: In your own words, what does it mean to be a professional graphic designer?

Often, you might be told what it is that a client or your team hopes to accomplish, without a specific directive for what the deliverable should be. As a professional graphic designer, you’re responsible for providing thoughtful guidance to help them refine their goals and establish parameters in order to design the most effective solution.

When the firm was working on developing a 10-Year Educational and Facilities Master Plan for Boston Public Schools (BPS), the initial request was for a lengthy report detailing a strategic framework for aligning BPS building construction and renovation projects with the district’s educational priorities. Our firm collected hundreds of data points per school, resulting in a lengthy report that was not primed for public consumption. Taking this into consideration that this information should be accessible to the public, our team sought to create something that was user-friendly and easily digestible. As a result, we created the BuildBPS Dashboard, which is housed on a web-based platform to provides the community with a complete overview of the district and individual school data, as well as analysis tools. 


Q: How can we leverage graphic design to better shape communities and reflect our users’ values?

When the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) found that renovating their headquarters would be necessary to accommodate to their growing collection of cultural texts, community events, and expanding outreach efforts, they turned to SMMA for help. Our team extensively studied Armenian architecture and craft to inspire the design of the new headquarters. This exploration inspired us to convert traditional Armenian Khachkar designs into vector format to be used as a custom frit pattern in the building’s glass façade, as well as for the design of outdoor bench seating and an exterior wall. 

NAASR SMMA Graphic Design for Outdoor Seating

Likewise, based on our engagement with students at Somerville High School, it became increasingly clear that the students of Somerville placed intrinsic value on the acceptance of individuals regardless of nationality, race, gender, or cultural identity. It also showcased the enthusiasm for Somerville’s diverse festivals, small businesses, and food. With this information in mind, we were able to create environmental graphics that celebrate inclusivity and community. 

  • Somerville High School Environmental Graphics SMMA
When we put the time into researching and engaging with our clients, we are better equipped to create design solutions that reflect brand, values, and help to foster stronger connections.