More than Meets The Eye: Integrating Graphics and Curriculum
Posted on April 14, 2022
By Hollis + Miller Architects

Environmental graphic design, at its core, enhances the user experience and connects people to place. As educational specialists, we’ve challenged ourselves to explore how these graphics can aid in the learning environment. By integrating graphics with curriculum topics, we hope to create not only an aesthetically beautiful environment, but one supporting the learning and teaching process.

Throughout the co-creation process, we have listened to educators and identified the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom walls. Just as each school is unique, the graphic needs for each project are unique, and co-creation is critical to understanding the best way to impact students and educators in each space. In many cases, graphics are already being integrated into projects and their budgets, but by understanding the curriculum and educational pathways, as well as how certain student populations learn, we can work together to develop strong graphics supporting learning.

Creating a Yes, and….

As educational designers, we are presented with opportunities to connect teachers and students to their learning environment in several ways. Research has shown an increase in student self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation when students move into a new or renovated learning environment because they report a sense of pride in living up to their perceived elevated standards. Rather than solely influencing moods or providing wayfinding throughout a space, environmental graphics can aid in the retrieval portion of the learning process. Within a classroom, written and visual learning is most abundant. However, our goal is to find opportunities to extend learning beyond the classroom both in the way spaces are shaped, and also with the inclusion of environmental graphics tied to curriculum subject matter.

Environmental graphics become multi-purpose in our designs by providing wayfinding, being visually appealing, and acting as a visual trigger for student learned content. Integrating graphic designers into the process early on allows them to engage with stakeholders and envision graphics as inclusionary devices and ways to provide function beyond solely enhancing the place – and do so in a budget-friendly way. In working with educators who will be utilizing the new building, the graphic images at classroom doors and within academic corridors integrate various icons and images directly relating to specific content taught within the adjacent classrooms. By adding these visual cues, the goal is to embed additional educational tools which engage the retrieval portion of the learning process for students. Similarly, we are packaging these graphics in a simple printable format so teachers can integrate the graphics into student work as desired.

Through our work with educators and our own research into student learning levels, we also realized these graphics need to align with student learning levels and abilities if they were to truly become an educational tool. For instance, we knew we needed to utilize basic shapes and concepts for younger elementary students, while we could layer additional complexity and even include abstract ideas for older elementary students preparing to move on to middle school. The series of graphics could not only support the youngest learners, but also be used as a students’ brain development grew in complexity over their tenure within the building. As part of this process, we needed to familiarize ourselves with content areas, from which our artists could then draw inspiration to develop the specific integrated graphics. Many school districts provide curriculum information online as well as a handful of additional trusted educational companies, including National Geographic, Edutopia, and PBS (Public Broadcasting Station) which offer resources for varying grade levels and topics to support various systems and curriculum.

Bringing Buildings to Life

Working in tandem with administrators and educators at the Shawnee Mission School District, our team started with the interior character of the district’s new elementary buildings and researched curriculum to create concepts addressing various learning levels. Responding to staff feedback, our teams utilized iconography and designed murals and wayfinding, as well as room identifiers, to immerse students in the learning environment. Taking it one step further, curriculum worksheets were created to tie learning back to the building, offering educators a direct correlation back to curriculum.

On the other side of the state line, teams worked in conjunction with the Lee’s Summit School District to reimagine Paradise Park into a new early childhood center serving special education students. Formerly a play place and entertainment center featuring arcade games and miniature golf, the building is being adapted to support the district’s littlest learners by connecting classrooms with sensory corridors, kinesthetic play areas and more.

Drawing inspiration from Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bearhunt, nature and exploration are at the core of the graphic integration. Numerous materials and textures are used at varying heights to ensure the building stays maintainable from a facilities standpoint and provides longevity, while also bringing nature to life. Neighborhoods include the beach, forest, cave, mountain and grasslands, as well as a hometown area with a marketplace, providing students endless opportunities for exploration. After all, play is the highest form of research, according to one Mr. Albert Einstein.

Making Positive Impacts

All of this said, we’re pushing the envelope to improve upon things already being done. We work to incorporate environmental graphics into our contracts and as a component of our interior finish package in a majority of our budgets. Schools are environments where learning happens everywhere, not solely inside the classroom, and it is our purpose to design spaces where students can prepare themselves to positively impact the world around them. By breaking down these seemingly overwhelming projects into digestible pieces, our integrated studios of architects, graphic designers and structural engineers streamline projects and incorporate educational opportunities each step of the way. Co-creation embraces educator and student voices, along with brain-based educational research, into graphics already being produced to positively impact learning environments and those who use them.

Educational Design Resource Kristine Dorn and Creative Director Jill Claterbos-Clay are paving the way for graphic and curriculum integration at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm designing the future of learning environments. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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More than Meets The Eye: Integrating Graphics and Curriculum