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Design 2000

Modern Sign Language for Urban Sprawl

With the aid of logos and graphics, Wayne Hunt has discovered his niche: Helping thepublic find its way.

August 17, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wayne Hunt's specialty is helping people find their way. He's a graphics designer who entered the field 30 years ago when the work focused on producing neat, function-oriented signs, usually in black and white, that said "entrance" or "exit" or "no parking," for hospitals and airports.

Today, he and a staff of 16, working from Hunt Design Assn.'s Pasadena headquarters, hop around the globe to work on a water park in Taiwan, a theme park in Japan or a Volkswagen exhibit in Germany. They talk about "comprehensive way-finding" and "brand identity systems" and "place-making."

Closer to home, Hunt's dramatic blend of scale, color and typography is stamped on more than 70 projects in the Los Angeles area. His group has designed gateway signs for Old Pasadena, festive graphics for the Pasadena Playhouse District, the Universal Studios marquee and signs and maps for Metro Rail. They're working on two historic civic spaces: the restoration of El Pueblo near Olvera Street and way-finding signage and interpretive graphics for the Pasadena Civic Center.

Hunt is a passionate spokesman for the emerging field of environmental graphics design. "It's a clumsy phrase," he acknowledges, "but it means that we do graphic design for buildings, places and spaces."

This can include a comprehensive package of signs for every phase of a project, from major entrance marquees to the smallest utility room. Not only do such graphics give directions and provide other information, they also enhance a "sense of place" with theatrical or historically themed visual displays, backdrops, cutouts, logos, packaging and other interpretive materials in an array of materials and colors.

Having convinced the business world that design can enhance almost any building or space, environmental designers are busily transforming retail malls, museums and sports arenas, for better or worse.

Schooled in new materials technologies and the psychology of group behavior, they have, in Hunt's words, "elevated way-finding to an art and a science." The result is not only a smoother flow of cars in parking lots and visitors through theme parks, malls and casinos, it can also mean better business.

A good graphics program in a theme park, he says, can help balance the population by circulating visitors from the hot attractions, which don't need signs, to the quieter areas of the park. "We are doing projects I never would have dreamed of a few years ago," says Hunt, who helped create Las Vegas' new Paris Casino Resort's spectacular turn-of-the-century look with ironwork, stone, wood and gold leaf. "They range from the most basic way-finding to absolutely wacky themes and exhibits."

Hunt was standing in the Los Angeles Zoo on a hot day, surrounded by bright red, blue and purple enamel animals. It's one of his favorite creations, the Protect and Respect graphics system in the children's playground. With information organized into story lines, the animals provide cheerful and accessible zoological information.

Hunt is excited because his firm has been selected to design the first signage and graphics master plan for the zoo, which is in the midst of a major redevelopment program for additional exhibits and a redesigned entrance.

The goal is to replace the present hodgepodge of symbols and graphics and guide visitors smoothly through the zoo, says Lora Lamarca,the zoo's marketing director. "Wayne not only has an enormous knowledge of signage, he brings his understanding of what catches the attention of adults and children," she says. For Hunt, it's the ultimate project. "It's public, it's for real people, and it's in our own backyard!" he exclaimed. "We are high as a kite about it!"

Los Angeles an 'Accepting City'

Hunt, a boyish 52, is a Midwest transplant who has adopted Los Angeles wholeheartedly, bragging about its eclecticism, its energy and its beauty. "It's a good place to work--it's an accepting city," he says. "And it's been an incredibly creative environment ever since the movie guys started it."

He and his wife, urban planner Carla Walecka, are longtime residents of the Mt. Washington area with their daughter, Holly, 9. "We have a simple, modernist house with a commanding view, in a great neighborhood," says Hunt.

His firm is housed in a high-ceilinged, open 1920s brick building in Pasadena, with four "wonderful Sam Spade offices." The staff is a mix of designers, draftspersons and programmers.

Hunt says the combination of a good economy and the growing cachet of environmental graphics has provided opportunities for an interesting blend of projects. Some are nuts-and-bolts practical.

His team, for example, has spent seven years reworking the snarl of signs throughout the casinos, restaurants, parking lots and driveways of the mammoth MGM Grand hotel complex that sprawls over 115 acres in Las Vegas. "We just ripped out everything and made fewer, larger signs in very careful language," he says.

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