The Daily Heller: Navigating Glass and Steel Jungles

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Michael Gericke is a lot of things, not least of which is a trail blazer (aka wayfinder) who guides traffic through modern real estate developmental mazes and labyrinths via graphic signals and signs. Yet he has long been one of the least theatrical of the Pentagram partners. Now, a new 500-page monograph, Graphic Life: Celebrating Places, Telling Stories, Making Symbols, offers a guide to Gericke's accomplishments with projects for buildings, civic moments, exhibitions and visual identities, including work for posters, magazines, New York's AIA chapter and the Center for Architecture that, through graphics and images, help define the spirit of architecture and design in New York City today. Most recently, his approach has contributed to the majesty of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall.

Prefaced by architect Moshe Safdie, with commentary by Pulitzer Prize–winning architectural critic and educator Paul Goldberger, this compilation presents an impressively told and generously illustrated narrative of Gericke's output. I asked that he introduce the uninitiated to his solid body of design.

So much of your work relates to architecture. How would you describe your relationship to three-dimensional space?

As a graphic designer working in multiple dimensions, there is a thrill to spontaneously creating something in a few days that’s shot out instantly into the world, seen, and then gone. There’s also confidence and power in spending many months carefully shaping visual identities to distill big ideas into small yet hardworking icons and images that are spread far across popular culture through many mediums. Equally rewarding, maybe the most fulfilling, is working for years as a small member of large and complex teams to design lasting, sometimes essential, and hopefully memorable parts of places that will be with us for decades or more.

Graphic design in the dimensional world mandates different outcomes. What is your primary concern when designing for interiors and exteriors?

Unlike the more typically ephemeral realm of two-dimensional design, environmental graphics are embedded in the spaces they inhabit often for years, if not decades. Often complex and content-rich, these programs need to be carefully coordinated with architects, planners, designers, clients, institutions, public agencies, makers and implementers to convey the image and understanding of an experience.

From tall super-towers to massive transit hubs, from rowdy sports venues to high-tech campuses, from quiet retreats to immersive indoor and outdoor experiences, each must have a purpose-led graphic approach that has a unique dialogue with its environment and audience.

What do you consider your most important work in terms of its long-term impact?

My long and valued relationships with architects have enabled me to create the identity and environmental graphics for large urban-scale projects. Their ability to have a positive, populist and lasting impact is especially significant to me.

They include programs for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, with SOM’s One World Trade Center, the largest structure in North America; Moshe Safdie’s immersive Jewel in Singapore, with its indoor garden and massive waterfall; New York’s Hudson Yards, with Thomas Heaterwick’s wonderful Vessel climbing structure; and my hometown’s Titletown park that’s adjacent to the Green Bay Packers legendary Lambeau Field.

They have enabled me to contribute to public experiences, as they capture the understanding of a project’s unique context, the quality of its culture and the essence of its place.

Signs and wayfinding are certainly not ephemeral, but do you consider your work as having timely style(s)?

Many would say sometimes this type of work is a vehicle for a designer’s self-expression via a client’s assignment and need. I find the “expression” ultimately comes from deeply understanding the context, expanding the parameters, observing as much as you can, challenging the given constraints and asking a lot of questions. The style is a complete result of the unique attributes of the project.

What has been the most challenging project, and why?

Our work at the World Trade Center was challenging. It began in the days after the tragic events of September 11th, with the design of what became known as the Viewing Wall—a transparent structure, rich with content, to protect the site. The design process needed to be inclusive and designed to help people understand the work underway in Lower Manhattan, and remember. We needed to take into account the needs of the Port Authority, the concerns of the victims’ families, downtown business owners and residents, and the complex politics of rebuilding.

It continued for two decades, with programs that included the temporary Path Station, built in the active heart of Ground Zero, to restore transportation to Lower Manhattan. Then major projects for the permanent Path Transit Hub and the five new massive towers: One, Two, Three, Four and Seven World Trade Center. Each project required enormous teamwork, logistics and coordination. Every aspect was extremely rewarding.

How much of your concern is the sustainability of the work?

We consider and integrate sustainable and cultural practices as a core part of the design, rather than applied as an afterthought. These considerations can inspire ideas and become part of what is unique to a project. We're committed to creating engaging places that are sustainable, welcoming, easy to understand and have a positive impact on everyone’s social interactions within an experience.