Engaging beyond the obvious: PUBLIC

May 21 • Architects, VANCOUVER • 2709 Views • 4 Comments on Engaging beyond the obvious: PUBLIC

By Phil Roberts…

Despite the many cable reality television shows that espouse design culture in everything from food to real estate, there still seems to be a lack of education in some parts as to how wide ranging design can be. For PUBLIC, a multi-disciplinary practice in Vancouver with architects, interiors specialists and communication designers, it means using design as an instrument to help their clients engage their end users in ways they did not consider.

Many of PUBLIC’s clients are public institutions such as museums, schools and non-profits looking to build their brands without going the route of commissioning a star-architect. “They probably wouldn’t hire us if they wanted a star-architect. PUBLIC – by its very name is the antithesis to that,” says Susan Mavor, one of the practice’s principals and communication designers. For 18 years she ran a graphic design practice, Metaform Communication Design, before becoming a founding member of PUBLIC in 2008. With Metaform, Susan worked with architects on many projects, which made the jump over to PUBLIC that much easier. “There were always blurred lines in the media we engaged with and the things that we did,” recalls Susan.

Along with experienced architects who have worked for Busby Perkins + Will and KPMB, and the new addition of an interior designer, the talent of PUBLIC’s collective of experts is conspicuous to their clients who wonder about the possibilities. They work on a variety of scales from master plans, university complexes, exhibition spaces, signage, marketing materials, websites and even ephemeral digital marketing campaigns. Some projects start out as only architectural, but when clients perceive how well the practice designs spaces, they figure they can bring the same calibre to graphic design.

“There’s an energy in our office and clients think that if we can do a café then we can do a website. It’s an opportunity to grow as a designer when you cross disciplines,” says  PUBLIC’s community planner, Jessica Hum. Though some clients see the connection, others still need to be convinced.

Susan and Jessica feel that institutional clients don’t always capitalize on the branding opportunity as much as a retailer or corporate client who might get it right away. Through a total design from space to cyberspace, clients can use it to engage with their end users.

“People are generally appreciative when they see the relationships between architecture and communication design, but most people just need to be educated on that fact. Communication design and architecture comes down to brand identity for a client.”

Whereas some clients feel that constructing a larger building will make them more visible in the marketplace, others are working with a finite budget; striving to meet these constraints, when appropriate, the designers will advise clients to go for more subtler options. Instead of investing in capital expenditures, Susan believes that clients should look internally at what is already there. “Graphic design is a way for clients to use their resources more smartly and wisely, to build a brand, without building bigger.”

When PUBLIC designed an exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum in July 2013 entitled “West Coast Points East: Ron Thom and the Allied Arts”, they used their total design approach to express the central themes of the admired architect’s career. They helped independent curator and architectural critic, Adele Weder, create a space that expressed the similar total design ethos Thom crafted over his career with his architecture and art work. The travelling exhibit was on display at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum earlier this year and will be showcased at Trent University in Peterborough from August 7 to October 22.

“Exhibit design allows you to tell a story within a space,” shares Susan. And design is a story, regardless of scale, imbued with values, beliefs and decisions, which determine the outcome. It’s a process that PUBLIC has mastered to tell the story for their clients.

Below is an example of one such story that is in the process of creation: the new Powell River Public Library.

Video Courtesy of PUBLIC and The Miller Hull Partnership


Phil Roberts is the creator of sixty7 Architecture Road.

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