Image: “Great Falls Great Food Great Stories“) interpretive signage in Paterson, NJ. In collaboration with Team Paterson for The Hamilton Partnership for Paterson and the National Park Service. Photo: Cameron Blaylock
Manuel Miranda is a graphic designer, design advocate, and educator in New York. His firm Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP) focuses on using graphic design to “make places and content visible, legible, and navigable to people.”
We spoke with Miranda about the nature of collaborative design projects, his role on New York City’s Public Design Commission, and the importance of incorporating graphic design into architecture and urban projects.
MW: You’ve worked with a number of well-known design firms in the past. How did you decide to branch out on your own and start Manuel Miranda Practice? Is there a difference in the type of projects you take on?
MM: Previously, I worked in branding and design at 2×4, Inc., and Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy and Mather. One thing I learned from both of these studios was how to navigate super-collaborative projects with multiple stakeholders while still advocating for a design-centric approach. After nearly five years of working for other firms, I started MMP because I wanted more freedom in choosing the kinds of projects I work on and more control over my own pace. In some ways, many projects I work on have the same level of scope, particularly in the institutional realm, but I also do more publicly-oriented and less product- and profit-driven work than in previous jobs. I’m also able to integrate teaching and other activities such as design programming for cultural institutions into my practice, which is more difficult to do if you are a full-time employee at a firm.
MW: A lot of your projects have a strong community component (your work for Urban Justice Center, New York Foundation, and Neighborhood Plaza Partnerships, for example). What is it about community-based work that you find so appealing?
MM: Given the current political climate, I think it’s important for designers to make an effort to better the world by supporting organizations that are working towards a more equitable and habitable future for everyone. A powerful skill graphic designers have in their toolbox is the ability to make things visible, whether that’s a product or a designer’s personal voice. Hence my choice in working with the organizations you mention (as well as Center for Urban Pedagogy, ArtPlace America, New York Housing Conference, Red Hook Initiative, and Van Alen Institute). I support these organizations by making their mission and work visible to the world. In addition, I come from an immigrant family and grew up as a person of color in this country, and I believe this gives me some insight into and empathy for the experience of underserved minority communities these organizations work for.
Also, these projects require a certain visual dexterity and design resourcefulness, as one needs to simultaneously employ multiple visual rhetorical modes such as typography, color, iconography, diagrams, collage, and photography to transmit the complexity of the content to a public audience. I like this challenge, and my desire to work in this way comes from an early love of comic books, which similarly use multiple storytelling approaches at once for a mass audience.
MW: You’ve collaborated with other architecture and urban design firms working in the public realm. Why is it so important to fold graphic design into these larger projects at the outset?
MM: There are several reasons graphic design is important to architecture and urban projects. First, public buildings aren’t objects unto themselves but rather the manifestation of an organization’s or community’s vision and mission. Going through a design process and getting internal stakeholders to agree on a public-facing graphic identity helps the organization driving the program for a building or place to gain consensus about how it wants to be publicly perceived. Second, a cohesive and strategic approach to print and digital communications helps the organization project a united front and make itself and its offerings visible and legible to its audience. Third, visitors need to feel a sense of belonging in public spaces. Graphic design, through interpretive signage and environmental graphics, helps to make places navigable and inhabitable to people. Oftentimes, you see architecture and urban design firms working without a proper graphic designer because they assume anyone can do graphic design because it’s just letters, shapes, and colors, but, as I try to outline above, there’s a lot more at stake than just those elements. This is something I address during Public Design Commission reviews.
MW: Do you have an example of how this plays out in a project you’ve worked on?
MM: I’ve recently been working as a subcontractor to WxY on a project in Sunset Park for the NYC Economic Development Corporation. The City owns several old industrial spaces in Sunset Park and is seeking to attract tenants working in garment manufacturing, film and television production, and other small-scale light manufacturing. The goal is to provide manufacturers with the tools and space they need to grow and succeed, who will, in turn, create manufacturing jobs for workers. MMP’s role takes place on many layers—the district needs a graphic identity system that ties previously disparate locations together, it needs promotional materials that both tie the district to the City’s mission of creating good-paying jobs for its inhabitants and also communicates the value of the workspaces to manufacturers, and it needs a signage and wayfinding system that and helps tenants and visitors find their way around the site. This is all developed in close collaboration with WxY and NYCEDC, alongside building and streetscape improvements and creative placemaking initiatives. Right now the work is being summarized in an activation plan with some aspects set for construction. There have also been a few print materials released, and an enhancement to one of the space’s website. Different to a private development, this is a mission-driven initiative, and all of the visual materials need to be unified in signaling this. Creating this cohesion is really the purview of graphic design.
MW: How does graphic design affect the way people experience public space in New York City? Why is graphic design (and design advocacy) so critical to the urban environment?
MM: Design makes places visible, legible, and navigable by creating in the audience’s mind a mental picture of that place through graphic identity, websites, printed materials, social media, and environmental graphics. Earlier I spoke of equity—one thing people need is the sense that public places belong to them, and design can work to emphasize that by creating points of accessibility. The designer’s role isn’t solely about being authoritative on matters of taste, style, and aesthetic experience—though these are valuable and important aspects of any designed object—but to also understand and be aware of the context in which designed objects will exist and be experienced.
MW: You’re also a member of New York City’s Public Design Commission, which reviews public spaces, buildings, and other artworks in the five boroughs. What’s your role within the Commission and how you did you get involved?
MM: The Public Design Commission was formed in 1898 as the Municipal Art Commission and since that time has been made up of an architect, a landscape architect, a painter, a sculptor, representatives of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Mayor’s office, and three lay members who offer expertise and perspectives not designated in the original charter. I’m one of the three lay members; during monthly reviews, I focus primarily on the communicative, visual, and wayfinding aspects of projects, and offer guidance and expertise on branding and graphic design in the public realm where possible. I was nominated to the Commission by the Fine Arts Federation and was appointed by the Mayor in 2016.
MW: Has working with the commission changed your approach to your own design work for public spaces?
MM: Being on the Commission is an incredible privilege. I review a lot of great work that firms and city agencies are doing on parks, libraries, museums, housing developments, and streetscapes all over New York City, and see first-hand how designers are responding to challenges such as climate change and inequality. Being exposed to, and helping to shape, this work only makes me feel more optimistic and enthusiastic about the role design can play in the City’s future, which is comforting in this time of uncertainty.