Five Minutes with Niels Braam

Five Minutes with Niels Braam


In the latest edition of Five Minutes, MKSK Associate Landscape Architect Karla Salmans picked the brain of our Environmental Graphics Studio Leader Niels Braam, Associate Environmental Graphic Designer. Niels has more than 20 years of experience working with businesses and institutions to develop their images and translate them to placemaking and wayfinding systems.

Karla: How do you describe Environmental Graphic Design?

Niels: Environmental graphic design embraces a multitude of disciplines including Graphic Design, Architecture, Interior Design, Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning, and Industrial Design.  All of these specialties, in one way or another, address wayfinding, communicating identity and information, creating experiences that connect people to place. It’s all about communication within the entirety of the built environment.

Karla: So, in implementation, how does the Environmental Graphic Design niche complement Planning and Landscape Architecture services at MKSK? 

Niels: Everything that we do in environmental graphic design supports the typical services that MKSK offers. What we do – wayfinding, branding, interpretive signage – these shape experiences. We want people to enjoy the spaces they occupy, to feel safe and comfortable, and to have the confidence to explore new places. We want people to learn about and have a deeper understanding of their surroundings, and to form strong attachments to these places, because we believe that a sense of connectedness is important to the human condition. Simplified, we want what’s good for people and the environment – and accomplishing that goal through succinct, thoughtful environmental graphics allows our clients to succeed – and, in turn, us too.

Karla: Essentially, your team adds another layer of refinement that partners with our placemaking ideals.

Niels: Exactly. Our studio is integrated and aligned with the firm’s design process, allowing our team to see the big picture while designing the smallest details. From intuitive wayfinding to interpretive signage, our studio enhances and shapes experiences which, in tandem with Planning and Landscape Architecture, transforms spaces into places.

Karla: I know within recent months the Studio has been sharpening the language of your service offerings since many services can naturally bleed into one another. Clearly, they’re not always mutually exclusive. With that in mind, can you elaborate on some of the key services the EGS provides to clients?

Niels: Of course.  And, yes, you’re correct – some classic environmental graphic design terms are fluid and interrelated. There are a lot of things we do that don’t easily fit into one category, so it’s important to note that having a conversation with the EGS team and engaging us early in the process is a great opportunity to determine what we can give the client.

One of the most common services you hear about in environmental graphics is Branding.  Everybody is doing it.  It’s not just for products or corporations anymore.  Developers and communities are realizing that branding helps define who they are or who they want to be and how they can differentiate themselves from their competition.  Branding really means looking at the big picture.  It’s more than just a logo or how things look.  It should also include how things work and what kind of experiences you want the users to have.  It’s a lot like placemaking and should be authentic and integrated. Often, it’s tied into donor recognition or things like wayfinding – which, coincidentally, are other services we provide. 

Speaking of Wayfinding, the funny thing about it is that when it works, no one notices it – it’s invisible.  The only time people seem to notice wayfinding is when it doesn’t work.  Wayfinding is about making unfamiliar places easy to navigate. Sometimes it’s about efficiency, getting people somewhere fast. And sometimes it’s about giving users the confidence to explore.  This particular service can be very diverse in its range of solutions, because there are so many different kinds of spaces, each with unique wayfinding challenges and opportunities.

The last category I’ll mention is Interpretive Signage. This is completely different from wayfinding signage, though this also often is branded. Interpretive Signage is about telling a story or educating visitors. And again, the range of solutions is infinite since each is tailored to specific places and content. We’ve provided interpretive signage for universities, parks, and municipalities.

Karla: It’s easy to see the connection between Planning, Landscape Architecture, and Environmental Graphics.

Niels: With the combined experience within the Studio, there are a lot of things we can do. Designing donor recognition systems, interactive design, and placemaking are just a few other services we can provide. Engage us early in the design process because we often see opportunities for clients to enhance their projects that the initial design team may have overlooked. We’re here to build-on and enhance what MKSK has done for decades – planning and designing spaces that connect people to place.

I came across a study recently that I thought was really interesting, because it supports what many of us already instinctively know. It was a three-year study conducted by Gallup of the 26 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Communities across the United States. The study sought to determine the factors that lead people to feel an attachment to their community and what role that attachment plays in an area’s economic growth and well-being. The study concluded that the more emotional attachment people feel towards the community in which they lived, the better those communities performed economically. Three themes including Social Offerings, Openness, and Aesthetics were found to be the most related to community attachment among all 26 communities surveyed. MKSK has been fortunate to play a role in planning and designing spaces that make people feel connected to their communities, and our communities are better for it. The Environmental Graphics Studio is proud to be part of that mission.