Living a Designer’s Dream

Our new tiger exhibit, The Edge, opened last week! It was a huge project for Denver Zoo with most of it having been planned, designed and constructed internally. My role in the project was designing the brand identity for the exhibit; designing all the signage and graphics; and eventually the advertising campaign to promote the grand opening. I started the process over a year ago… with a few sleepless nights. Note that the middle of the night is my most creative time – always has been, probably always will be. Something about the stillness. First, I was up all night awake with ideas. I had seen plans and renderings for the future exhibit and I knew that it was built to support the care of our tigers. I also knew it was going to look industrial with a lot of metal and mesh. My challenge as a designer would be to have the graphics support and enhance the purpose and theme of the exhibit; to make the interpretive graphics so compelling that people might actually read them; and to bring a certain softness and playfulness to what might otherwise be a stark and cold exhibit. Another sleepless night, I started researching the recent field of Environmental Graphic Design, I got totally and utterly inspired and started designing.

This was a whole new realm for me as a designer. I had spent the last 20 years designing websites, brand identities, printed marketing materials and advertising. Never anything 3-dimensional, tactile, that required fabrication, consideration of outdoor materials and construction. It was an exciting but scary process. With copywriting skills and feedback from our Guest Engagement team; a lot of help from our production artist who had more experience in signage and materials; the expertise of our sign fabrication company; and a year of planning… all my visions came to life.

• A guest viewing deck area surrounded by large panels that feature life size silhouettes of tigers in action with huge action words educating while encouraging young guests to act like a tiger. Tiny holes in the HDPE (huge plastic panels) create the visual effect of a forest of birch trees (representative of where the few remaining Amur tigers live in the wild – Siberia), through which guests can see the shadow of a tiger walking or stalking until it makes it’s way to the huge glass panels and one can get eye to eye with the animal.
• Two life size tigers made of powder-coated aluminum with layered elements for visual interest – one at the main entrance (a sculptural version of the logo I designed for the exhibit) and the other in a jumping stance as part of a sequence in the center of the guest deck.
• Huge letters hanging below a loft/catwalk where tigers walk above guests that read ‘Are you being watched?’
• Other signage with beautiful photos and design elements meant to match the industrial materials used in the construction of the exhibit.
• And the main messaging of the interpretive graphics translated in Spanish, a first for Denver Zoo.

The exhibit opened with a special breakfast event for donors and the media. I was there to photograph the event and observe people interacting with the exhibit. The best moment was when the tiger walked up the catwalk, looked down giving the guests a sense that, indeed, they were being watched and then sprayed everyone below. The guests gasped and put down the plates of pastries and fruit salad that they had been holding. It was entertaining.

I visited the exhibit early on another morning to photograph it without any people around. It was just me and the tigers. They were willing and participatory models for photos of the exhibit and my graphics. They moved in an out of my photos while exploring their new yards. The sun was still low in the sky and reflected beautifully off the metal of the tiger silhouettes. The colors of the graphics were vibrant. In that moment, I was reminded how grateful I am to have the job that I have – being close to animals every day, designing with the purpose of making a difference, and the added bonus of being able to photograph it all.

Later, when the exhibit opened to the public, I got to see kids interacting with the graphics: touching, point, talking, climbing. I had done my job.

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