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Joe Lawton, Assoc. AIA: The 2D Architecture of Graphic Design

When the recession stalled Joe Lawton’s career as a traditional architect, he got himself restarted by focusing on the interaction between graphics and built space

By Kim O’Connell

Growing up in the family-friendly resort town of Wisconsin Dells, Wis.—the so-called "Waterpark Capital of the World"—had a curious effect on Joe Lawton, Assoc. AIA. It was a wonderland of outsized strangeness. Amusement park buildings included a gigantic Trojan horse and a replica of the White House.

That was flipped upside down.

“The buildings were awful,” Lawton says, “but they sparked an interest in the built environment.” The wacky atmosphere may also have given Lawton the sense of creative freedom that now informs his work as the director of marketing and graphic design for Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA) in Chicago.

Even in college, Lawton's interests were on a double track. In 2006 he earned a B.S. in architecture with a certificate in urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UMW), and he also completed an independent study in graphic design. Using his experience as high school newspaper and yearbook editor, he began a student architecture journal at UWM called Studio 2131. He also led the planning for the 2007 AIAS Forum in Milwaukee, which drew more than 850 attendees.

After graduation, he worked for an architecture firm as an intern, but as the building industry became the credit-starved poster child of a rapidly cratering economy, he was laid off. His involvement in the AIA led to a position as communications director for AIA Milwaukee, where he developed print and Web marketing for the 800-member chapter. He did freelance graphic design on the side and some event planning as well. The work was interesting, but after two years he realized he was at a crossroads. He asked himself what he really wanted to be—an architect or graphic designer.

VDTA now gives him the chance to be both. Like other architecture firms, such as Populous and BOKA Powell that have made a specialty of graphic design, VDTA has developed an architectural graphics shop that creates large- and small-scale graphics for corporate and institutional clients, including the University of California and SunPower Systems, as well as its own website, Lawton leads the three-person graphics team, which includes two designers who were both formally educated in architecture as well.

Lawton’s career path shows that, especially in a depressed economy, designers benefit when they expand their notion of what an architecture career looks like. For Lawton, that career also includes a stint on television: Tonight, Sept. 28, at 8:00 p.m. ET, HGTV will air an episode of The White Room Challenge that features Lawton competing against three other designers for a $10,000 prize.

LESSON ONE: Integrating two-dimensional graphics into a three-dimensional space

University of California-San Diego's Rita Atkinson Residences

“For me, graphics present an opportunity to be creative and look at things in a different way. I started designing some environmental graphics for the University of California-San Diego. The idea was to create these large graphic murals at each level of the elevator lobby, highlighting the sustainable initiatives in the project. We wanted to create a graphic that was simple, and on a human scale, but had a powerful message. We're talking about a 5-foot corridor, though, so we didn't want to overwhelm the space.

Throughout the buildings, the color scheme gradates from the ground to the top floor, representing the connection between the earth and sky. Alongside these kiosks, I designed a custom wallpaper that is an abstraction of the labyrinthine outdoor courtyards. It was a fun combination of my skills. I'm working on graphics, but I'm also incorporating it into a built space.

I see my job as a merger between an interior designer and a graphic designer. You have to think about everything that's going onto that surface. In a first draft, one of the electrical outlets was going to be right where a word was. With environmental graphics, you have to understand that it's part of a building. It's not just a piece of art hanging on the wall, where the end user has to figure out how to incorporate it into the space. It's helped me to have that architectural background, to see how the graphics fit into that three-dimensional environment.”

LESSON TWO: Reflecting the client’s product through environmental graphics

SunPower Corporate Headquarters

“SunPower is one of the largest manufacturers of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, but their previous space was really gray and bland. It didn't reflect light and sun at all. For their new corporate headquarters, we wanted to capture the essence of light, and fully integrate their product into the space. We started with a Polygal [polycarbonate] wall that we backlit, which has a light feel to it. The essence of the brand was to highlight their different sectors—residential, commercial, and industrial—and we incorporated that into the imagery through the use of color bars for each sector. We also abstracted an octagonal pattern from their PV cells for use on glass walls and doors to add some privacy to offices and boardrooms.

The best way to accomplish a cohesive branded environment is to work with the project architect from the beginning to understand the space and figure out those key moments in the building. You also have to understand who the client is. For instance, we created separate installations for each of the 60 different conference rooms that show photovoltaic cell imagery and diagrams from around the world. Each room tells a different story.”

LESSON THREE: Go with your gut and be ready to break the rules

HGTV's The White Room Challenge

“When I was younger, I always liked to be center stage. I was involved in local theater, and I'd always had another passion to do some kind of performance art. The White Room Challenge [is] a show about four designers who are given a 10-foot- by-10-foot white box of a room with a few white furniture pieces, and we get 15 hours to completely redesign the room based on a specific theme, using materials all purchased from a non-traditional store.

I went into this show thinking, ‘I am only going to have two days to do this.’ I didn't want to be stressed out about it. I realized that this is my opportunity to not overthink things, to go with my gut instinct and not look back. It was one of the most fun times I ever had. I met three other great designers with different backgrounds from across the country.

It was another example that you can think outside the box and not follow the rules. It was just amazing to put myself out there and be vulnerable. I think everyone should take a risk like that, because you'll learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Architecture students need to realize that they can be an architect, or they can be someone else who can influence the user interface with the built environment. There are certain people who are made to be architects, and I applaud that ability. Integrating graphic design with my passion for the built environment allows me to create a richer, deeper experience for the user.”


Joe Lawton, Assoc. AIA. Image courtesy of Matt Dula.

Interior of the University of California-San Diego's Rita Atkinson Residences. Image courtesy of Nic Lehoux.

Interior of the University of California-San Diego's Rita Atkinson Residences. Image courtesy of Romina Tonucci.

Interior of SunPower corporate headquarters in San Jose, Calif. Image courtesy of David Wakeley.

Offices at SunPower corporate headquarters in San Jose. Image courtesy of Romina Tonucci.

Education kiosks located at each elevator lobby describe the sustainable strategies used throughout the building. © Romina Tonucci

Nine color gradient creates an inviting coding system for the floors. © VDTA Graphics Studio


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Visit the National Associates Committee (NAC) webpage.


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