This paper investigates the definition of design and the topic of the design process in relation to a Museum of Vancouver (MOV) exhibition: The Visible City: Illuminating Vancouver’s Neon. With the growing popularity of design in North American culture, there is an increasing desire to classify and categorize what constitutes design and its impact on everyday life. But is there really a need to separate design from any other field of study? To be a designer, there is a need not only to have knowledge of your subject, but also to have understanding of culture, technology and people. When designers do not understand the world around them, their designs cannot be successful. Through an exploration of the design process that emerged in conjunction with the MOV exhibition, this paper describes my outlook on what design currently is and how I see it maturing and adapting in the future.

The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) was founded in 1894 by the Art, Historical and Scientific Association. This museum has had many changes of address over the years, but it has maintained its purpose: to engage their audience in Vancouver’s wealth of culture and history. The MOV is currently located in close proximity to the downtown core. According to its directors, the MOV is working to create a more relatable and dynamic museum. Their goal is to draw in a more diverse audience to share in the rich history of Vancouver. In September 2011, representatives from the MOV approached Emily Carr third-year Communication Design students to collaborate on the interactive portion of an upcoming exhibition. This exhibition, The Visible City: Illuminating Vancouver’s Neon showcases over fifty of Vancouver’s heritage neon signs. Only fifty years ago, Vancouver was a riot of colour that exploded along the downtown streets by way of the largest displays of neon in the world. Vancouver was known nationally as a city of neon. Today, these loud, bright and bold fixtures have all but disappeared from the city’s landscape and the public’s memories. As Vancouver’s downtown core undergoes rapid transformation, the MOV strives to bring back the inviting atmosphere of the city’s heyday by way of exploring the narratives behind Vancouver’s neon heritage. Although these signs will never again occupy the bustling streets of downtown, this exhibition’s goal is to re-illuminate these neon signs in the minds of the public. Doing so re-constructs a collective memory of the history and heritage of the city of Vancouver. Along with a physical showcase of the neon signs, their exhibit includes an interactive, virtual exhibit online. The design team for this project was comprised of myself, Ease Poon, Alejandra Rivera, and Dafne Sagastume. We began by brainstorming on the general topic of neon signs, which led us to create a collaborative mind map. Elzbieta Kazmierczak suggests that creating mind maps is an effective way of clarifying the “mental diagrams of our conceptualizations about objects and events.” Throughout our time working as a team, we grew to value the individual ways each team member approached a design problem.

Design Brief

The goal for this project was to create an interactive application for smartphones that ties the narrative behind a single neon sign to a larger narrative about the history of Vancouver. Each team of students was asked to explore a specific sign in a particular location in the city. Taking a multi-sense approach, we were to place a particular emphasis on the holistic examination of the social, political and economic impacts of each particular sign on the city and its residents. We were also asked to include the use of an auditory component and Augmented Reality (AR) within the application. We were shown an example of AR made for the Museum of London. This application allowed smartphone users to use their Global Positioning System to find the location of an environment pictured in an artwork that was currently on exhibit. Once at the site of the artwork, museum-goers could use the application in conjunction with their phone’s camera to see the exhibited artwork on top of the live view of their current location. Our target audience was any person using a smartphone. The neon sign assigned to my group was the Helen’s Children Wear sign. This sign is located on the border of Vancouver and North Burnaby in an area called the Heights. Helen’s sign was bought by the city of Burnaby in 2009 and was changed to read “Heights” instead of “Helen’s.” The Heights sign, also known as the swinging girl, is the only kinetic neon sign left in Vancouver.

figure 1. The Heights sign at the original location on the border of Vancouver and Burnaby. It is the only kinetic sign left in Vancouver.


Research and Methodology

Given that we had only four weeks to complete this project, we were quite limited with the amount of research we could do. Luckily, University of British Columbia (UBC) students who had already worked in collaboration with the MOV on this interactive exhibition shared their research and findings with us. The MOV also gave us access to their newspaper archives from which we explored and developed an understanding of the opinions on neon signage during Vancouver’s most prosperous era. While there was a substantial amount of information gathered by the UBC students, this data lacked insight into the character of the Heights community. As such, as a group we toured the neighbourhood and talked with the local business owners and residents. Many businesses in the area are owned by second or third-generation merchants. Overall, we found the community to be a tight-knit group of individuals from varying walks of life. Through our observations of the Heights, we clearly saw a close bond between the merchants and the community at large. After coming to an understanding of the Heights community, we moved on to the story behind the unique kinetic sign. The store, Helen’s Children Wear, opened in 1948; it closed in 2007 because the owner, Helen Arnold, felt that running a store at the age of 87 was too much for her. After she sold her store, the City of Burnaby bought the sign and changed it to read “Heights” instead of “Helen’s.” The sign currently stands in its original location, having gained heritage status in 2010.


After familiarizing ourselves with the story behind Helen’s sign and the rich history of the community surrounding this heritage landmark, we knew that emphasizing this community history was going to be our design’s core. As Jodi Forlizzi and Cherie Lebbon affirm, “at the heart of design is the goal of communication, and installing a belief in the audience about the past, present or future.” As Forlizzi and Lebbon recommend, we also strived to create empathy with our target audience. Since our goal was to mitigate the absence of visual and cultural knowledge of neon signs, we decided to find a way to use our designs to form and shape a new neon culture. To paraphrase M.P. Ranjan in his work Hand-Head-Heart: Ethics in Design, design must be seen as a cultural forming and shaping process because design is much more than creating a simple product. To frame our core narrative of the Helen’s/Heights sign, we created a shell that would hypothetically house all of the unique narratives of the neon signs.
We wanted the front page to be unbiased towards any particular neon sign; the design, therefore, had to generally represent the time period of the 1950s and 1960s. Through many sketch iterations, we struck an idea we all agreed upon. Each square shows a different neon sign in black and white, creating a neutral background while showcasing the variety of the signage. For the final design, we chose five bold colours to illustrate the vitality and playfulness of neon. The second component of our project consisted of the narratives of the neon sign and the Heights community. Because the sign was created in the 1960s, we drew our graphic inspiration from images and illustrations from that era. For the final design, we chose to keep the interface mostly graphic orientated so as to avoid cluttering up the small space of a phone screen. This part of he mobile application also contained the AR capability. From our research on effective AR applications, we came to the conclusion that simple graphics and well-planned activities were the most engaging. As such, the AR within our application only does two things. Firstly, when the user is in AR mode and points their phone’s camera at the Heights sign, it will display the original Helen’s sign, whether it is day or night. Secondly, when one is in the Heights area with the AR mode activated, text bubbles will appear on top of the shops. When the user clicks on a text bubble, a short sound clip of a Heights citizen interview will play.

figure 2. A shell application (first two from left) houses all of Vancouver’s neon signs and acts as a portal to applications developed specifically for each sign.



This project has given me a better understanding of the importance of meaning when creating a design. A single story can be interpreted differently every time it is told, depending on the narrator and the audience. After doing our research and interacting with the community surrounding the Heights sign, I can fully appreciate Julka Almquist’s and Juila Lupton’s contention that “while use is most frequently the manifest function of an artifact, meaning can also fill this role.” The sole function of this swinging neon girl is to be the symbol of an affable and caring community. A particular strength of our group’s proposal was including a macro consideration of the entire mobile application exhibition as well as the micro consideration of our assigned neon sign. Because we included the platform of the main application, containing links to the individual signs and their histories, an individual using our mobile application for the first time would be able to understand the context of the interactive exhibition. Furthermore, for the narrative of the Heights sign, we closely considered the ease of transition between the individual story told about the sign and the collective narrative told by the citizens of the Heights. The two parts of our application, which are entirely distinct in their appearance, share an intuitive and consistent user interface.


This project showed me my limitations as a designer and also the effectiveness of a well-organized and diverse design team. As Robert Harland states in his article “The Dimensions of Graphic Design and Its Spheres of Influence,” “design is a portmanteau term: it covers a number of interlaced activities that do not fall into distinct categories.” In the future, I will strive to extend my knowledge on any and all activities relating to design. I was fortunate enough to have group members with varying skill sets and I feel we all learned and grew stronger as designers during our time collaborating. We worked very hard on creating a visual language that was easily accessible to our audience. I believe that our project’s focus was on the right scale to engage our target audience. Additionally, its visual language can become the starting point for conversation and new ideas, a concept recommended by Ann Thorpe. This project also helped cement for me the importance of looking back at the past to understand and design for the present and future. As Harland asserts, “mapping the future of the profession will be difficult without looking back at our history to get a better idea of where we are going.” Designers have been generally thought of as producers of pleasing appearances. Kazmierczak, however, suggests that a designer really “create[s] relationships among singular symbols.” These relationships are the means we use to communicate data. This concept is what I believe to be the heart of any design.


  • Almquist, Julka and Julia Lupton. “Affording Meaning: Design-Oriented Research from the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Design Issues 26.1 (2010): 3-14.
  • Forlizzi, Jodi and Cherie Lebbon. “From Formalism to Social Significance in Communication Design.” Design Issues 18.4 (2002): 3-13.
  • Harland, Robert. “The Dimensions of Graphic Design and Its Spheres of Influence.” Design Issues 27.1 (2011): 21-34.
  • Kazmierczak, Elzbieta. “Design as Meaning Making: From Making Things to the Design of Thinking.” Design Issues 19.2 (2003): 45-59.
  • Ranjan, M.P. “Hand-Head-Heart: Ethics in Design.” The Trellis Issue 2.5 (2010): 17-28
  • Thorpe, Ann. “Design’s Role in Sustainable Consumption.” Design Issues 26.2 (2010): 3-17.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *