Graphic design professor’s project featured in Philadelphia design festival

A rendering of solar lights along Shaver's Creek.

Visual prototypes of solar panel sculptures in Shaver’s Creek. Rendering: Anjana Padmakumar

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A collaborative research project led by Phil Choo, professor of graphic design in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School, that helps people visualize the importance of sustainability and utilizing solar power was featured by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Philadelphia at the 2023 DesignPhiladelphia Festival in October.

Mihyun Kang, research professor in the College of Arts and Architecture, and Bruce Logan, Evan Pugh University Professor and Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Institute of Energy and the Environment, partnered with Choo on the work.

Titled “Renewable Energy Art and Design,” the interdisciplinary project is a collection of visual prototypes showing sculptures that are created using solar panels rather than steel, stone or bronze. The sculptures collect energy from the sun and harness that energy to light up at night while also generating kinetic movement.

Choo’s visual prototypes were featured in an exhibition at the Philadelphia festival titled “APPEAR” from Oct. 4-15.

“The AIGA exhibition in Philadelphia is meaningful to me because the organization is known as one of the oldest and largest graphic design associations in the United States,” Choo said.

Choo initiated the project, which is supported by Penn State’s Institute of Energy and the Environment Seed Grant Program, with Kang and Logan in 2022. The first phase of the workwas developing a 3D-generated visual prototype. Next, Choo hopes to make a working prototype by collaborating with the Learning Factory in the College of Engineering and the Stuckeman School’s Stuckeman Center for Design Computing and Hamer Center for Community Design.

“I’m a big fan of collaboration, and I think that’s where we have the opportunity to grow the future of graphic design,” Choo said.

Choo’s plan is for the solar panel sculptures to be made in various shapes and sizes. For working prototypes, Choo hopes to develop sculptures based on the needs of the public space where they will be displayed. The visual prototypes show renderings of imagined installations not far from home: Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Petersburg, Pennsylvania, and the Penn State Arboretum.

The research team hosted an exhibition of the visual prototypes during the 2022 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts at the Woskob Family Gallery in downtown State College. The exhibition engaged the broader community for valuable input for ongoing project development. In collaboration with Penn State Sustainability, it also incorporated interactive education activities, enhancing the community experience.

“It’s become an educational opportunity for parents to bring their young children to help them understand the importance of sustainability and art,” Choo said.

Choo said that many families and pedestrians felt excited about the project, asking him where and when the solar panel sculptures would be available. He hopes to have a working prototype during the spring 2024 semester.

“It’s a distinct departure from traditional graphic design, the way graphic design would be conceived of in print artifacts, or even the more contemporary concept of graphic design as focusing on web pages or digital media design,” said Joel Priddy, interim head of graphic design. “But it’s very in line with the direction that graphic design is increasingly going in, which is designing experiences and focusing on how humans navigate their way through the world.”