Crescent City Sense of Place and a New Design Ecology

An Autoethnographic Examination of Identity, Place, and Graphic Design

Susan Matherne

A full exhibition of this thesis will be presented in October 2020.

How might we rethink graphic design as a catalyst for preserving and facilitating a sense of place?

In what ways can this form a new design ecology for supporting a design practice, pedagogy, and community engagement?

In doing so, how can we facilitate more sustainable, holistic, resilient local community ecosystems?


As a discipline of human communication, graphic design is intertwined within visual culture, imbibed with personal human experience, and immersed in our ways of being. Building from this philosophical starting point, this thesis ventures on an autoethnographic quest seeking the intersection of where graphic design, place identity, and place meaning converge. The human-culture-nature relationship as it relates to place is explored as a process for rethinking design within autoethnographic, ontological, anthropological and phenomenological considerations. Sense of place is examined from the lens of design. Design is considered as a catalyst for strengthening sense of place.

In mapping this conceptual landscape, this book draws upon semiotic properties and artifacts of place related to culture, nature, structures, geography, color, materiality, objects, and vernacular. These landmarks create a map of place identity and meaning through story and memory built over time and experience. Multiple interconnected narratives such as autoethnographic context, poetic imagery, and academic exposition combine in relationship with these landmarks. Insights come into view for ways we might rethink design as a catalyst for preserving and facilitating sense of place. A theoritical framework for a sense of place design ecology emerges as a methodigical foundation for future personal design practice, pedagogy, and community engagement.

Susan Matherne

Graphic Designer & Design Teacher

New Orleans, Louisiana

Susan Matherne’s career in graphic design and communications includes roles such as creative director, graphic designer, strategist, art director, assistant editor, and production manager. She has served as editor-in-chief, publisher and owner of her own magazine. She worked as art director and assistant editor for monthly regional cooking and culture magazine, Louisiana Cookin’ for over five years. Her roles in marketing include marketing director, business development manager, and C-level marketing executive. She has maintained her own contract and consultant business for many years, providing award-winning projects in branding, marketing, communications, design and consultation for business-to-business and business-to-consumer clients including retail, restaurant, architecture and construction, nonprofit and other sectors.

Susan is also an educator. She taught graphic design for five years as a full-time instructor at Remington College. For the past 15 years, she has taught as an adjunct at institutions such as Tulane University, Loyola University and Delgado Community College. Susan served on the AIGA New Orleans Board for over 10 years, rolling off after serving as education director, development director, vice president, and president of the chapter. She served on the national disaster response leadership committee post-Katrina and the AIGA national Design for Democracy committee.

Susan lives in New Orleans in a 100-year-old shotgun house where she enjoys writing, making, gardening, photography, outdoor adventures, festivals, music, food, and exploring everything her place has to offer.


What type of music do you like to listen to while working?

I need total silence or classical music while I am writing. When designing I like to listen to jazz or rock.


Flashback to when you were 10. What did you want to be when you grew up?

A reporter.


When did you know you wanted to be a graphic designer?

In high school when I looked through my first font book and got my first set of professional set of markers.


Describe the areas of design you are most excited about and/or want to pursue further.

Printmaking, monograph and mixed media; design research, history and writing; pedagogy/teaching. And also community work.