Deborah Sussman, a pioneer of environmental graphics who lifted colors, shapes and visual icons off the printed page and applied them to buildings, campuses and cityscapes, including the simulated ones of Disney World and Disneyland Paris, died on Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 83.
Her husband and professional partner, Paul Prejza, said the cause was breast cancer.
Ms. Sussman established her own graphic design practice in 1968, after working for the designers Charles and Ray Eames from 1961 to 1967 in Venice, Calif. Throughout her career she did print graphics as well as corporate identity programs for companies like the Southern California Gas Company.
But beginning in the 1960s she helped expand the field by bringing graphics into the third dimension, embracing what became known as environmental graphics. (The term refers to the built environment, not the natural one).
Working at first with architects on supergraphics, she moved on to signage and what she called “graphic architecture,” inserting color into buildings to highlight surfaces as well as structure, then a radical idea for Modernists. She integrated vivid color into such prosaic elements as the window frames of skyscrapers.
In 1984, Ms. Sussman’s company helped bring environmental graphics to a broad public when it teamed with the Jerde Partnership, a Los Angeles architectural firm, to design a kit-of-parts, thematically linked elements that 150 other designers used to tag the many venues for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the boulevards connecting them.
With intensely colored banners, bunting, kiosks, streamers and graphic confetti, like free-standing stars, the designers created an instant landscape on light poles, lawns and sidewalks that gave pockets of the city the air of a carnival. No two areas were alike, but all shared the same vocabulary of color and parts.
Ms. Sussman’s palette was an international rainbow, including vibrant hues typical of Pacific Rim countries, with Asian saffron and magenta, and vermilion straight from Mexican serapes. Her bold approach to color has affected the design of televised sports events ever since, including the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
The 1984 Olympics taught Ms. Sussman how to deal with large outdoor spaces, setting the stage for her graphics work for the traffic systems at Disney World and Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris).
Her designs could turn buildings into urban events. In one project, her firm conceived of a pageantry of colorful flags and banners to lend the flavor of a medieval fair to the Citadel, an Assyrian-styled former tire factory that had become a shopping mall off the Santa Ana freeway outside Los Angeles.
The City of Santa Monica hired her to coordinate coherent visual identities through signage and graphics programs. She designed everything from the city’s logo (a great crescent of blue ocean under the sun next to mountains) to its Big Blue Bus system (taking its distinctive blue from a pack of Gauloise cigarettes). Culver City, where her office was long based, hired her for its transportation graphics.
Her use of vivid colors and the abstract clarity of her simplified designs tended to give her projects, whether an individual building or a campus of them, an optimistic cast.
“She was lively and over the top, and the work stayed very clean and modern,” said Ivan Chermayeff, a New York graphic designer who first met her during their student days in Chicago. “She was involved with typography and lettering but was always particularly and deeply attracted to color, which shows up in her architectural environments, where the public was seeing color in three dimensions. She had perfect pitch for color.”
Deborah Evelyn Sussman was born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1931. Her father, Irving Sussman, was a commercial artist. Her mother, Ruth Gollomb Sussman, was a homemaker. Ms. Sussman attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the Institute of Design in Chicago, and in 1957 won a Fulbright grant to pursue her studies in Germany, after which she worked in Milan and Paris for two years. She married Mr. Prejza in 1972.
Besides her husband, she is survived by a sister, Janet Sussman Gartner.
Ms. Sussman’s work was widely exhibited and reviewed. Her most recent show was “Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles,” a retrospective of her early career, mounted this year at the Wuho Gallery in Los Angeles. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Art Directors Club of New York in 2012.
Ms. Sussman could be as visually striking as her work. Profiling her for The New York Times in 1986, Patricia Leigh Brown wrote, “Perhaps the first thing one notices is the graphic design of Ms. Sussman herself.” With olive-green eye shadow to match her olive-green eyes, Ms. Brown noted, Ms. Sussman was wearing a single diamond in one ear and a red, white and blue fishing lure in the other.