Changing With the Times

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Revitalizing a Historical Site

Canalside has been at the heart of Buffalo since before railroads connected the continent. Once called the “Gateway to the West”, it was a key hub for trade and transportation for all of North America until changing trade patterns led to its closing. It has since been repurposed and rebuilt, and is now ideally located next to major attractions like the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, KeyBank Center and Harborcenter. Canalside itself was recently revitalized in honour of the Erie Canal’s 150th anniversary of the Erie Canal. The 21-acre property is now home to an even wider range of activities and programs, including hotels, restaurants, public art, entertainment venues and more.
  • Client


  • Location

    Buffalo, New York

  • Sector


  • Discipline

    Wayfinding, Placemaking, Interpretive

  • Photography

    Lisa Logan

  • Awards

    Graphic Design USA

Project Goal

Canalside needed a placemaking and wayfinding program that could also provide historical, cultural, and event information. Since the space is so large, dense, and complex, it was also critical that visitors could locate parking and make their way between their cars and their destination. So not only was the design of the signage of prime importance, its placement and how it interacted with its surroundings were crucial.

Canalside directional sign with a person walking beside it.
Canalside map totem sign in context: adjacent to an audience sitting on a lawn.
Artwork showing complete family of wayfinding signage.
Rising Above the Crowd

With so much to convey, we decided to consolidate information on multifunctional “totems”, greatly decreasing the total number of signs needed. The totems are tall and rise above the crowd, so they’re always easy to find. They can include evergreen content like maps, directional messages, and historical information. For frequently changing information like event schedules and updates, they include integrated LCD displays that can be updated on a daily basis.

Map showing pedestrian circulation flows and signage locations.
Go with the Flow

We had to be very careful how we guided people between the parking lot and their destination. Too many totems could lead to clutter and confusion, while too few would leave visitors stranded. With a few carefully placed and highly visible totems placed near important pedestrian decision points and intersections, the journey across Canalside now feels intuitive and welcoming.

History on Top of History

The site has a long history of updates. It has been built, rebuilt, filled, dug up, reburied, and revitalized. Giving the totems a contemporary look still feels true to the site’s history, as long as it acknowledges what came before.


Our celebrations of history include a nod to the present. We used archival footage and write-ups to show visitors what their favourite picnic spot used to look like as a bustling international port, or that the view from the restaurant patio once included wooden sailing ships. We wanted to communicate that, as the beating heart of Buffalo, Canalside has always been a reflection of the city.

View of Canalside with highway overpass, boardwalk, and a Canalside sign.

The Canalside placemaking program uses graphic themes, consistent forms and materials, and landmark signage to create a distinct and vibrant identity for this popular destination.

Learn more about Canalside.

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