9 Issues Defining Exhibit Design

The benchmark of good design is when it's said to have an “edge.” It is a mark of success and it lays claim that the designer’s work is advancing the field as a whole. The design media is devoted to defining this edge and this drives many designers to follow trends that are identifiable with the “cutting-edge.” The result is an inward drive to look exclusively within the field as a means of innovation. An alternative strategy of design-innovation is to invert the lens and looks outside the margins of ones field to supply new needs and observations that will trigger novel design ideas. The edge is more likely to shift when looking outside the design field and examining new areas of focus. In our case, it is exhibit design for museums. We want our design ideas to serve and sprout from the museum world.

This approach to design innovation requires a long-term commitment to an industry. At Museum Environments we have dedicated decades of curiosity into learning about museums, their visitors, the changes in industry and theoretical thinking.  Everyday we actively listen to our clients so that we may broaden our professional fluency. When we apply design thinking to our clients problems then we are actively engaging the design “edge.” From here we can innovate and find new solutions. This is how we find our edge.

Here are some of the key issues that we are incorporating into our design discussions. 

“Curator as creator” is a watch-phrase that is much talked about in museum and academic media.  To explore the issue when discussing exhibits with museums helps define the type of communication to be use. On the one hand you may recognize the authorship of the curator and validate its central role in the exhibit experience. The exhibit design articulates the uniqueness of their vision. On the other side of the issue is greater freedom for the visitor allowing them to “curate” their experience of the exhibit via their own choices and preferences.  The discussion of issue raises the right questions that help us arrive at the appropriate treatment of the exhibit.

Co-Creation is term borrowed from the business world that refers to a management initiative, that brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome. Museums practice Co-Creation with models such as “Community-Based Exhibit Model” as practiced by the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle or El Paso Museum of History. In both examples the exhibit development process was also an outreach program that allowed more transparency between the museum and the community it serves. Exhibit design can follow through the process with a design treatment that allows participation from local artist and artisans. Applying a design execution that is receptive to contributions can create authentically powerful piece of Co-Creation.

Learning Styles: Agility to respond to learning styles is necessary to reach and engage a broad audience. Designer need to develop fluency in diverse mediums in order to address the diverse learning styles whether aural, visual, tactile, social or logical. The multi-disciplinary richness of exhibit design is particularly adept in adapting to learning. In this manner the exhibit experience can communicate with visitor at which ever level of proficiency, stage of development or schemas they may have.

Resource Alignment: The operational demands of the exhibit design solution must fit with the institution's structure, staffing capabilities and resources. Operationally the museum must be able to maintain the exhibit with existing staff, this includes digital technologies that often fall into disrepair because they demand a high skill set. The exhibit must also be able to complement existing programing. Thorough knowledge of the institution’s capabilities should be part of all kick-off meetings.

Branding: A positive brand identity keeps visitors returning to your institution. Every exhibit is an opportunity to build upon the institutional brand. The experience of the exhibit must be such that it aligns with the museum’s mission in order to create long-term impact for the longevity of the institutional brand that will outlast the duration of an exhibit. The memory of the exhibit experience must be inextricably linked to the museum brand. The undercurrent aim of our designs is to make the museum’s mission desirable to audiences.

Sustainable: As a whole exhibit design has been slow in adapting sustainable design practices because of its multidisciplinary nature. Too many mediums are applied, making it more difficult to establish one set of standards. At ME, we strive to apply environmental principles to everything we design (link to sustainable exhibit design). Like most people we care about the environment but as designer there is the additional motivation that sustainable issues makes us better designers. Design thinking must now take a deeper interest into the material, processes, and sources of all fabrication. By extension we have to examine the location of the exhibit with this lens. The design process brings us closer to environment where the exhibit materializes.

Plan for Diversity: At ME, we plan for diversity. The audiences’ social/cultural/gender identities, aptitude, and capabilities are varied as our nation’s rich legacy. ME designers are constantly searching for ways improve our universal design practices. For us, ADA is merely a minimum. As a minority owned firm (New York Certified) we are a passionate about making inclusive and safe environments.

Customer Mind-Set: The visitor is a customer and museums compete for his or her dollars from infinite entertainment options. From this business perspective, we can move towards a customer service model as opposed to looming authoritatively over the visitor as traditional museum custom. Museum can learn and borrow from hospitality design. Design has to be accommodating and generous. The mindset should be that “You are building a relationship.” This is different to earlier forms of marketing that feature the benefits of a product. Such models are static because it hinges on a one-way transaction.  In a relationship model the institution must care about the visitor with a temporal goal of continuity.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment. This can be carried into the professional practice as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intentions rather than reactive patterns. In other words, we work hard to “get-it.” We pay attention to the specifics, listen for the right tone, examine organizational culture to understand the institutions norms and values, review the institutional vision to find future aspirations. The more in-sync a designer is with the institution’s culture the more genuine will be the design outcome.

Don’t design for, design with: Design solutions are not a gift bestowed upon a client; they are a collaborative effort. Solutions have a higher chance of long-term success when the people we’re designing for are actively involved, providing feedback or lending their abilities and insights wherever possible. All of the points mentioned above express the same approach and attitude towards design.

As designers we are vested in the museum world. It is a professional culture that we love and has allowed to produce meaningful work for the good of society. This commitment to museum has fueled our design thinking to go beyond what “looks good” to creating solutions that intimately understand the challenges that museum face and help them achieve their goals of being a positive force in the community they serve.