Exhibit design is a fun thing. There is process, and there is no process, there are guidelines and there are no guidelines. Really, there is only what you want.
What you want exists at several levels – what you want to say, what you want the reader to understand, what you want the reader to do, how you want to portray yourself and your message, how interactive you want to be, and the impact of the exhibit on both the reader and your organization. The job of the exhibit designer is to understand what you want, then add his/her experience, knowledge, skills and abilities to give you what you want, and more.
I’ve seen exhibit design happen as ‘a flash in the pan,’ where the designer listens to the client, has a flash of an idea and off they go. This ‘semi-cooked’ approach usually ends in less than satisfactory exhibits and a lot of after completion questions about ‘why we did it this way,’ ‘why didn’t we think of this,’ and ‘how did that happen.’
I’ve seen exhibit design meetings where the client has visited several exhibits of various types and has lots of ideas of ‘things’ they want. The design meeting skips questions about goals and outcomes and purpose and becomes a list of these favorite ‘things.’ The inexperienced designer, to accommodate the client, assembles the ‘things’ around the gallery. With a lot of luck they fit together in some way, other times they are just random pods of those ‘things’ with little connection to each other or the mission and message of the site.
I prefer a slower approach where the designer does a lot of listening and asking of ‘directing’ questions that encourage the client to identify goals, audience, message, purpose and meaning, then, working together, everyone arrives at a direction, style and theme, that leads to specific and appropriate text, images and objects. These are all linked with a strong overarching theme and clear, supporting subthemes. Sam Ham tells us that organization is as much for the visitor as for the interpreter – your audience needs to understand the organization and this theme, subtheme, continuous fluid message approach formalizes that and gives the visitor a consistent message that is reinforced through several media, and is memorable.
The Visitor Studies Association ‘makes it’s living’ studying exhibits, specifically how people react to and learn from them – in short, what makes a successful exhibit. Their literature is a treasure trove of methodology for taking your exhibit from good, to better to best. Their findings can be incorporated into every exhibit, if you think about it. And that’s the key – thinking about it.
Now I may be wrong here, but after seeing the exhibit design process of many major firms, and some small ones, too, I believe that periodically throughout planning and design you just need to stop and think about it, and ask a few simple questions … like:
- Are we still on the right track, or have we started chasing shiny things that have taken us away of our original intent?
- Are we including items that attract attention?
- Are we chunking text and placing it close to images and objects so together it is easy to read and understand, and thus hold attention?
- Are we facilitating memory?
- Are we designing interpretive exhibits, or merely exhibits?
- What specifically are we incorporating to make these exhibits interpretive?
- Are we being too repetitive, especially in use of technology?
It’s sometimes difficult to get the designer to slow down and participate in this process, but it’s critical to success. It’s even more difficult to get the designer to make changes based on the results of this question/analysis process, but it’s critical. Therefore, the questions need to be included in the exhibit design flow chart/timeline from the beginning, so all know that one month into the process we are going to stop and review by asking these questions, then again in four months they will be asked again. By that time these should be pretty well woven into the design and answers will be so obvious they only need be suggested and the answer will be clear. Prior to the conclusion of the design phase they should be asked again, and when you enter the production phase they should be asked once more. This final time is critical, especially if you change firms from design to fabrication. The fabricators need to understand this and will not if they have not been part of the planning and design process.
Exhibit design is fun, yet challenging. And the results are visible and lasting. Skip the “flash in the pan’ approach and eliminate the ‘favorite things’. Take the time to ask questions, know your goals and your story, and develop themes and a style that give you, the designer, and later, your visitor true guidance that leads to learning and memory.