Citizen Design: How Museums Change When Everyone’s a Designer

My boyfriend recently got into the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite, also known as Adobe CC. He’s developing his own IT business and is in the process of creating the collateral that comes with it – business cards, letterhead, logos, etc. Having taken only two graphic design courses thus far in my graduate school education, I felt somewhat qualified to design these things for him, and somewhat like I had no idea what I was doing. He decided that rather than wait several months for me to push out a logo in between History of Exhibition readings, he would tackle the designing himself. Several Youtube tutorials later, he had a color logo and a business card template, having employed little to none of my help.

The gorgeous @magnumphotos Insta feed

In the age of easily accessible design software and a plethora of equally accessible paid and free educational videos, blogs, and tutorials, everyone’s a designer. Social media promotes the citizen design trend: Instagram has made photo editing and ‘curation’ an everyday activity, and Snapchat lets us build our own reality, complete with its own wacky bitmoji characters and newly introduced augmented surroundings. What was once a subject confined to smoky, gin-soaked creative department office brainstorms of ad agencies a la Mad Men has expanded its reach out of the professional world and into every mobile phone owner’s hands.

We live in the age of customizability in all aspects of life, although opponents of the iPhone would jump to argue otherwise, and that likely plays a factor. Wearables are exploding and the ‘internet of things’ is a regular topic of conversation. But what I find so fascinating about the emerging trend of life-customization is that, for museums, this is old news.

A Universal Keypad, courtesy of the Museum of Human Rights

Particularly from an exhibition development and design perspective, museum professionals have been creating environments that allow for free-choice learning, roaming, selective reading, and label-hopping for quite some time. Some museums are so forward-thinking that they are implementing universal design principles to make their institutions places of free-choice learning and easy, casual navigation for special populations, such as individuals with disabilities.

Essentially, from a visitor perspective, progressive museums are amateur design’s #1 fan. They share their entire syllabus, and let you decide what proverbial classes you want to attend and in what order. They also allow for the possibility that you might just throw the syllabus in the recycle bin and go to lunch.

But given recent trends, should museums cower in fear over the impending takeover of their design and exhibition development departments by Youtube tutors? Certainly not. Although I am a huge proponent of a museum staff with diverse educational and professional backgrounds, I don’t see the job of museum experience designers going away. I do realize that at this point, you may be asking yourself: “what on earth is a museum experience designer?”

My answer is: every single person in the museum who gives thought to the public’s experience within their institution. The IT staff, the exhibition designers, the public safety officers, and the curators are just several examples. Front- and back-of-house, executive and entry-level. The majority of museum staff at most institutions are in some way involved in user/visitor experience, and are thus instrumental in doing their part to implement the principles of free-choice learning and customized visitorship.

At the dawn of the participatory age, what museums have come to understand is that they desperately need visitors to engage with all levels of the exhibition development process in order to produce finished exhibits that will draw people and have an impact. But what design-focused museum professionals, and design professionals in general, should keep in mind is this: visitors know what they want, but they don’t necessarily know how to build/access/achieve it. That is where our job truly starts.

There are a number of institutions that have been using visitors’ free-choice requests as the inspiration for their interactive exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app developed from a simple visitor desire – conversation about the museum’s objects and exhibits. Beacons now allow visitors to discuss the art they are seeing with museum staff in real time.

The Museum of the City of New York has designed an augmented reality interactive in their soon-to-open ‘New York at Its Core’ exhibition that lets visitors “design” their own parks, buildings and city plans. An excellent riff on the citizen design trend with a participatory twist, it allows users to express their creativity and use design-centered thinking within a controlled environment, giving them autonomy while also allowing for success in a small span of time.  

Designs of the Year for 2009, Exhibited in the Design Museum in London (credit: Luke Hayes via Helen Charman)

Lastly, there are museum exhibitions and entire museums dedicated to the exhibition and preservation of great design throughout history. Raising affective design to the level of high art is an effective way of helping visitors distinguish between the purpose and function of citizen design and professional design, and even inviting citizen design experiences within the institution, while avoiding holier than thou commentary.

Everyone’s a designer, and design is everywhere. But these facts don’t diminish the importance of quality design or design-centered thinking in museums. In fact, judging from the state of exhibition and interactive design, it would seem that museum professionals are more confident than ever that their work is a central component of the museum visitor experience.

Featured image courtesy of Jablonski Marketing

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