Design: Research

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Jude Simmons: If we’re designing an exhibition the first that we do is to know what the story is, what the exhibition is about, what is the content, what we deal with pictures, so what pictures are going to be in the exhibition why has the creator chosen those, why are they important. Really looking at the story in line with the curator, then looking at the space we’re going to put that exhibition in, and figuring it out. Sometimes it’s how you fit a square peg in a round hole, or vice versa, how are we going to fit these pictures, this story, in the spaces that we have, and how we’re going to convey the information and the story in an interesting way.
Ian Gardner: You learn to design at a national portrait gallery designer, and me and Jude are always out looking at other museums, going to the British Museum where we can, V&A, wherever to get inspiration, or to steal ideas, and we just kind of design within the realms of what is acceptable in the gallery. But there’s such a range of classical exhibitions, and they’ll be more contemporary stuff the scope to kind of play around a little bit. Most of the time you get a feel for an exhibition you get what the curator’s after and you react accordingly.
Jude Simmons: We work with the curator to ask, “Is this the approach you wanted? Is this going to suit the audience?” We also have an exhibition manager who manages the project, and who looks at at the practical aspects as they come together and the project team.
Sarah Tinsley: When I go to se other exhibitions elsewhere, I’m trying not to think about my job, I’m trying to enjoy the exhibition for what it is. But inevitably I am thinking about how the idea of the exhibition is communicated to me, how they’ve installed it, what the design is, because one can learn an awful lot from exhibitions elsewhere, to think about creatively how that would work, perhaps, for us. But as much as I’m thinking about what I like about it, what is interesting and challenging and different about it, I’m also thinking about what I might not like about it and what I can learn from that. That would be not just from the exhibitions space, but from the moment I walk into the building, how I am led to the exhibition, what I find when I come out of the exhibition, the shop. It’s the whole experience of visiting elsewhere.
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Designs of purely arbitrary nature cannot be expected to last long.

Kenzo Tange, Architect

Visit exhibitions, or ideally, a range of exhibitions. There may be a museum or art gallery near you that has a range of different displays in different rooms. Notice differences. Become aware of the space, of colour, of graphic design. Step back from the works on display and notice the different elements that contribute to the overall effect.

How does design affect your experience?

  • Visit an exhibition at your local museum or gallery and look at the design of the space. What do you like? What don’t you like? Why?
  • Watch how people behave in the space.
  • What is the main story the exhibition is telling and how does the design of the space reflect this?
  • Who do you think the target audience for the exhibition is? How does the exhibition design reflect this?
  • Is the interpretation effective? Look at the text panels and captions – do they provide too much or too little information? Are there any multimedia elements that provide additional layers of information?

What mood and atmosphere does the design create?

  • How do you feel in the space?
  • Is the space loud or quiet?
  • What colour has been used in the space and what effect does it achieve?
  • What is the style of the font and why do you think it was chosen? What does it reflect?
  • Does the design compliment the objects on display or detract from them?
  • Do people feel relaxed or nervous in the space? Why do you think this is?
  • Are there places for people to sit down or find out more information? Does this affect the atmosphere in the space?

Was it easy to navigate the space?

  • Is it clear where the exhibition starts and which direction to follow around the room? How is this achieved?
  • How is the space accessible for people with disabilities?
  • What do you think about the height of the objects on display? Are they accessible for all audiences to enjoy?
  • How are the text panels and captions written to be accessible for all audiences?
  • Ask if there’s a large print guide of the exhibition text for visually-impaired visitors.

What will you take forward for designing your own exhibition?

  • What did you like about the design? What didn’t you like?
  • How was the design appropriate and relevant for the target audience?
  • Write your feelings and thoughts of the exhibition design down in your notebook and identify what works best for different audiences.