Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Real Principles of Exhibit Design and Evaluation

The main measure of success for any museum exhibit is how well it accomplishes  educational objectives. Note that I don’t say “it’s” educational objectives, because we might decide that its educational objectives are weak, non-existent, or otherwise insufficient. I freely admit that this is a subjective pursuit because I am asking the exhibit evaluator to imagine what the objectives should be, not what the exhibitors say they are.
But regardless of what experts say about exhibit design and educational objectives, there is an often overlooked super-principal of exhibit design that ought to be considered above educational objectives, and that is, is the exhibit a hit with the consumer? If the consumer is bored, unimpressed, or otherwise turned off from the exhibit it is doomed for failure.
Ergo, the goal of the exhibit designer is to take educational objectives and transform them into interesting and informational museum experience.
Its’ important to say EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES three times, because you may not make an exhibit with out them (that is, you can make an exhibit without them, but you may not). This is for both practical and ethical reasons. 
First, the ethical reason. By adopting the title of museum you are implying to the visitor that your exhibits will have informative educational content. They may or may not have an expectation to be entertained, but they most definitely feel cheated if you don’t teach them, or their children, something interesting or significant. Furthermore, museums almost always accept the 501(c)3 non-profit tax exemption on the charitable grounds that they provide an educational service to the community.
Secondly, the practical reason is that with educational objectives you are more likely to make a well-thought-out exhibit. Educational objectives provide a nice framework for conceiving of your exhibit design, and if properly executed, results in a sort of “payoff” to the visitor. Once the consumer has gained something they are more likely to have positive feelings about your museum, which may result in return visits and word of mouth referrals. Over time your museum will develop a good public reputation by having strong exhibits that follow these principles.
What is the alternative to basing an exhibit on educational exhibits that you should avoid? I’m glad you asked. This leads me to directly to…
Ten Principles of Good Exhibit Design
In the old days you could get away with an object with a boring descriptive placard, but in today’s museum world that won’t cut it. Museum visitors want to be visually engaged. Employ as many of the good design principles below as possible.
Principle #1 Base your exhibit on educational objectives; not objects.
If you base your exhibit on objects proceed at your own peril. Generally speaking the worst exhibits are those that lack an educational focus. Very few objects speak for themselves. It is the job of the exhibit designer to take educational objectives and transform them into museum experiences that incorporate museum objects effectively, along with other educational content delivery methods. Therefore, begin with what you want your museum visitors to get out of your exhibit.
Principle #2 Use objects to accomplish your educational objectives
However, use objects to accomplish your educational objectives. If you have objects that can help tell you story, feature them with prominent placement and lighting. Show them in a way that creates a sense of respect around them. The truth is, people typically go to museums to see “real” things. While your information panels may do a great deal of the content delivery, they won’t create the sense of awe and wonder which is the raison d’être of the museum.
Principle #3 Think Big
One theme that runs through each of these design principles is “make it easy for your visitor to learn.” Visitors prefer a good size text panel over a dinky one, yet how many times have you been to a museum and there is a panel smaller than 11 x 17, sometimes combining both images and text -- often dwarfed by the wall or artifact it’s illustrating.
Size your panels to take advantage of wall space; if you have an 8’ ceiling, consider an 8’ panel. Although its arbitrary, I have found that panels in the range of 3 to 7’ per side are very affective. Photographs should be big enough to distinguish details at 8 to 10’ away, as should they majority of the text. If you find your visitors need to approach within arms length of a panel to read it or make sense of its visuals, then its way too small.
Don’t make it so big that it looks ridiculous; here are some starting suggestions:
  • Headers 150 point minimum
  • Subheadings 76 point minimum
  • Body Text 48 point minimum
  • images: for main elements no less than 2’ on the shortest side. For minor images you can use your judgment. 10” on the shortest side would be small, but possibly appropriate for a subordinate image that illustrates something in particular in greater detail. The maximum size for images is only limited by whats comfortable for the visitor given the vantage point provided by the display area.
Principle #4 Use Color
Black on white is “ok” for simple elegance, but you might be amazed at how color turns a drab exhibit into an exciting one. Human beings are visually oriented and somewhat moody. If you use black and white, or shades of gray as the main colors on your exhibit, expect to elicit a somber response. I can’t tell you what colors to pick, but go for something that fits the subject matter AND the aesthetics of the display area. If you are able to paint the display area to match your exhibit all the better. Tying the color scheme of your exhibit  to the area is a key technique to give the exhibit a sense of belonging. You can also use color to guide the eye, and even connect different parts of the exhibit together. Thing of creative ways to use colors. 
  • Heres a few tips though:
  • Make sure your typeface contrasts sharply with the background color. Hard to read is worse than boring.
  • Be careful not to camouflage images by picking colors that match your image palette too closely.
  • Picking complimentary colors and being consistent throughout your exhibit will help your visitors feel comfortable.
Principle #5 Use high quality materials
Most of the time you simply can’t do a quality job with your own inkjet printer. It might look alright when you get done printing it, but unless you have specialized equipment, chances are its too small and will readily fade. If you do it yourself and you end up with bubbles in your mounting, or curling labels, you are hurting yourself a great deal. If you do it yourself, get the highest quality materials you can find and take great care to do it just right.
If you don’t have professional grade printing solutions, I strongly recommend taking your print jobs to a print shop. Print shops are surprisingly affordable, can do excellent work, can print on most anything, and when you tell them what you need they should be able to provide you with professional recommendations.
You need something that is physically durable and fade resistant. You can have things printed on paper, foam core, PVC, wood, acrylic… the choices are yours. Discuss it with your printer.
We have found that printing on PVC is an excellent choice (thank you to Nikke Ferre for turning me on  to this); it’s rollable like paper and scratch resistant like acrylic. It doesn't work in all lighting conditions, and it doesn't give you the same depth that form core might. Mounting PVC on a painted wood frame can affordably create a durable panel with a nice thickness that jumps off the wall at visitors.
Principle #6 Layer your content
Your exhibit has to have at least 3 layers of content. 1) Major Headings; 2) Major subheadings and information; and 3) Minor subheadings and information. Why is this important?
Because every visitor does not want the same level of information from each panel. Hopefully you have made your panel large enough, colorful enough, and with a big header, so that someone from 10’ (or more) knows what that panel is for, without having to wonder. The panel has to call to them; sing even, and the lyrics need to be something other than “guess what’s over here.” Don’t make your visitors struggle to get the message. The headers on your panel are the main points of your exhibit. Some people will choose to NOT read the text depending on their time available and level of interest. The header is important in helping them make that decision, so the header should be informative.
If someone has been attracted by the panel or accompanying object, you second level of text provides more details; presumably the most important details about header subject. You don't need to, or even want to, overwhelm the visitor here with text. Remember, you have at least one other level of information, but provide meaningful content in case they choose to not pursue it.
If you have additional details, put them in your third level. This is probably as detailed as you want, but again, don’t write a novel. I think your third level of text is should be largely ancillary (or “extra credit” if you will) to the main point of the exhibit. Your main educational objectives should be met at a higher level than this.
How much content? No more than 3 minutes worth. You will have to figure out what that means based on the size of your panel and the font size.
Principle #7 Use more than one content delivery method
I know we have only really talked about two content delivery methods: the static text panel and the object on display (mentioned briefly in #2 above). Add other content delivery types if at all possible. Including video (a/v), interactives, ambient sound or music, docents, touch carts, free literature or printed guides, etc. You don’t need many of these add ons to make REALLY improve the visitor appeal of the exhibit. 
Principle #8 Layout the exhibit so it flows logically and naturally
Make sure your exhibit is well planed out. It should have a clear beginning and an end, and it should be easy to find the path between the two. The visitor might not even know the intended route, but a well designed exhibit will be structured to encourage a progression through the exhibit that strengthens its ability to get across is educational objectives.
Visitors who feel lost or confused by an exhibit layout are more likely to give up on the exhibit. You have to do this on purpose; exhibits don't lay themselves out.
Principle #9 Pay careful attention to lighting (aesthetically)
We’ll get to preventive conservation in a moment, but for now I want to focus on lighting aesthetics. Design your lighting so to minimize glare, and to direct attention where you want it. You id this easily by dimming the overall lighting, and raising the lighting on the exhibits. This creates a nice respectful ambiance in the museum and also helps with traffic flow (6 above).
Principle #10 Pay careful attention to all preventive conservation
Make sure everything in your exhibit is as protected as is reasonably possible. Obviously this goes for museum objects, but here I am also talking about panels. Quite often I hear that you don’t need to protect panels because they are not “real” things. Au contrere, if you don't take care of your panels they can fade, crack, peel, break, and otherwise deteriorate. As mentioned in the opening of this article, this is bad for your credibility, reputations, and business. Consequently, protect EVERYTHING as is reasonably practicable.
This isn't the place to go over all preventive conservation measures that can be taken, and obviously you can only minimize visitor impacts on your exhibit. But, heres a few oft-overlooked aspects of exhibit management. 
  • Light. If your exhibits are exposed to natural lighting they will fade, that’s all there is to it. Use quality fade resistant materials, minimize exposure to natural light, and position panels to where they will be least impacted. After that, keep your eye on them and replace them when they are faded. You’ll probably need to monitor this because the slow fading that objects on display undergo over long term periods of exposure can be subtle. 
  • Temperature and humidity. Chances are you already worry about this for your objects. If your museum does not have humidity fluctuations in check, or if it has high humidity, you may not want to use paper for your panel mounts, or anything else that could arp or peel. Here again, PVC works well as it isn't particularly affected by humidity or dryness.
  • Physical security. Most information panels will get touched by visitors. Therefore, picking a durable printing medium is important. If you print on paper or foam core, be aware that they damage easily. If you have a high traffic area or an area frequented by children, you might want to use something tougher. Here again, printing on PVC has been a real miracle.
  • By the way, PVC is also resistant to insects, easy to clean, and affordable.
Principle #11 Make sure the exhibit has a payoff!!!
When they are done with your exhibit, will the visitors feel ripped off? While you can’t account for individual tasters, if you have made sure that theres a solid educational core foundation to your exhibit, and its presented in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, chances are you will get favorable results. 
Principle #12 Do not underestimate the visitor
Your visitors are intelligent, have diverse interests and backgrounds, and pick up on details that you might consider insignificant. Visitors might not think about why they like or dislike an exhibit, but they surely can tell a good one from a bad one. If the visitor feels cheated when then leave your museum, you are on on the pathway to failure. You absolutely can not let this happen.
Principle #13 Maintain the exhibit
Check often to make sure that all parts of the exhibit look good. This is way more imperative than most museum personnel realize. Faded images or text, peeling or missing labels, broken interactives ⎯ these things not only make your exhibit look bad, they ruin your credibility with the visitor. It conveys to the visitor that you don’t care (even if its not true). This can easily damage your reputation, destroying repeat visits, and as word gets out, decreases your overall visitorship as well.
Did anyone notice I gave 13 instead on 10 principles? I could’t resist. Maybe I can collapse them in the next version of this document. On the other hand, I might have been able to go on to 20. 
The point is, good exhibits don’t happen on accident. They take careful planning and execution. Anyone can do it, on just about any budget. Take a look at your favorite exhibit. Is it well designed? Does it use my design principles? Maybe you disagree that all these are “good” principles. Send me your comments, and add your own to the list.

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