This video is a highly selective review of 20th Century Typography. The main hypothesis is that the various movements and designers are in a continuum of development. I see this as evolutionary rather than a series of revolutions. I encourage viewers to look analytically at the examples and derive the key lessons to apply in their own work.
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Learning in public environments such as museums is largely self-directed. It requires voluntary participation whilst surrounded by distractions. Visitors explore exhibitions at their own pace and view things on their terms. An exhibition must have compelling reasons to engage the viewer such as: personal interest; useful information; and entertaining and challenging tasks. Impersonal tone of ‘voice’; passive displays; over-use of jargon and terminology; and too little or too much information should be avoided. The design of museum and gallery environments requires an understanding of the psychology of human learning, attention, motivation, memory, perception and behaviour. Learning results from exposure to information and the acquisition of skills or knowledge from study or experience. The impact of information design can be measured in terms of what the individual can demonstrate as a result of a particular message. The success of an exhibition can be ascertained by: observing visitors’ reactions; questionnaires and whether answers are one-word responses or an articulate understanding of the exhibition; and exit interviews.
Emery Studio has described exhibition design as presenting a narrative ‘as an immersive, stimulating environment and communications experience…a theatrical evocation’. This image for the Lab 3000 Digital Design Biennale shows information in the form of a 70-metre infinity symbol.
Connecting to the familiar
The design of exhibition content should help the viewer interpret the information by connecting new concepts to familiar ones and indicate why and how the information is of use to them.
An exhibition is not a book on a wall
The traditional museum exhibition was often prepared for high-level scholarly activity by academics and experts. Detailed information was provided with little intervention on behalf of a wider viewing public. This approach often rendered information inaccessible and created a barrier between the institution and its potential public. Labels that used technical jargon or academic language were often going unread. Exhibition planners now take a visitor-centred approach. They focus on creating immersive environments where the amount of information has been considered and structured into key themes that aid subsequent memory. The writers of labels have to consider that visitors will be reading the labels standing up and will rapidly tire if not written in an accessible and concise manner.
Casson Mann collaborated with Nick Bell and David Small to create the Cabinet War Rooms at the Churchill Museum
User research and testing
Research in the early twentieth century analysed visitor movement, behaviour and learning. Visitors navigated the exhibition as intended but little was actually learnt from the experience. The average viewing time of each exhibit was between10-25 seconds. Attention was random and provided information was not always examined. Hands on and interactive displays engaged visitors’ interest more, but their attention focused on trivial elements. Exit tests revealed that many visitors couldn’t recount their experience and often left with a negative attitude. Visitor surveys can establish certain demographic statistics such as age, income and education but may reveal nothing about attitudes and perceptions. Front-end evaluation of an exhibition should take place to establish trial groups’ prior knowledge, attitudes and preconceptions whilst examining their time constraints, curiosity levels and thinking styles. Sample material such as mock-ups, labels and layouts should be prototyped and used to measure visitor reaction, motivation and comprehension of the proposed designs.
It is assumed that attendance figures are the best indicators of an exhibition’s success. But high attendance figures may be due to a successful marketing campaign or a particular controversial element. The American Association of Museums’ Standards for Museum Exhibitions has stated that an exhibition ‘is successful if it is physically, intellectually, and emotionally satisfying to visitors’.
Distraction and disposition
Visiting an exhibition is a social activity and as such the displays will be in competition with normal human interactions. Visitors may become distracted by other competing attractions such as places to eat, tired children or the car on a meter. Availability of time will effect visitors’ disposition, most visits last between one and two hours. Despite being a leisure activity museum visits can be both physically and mentally draining.
The factors that effect a visitor’s motivation to engage with an exhibition can be subtle: the lighting level; text legibility; how busy it is; general visibility of items; use of jargon; the ability to engage with the exhibition theme; and personal relevance. Fatigue, confusion and stimulus overload affect visitors’ motivation to explore further.
Information overload in the museum environment
An exhibition where too much has been selected can overwhelm and tire the visitor. It is estimated that museums only ever exhibit 10 percent of their collections at any one time.
Focused (mindful) and random (mindless) attention
To absorb information and learn, people need to focus their attention. At exhibitions viewers don’t have the advantage of an expert to elucidate upon key points. The ability to interpret and understand information is related to the design of the content through labels, graphics and interactive elements. People do not just read things for the sake of it there needs to be convincing reasons to focus attention. Visitors to an exhibition tend to respond more immediately to the sensory aspects (sounds, visuals and textures) than to the more abstract nature of textual information. Written information needs to be presented in a format that is concise, understandable, and enjoyable. Those researching into this area make a distinction between mindful (highly selective) and mindless (casual and random) attention. Higher levels of attention are partially responsible for the transfer of information to long-term memory.
Studio Dumbar designed this exhibition at the Museum Valkhof. The museum also has a special Junior Lab where children can engage in a hands on experience.
Memory and recall
The ability to recall information declines as the number of exhibits increase. The more time a visitor spends examining the display the more likely it will be remembered. Learning and the ability to recall information are enhanced when audio-visual methods are used. Many of the graphic techniques that are used are often aimed at entertaining and don’t necessary result in sustained engagement with the content. Visitors may just end up activating all the fun bits but learn and remember nothing about the overall intention of an exhibition.
The importance of goals
A goal provides an incentive to expend energy on pursing a particular activity. Goals can encourage us to focus our attention onto unfamiliar information and integrate it with existing knowledge. We explore and learn through our senses building a body of knowledge. We look for more complex challenges and experiences to extend our learning further. Transforming new information into personal knowledge allows us to define and achieve further goals. Learning is intrinsically rewarding because it is empowering. Exhibitions are places of dense information that require layering to avoid sensory overload. Providing achievable goals allows the visitor to navigate at their pace through manageable amounts of information whilst relating it to an overall context.
Succeeding through failure
Visitors expect exhibitions to be rewarding experiences. Making mistakes and failing in a public environment can feel like punishment and lead to negativity and the desire to abandon the task. The visitor may develop a dislike of the topic the exhibition is attempting to popularise. A few errors are inevitable but we can learn from these. Error allows us to discount certain options in the future and increase the probability of success. Systems that provide alerting or warning messages offering encouraging commentary facilitates a positive attitude to error and enables success.
Exhibitions are in competition with other forms of entertainment such as theatre, concerts and sporting events and perhaps there is a tendency for entertainment to dominate educational aspects. Thoughtful design can ensure a closer integration of information and entertainment (infotainment) and make the fun elements contingent on the understanding of the provided information.
The wow factor
In order to gain and focus attention onto new information there is often the need to wow the audience first. The wow factor can aid later recall of information, as we like to remember pleasurable experiences. Well-known objects such as the Mona Lisa draw attention. Exhibitions are now designed for multi-sensorial experiences that induce an emotional response. Interactive devices often provide the wow factor, although non-technological interactions such as the handling of objects allow visitors a real connection to other times and places.
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson had many visitors awestruck – the ambience created by swathes of warm soft light from a vast setting orange sun resulted in people entering a trance-like state.
The design of a major exhibition is rarely the provenance of an individual. A content expert originates the concept and selects the content of an exhibition. A graphic designer co-ordinates the two-dimensional aspects of a three-dimensional environment. A three-dimensional or exhibition designer considers the floor plan and the physical environment. An educational specialist considers the possible educational outcomes for the general public. A writer/editor will consider specific styles of writing for the audience being addressed. Media specialists will provide the communication channels for various aspects of the content.
The influence of architecture
The architecture of a building plays a key part in the navigation of an exhibition. Corners, corridors and atriums provide opportunities to entice the inquisitive explorer further. The placement of each object is carefully considered for its impact and its ability to provide a link to another aspect of the exhibition. Often a key object will be placed at the end of a corridor in order to direct visitors past less familiar material. The walls, floors and ceiling can all contribute to the flow of an exhibition. If large group educational visits are likely to occur, gathering spaces at key points will need to be factored in.
This image is of an exhibition designed by Ruedi Baur on the theme of depliage.
A good story
A good book or film with an engaging narrative, interesting characters and plenty of surprises holds our attention. Story telling is a key device used by exhibition designers who recognise the importance of immersing the visitor into the exhibition theme and experiencing the narrative as a central character.
Exhibitions maybe viewed out of sequence – allowing the visitor references back and forth from where they came and where they are heading is vital if the overall context is to be appreciated.
New media and the exhibition experience
Technology is used to enhance visitor experience through: virtual guides, computer displays and interactive devices. Not all visitors want to engage with new media. They may be self-conscious of being the source of noise and therefore a disturbance to others. People often enjoy exhibitions at their own pace, a simple label allows a visitor to consider ideas and review them without the feeling of being left behind.
The Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum was opened in 2000 and engages visitors in technological experiences.
The effectiveness of textual information is determined by: the type size; the typeface used; the contrast between the type and its background; environmental lighting; where and how the information is located; and use of space. Any additional clutter will scatter the visitor’s attention. The use of language and how it is structured also plays a part in how effective the information communicates. Short paragraphs sufficiently spaced will be easier to read. Clear and unambiguous headings will attract visitors to read on. The amount of information should be such that the visitor doesn’t feel overwhelmed, with a clear distinction between ‘nice to know’ and ‘essential to know’ information. The viewer will appreciate careful layering of information and information-free zones where they can contemplate what they have learnt.
The exhibition design team carefully considers the number of words presented to a visitor of a museum. Too much text will lose the interest of the visitor. Too little text and the content might remain uninformative.
There are many different types of readers attending exhibitions, not all will have perfect vision. Guidelines from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) are available for advice on readability and minimum type sizes. Although type size for captions rarely go below 18pt, RNIB would recommend a size closer to 30pt for people with visual impairments.
There are usually three to four levels of information. Designers of exhibitions consider each level carefully and ensure that it is possible to gain information at any one of the levels for example the level of headings.
People are different heights, the tall often have to bend over whilst the small stand on tip toes. The usual recommended height for labels is 1.5-1.7 metres from the ground and no less than 1.0 metre.
Colour often creates the ambience for an exhibition. It has to be considered for technical issues such as readability and cultural significance particularly when staging an exhibition in a country where the traditions and customs are unknown.
This article has mainly focused on the design of information for museums. More commonly information in 3D environments is encountered in places such as: the streets of towns or between cities; train stations and airports; supermarkets and department stores; and visits to trade shows. These are perhaps more ruthless environments where there is much competition for our attention. The principles of engagement and clear communication still apply.
The Studio of Saul Carliner (website not active)
Emery Vincent Design, Jackie Cooper
Space Graphysm, Hiromura Masaaki
Museum Graphics, Margo Rouard-Snowman
Information Design, Robert Jacobson
Interview with Bridget Allison, exhibition designer
The Science Museum