Listen! What’s The Work Telling You?

Thinking like an exhibit developer requires you to be what Donald Schön termed a reflective practitioner – someone who reflects on his or her actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning, or one who listens to the situation talking back to him or her. Which is another way to say that to be a good developer requires authentic attention.

What the hell does that mean? The hallmark of authentic attention are carefulness.  You need to be careful, to listen hard enough to recognize alternatives when they arise and to be prepared for the inevitable surprises. A new project is like an interesting stranger. As you get to know it, you learn new things about it, and the way you think of it should change to accommodate what you’ve learned. And the project should be changed in return. When you get wedded to an idea or design regardless of what the work is telling you, trouble inevitably results.

Working this way is like juggling on a unicycle while piloting an aircraft. As you proceed with the project, you are required to operate simultaneously on several levels, and be able to alter your vision, your objectives, and your design at the same time. The same dynamic is at work in the social sphere. You must do justice to the demands of your educational goals, your project deliverables, and team responsibilities, while each is impacting the other all the time.

Sounds like fun, right?

Zero G toilet from 2001
Instructions for the Zero G toilet from 2001

In the end, a good product, whether it’s a label, an interactive, or an entire exhibition, should be a thoughtful composition of elements that balance the demands of the situation and the needs of the audience. Are the elements easily distinguishable , and not overly complicated?
(Am I supposed to touch this?) Are users easily able to find their way through the experience? We all know the best interface is no interface, and the best map is to already know where everything is.

Much though authors of how-to books may disagree, there is no easy way of defining away the intricacy of the design process. While there may be prescribed ways to organize and manage the design process, there is no such manual for designing the process itself. Each new project is a design problem itself, and every solution will be different. Nothing is given or true when it comes down to what and how to design an exhibition or anything else. It is a complex process that demands conceptual clarity from you, if you don’t want to drown in the sea of decisions, dependencies, and deliverables that will follow. A thoughtful designer will start a project by designing a design process that:

  • suits the people at the table,
  • suits the situation at that time and place, and
  • will allow the design of the project to proceed.

I tend to get snarky about anybody who claims to have the description of the design process. If every design process is unique, then there will never be a complete model you can use. So why read them? It’s useful to read them so you can appropriate bits and pieces. To find the right process for your project, you’ll have to write that book yourself – by doing it!