Monthly Archives: January 2011

Everyone should be able to sketch

Once again, I’m stuck in a familiar place. A major grant proposal deadline is looming, the thing has been written, survived a round of edits largely unscathed, and now needs to be finished, and it’s like pulling teeth. Why? Something I have always struggled with is being more facile with rapid production and dissemination of my thinking.  Deep down, I’ve still got this Victorian notion of the writer in his garret, scratching away all day, perfecting his work until “it’s ready.” This might be great for literature, but it sure doesn’t work well in the workplace.  I need to improve my ability to generate the written equivalent of “sketches” – the throw away impressions of ideas that designers in general are so much better at producing. Everyone should be able to sketch.

Sketching – the rapid production of representations of your thinking –  is an essential skill. Practicing it, developing techniques that work for you, and inventing new ways to get your ideas out faster are all fundamental to design learning. “Sketches” are how you present your ideas, test your proposals, and turn your vision into something concrete. It should be at the core of your development process, and not just something for the designers to do.

Sketches are the manifestation of your ongoing conversation with the project. If you look back at the project files for a completed project, it’ll be full of sketches (concept art, wireframes, outlines, models, etc…). These are all sketches and not products in their own right. They exist to get you just far enough to advance your thinking and solicit input on some specific point.  When you’re in the midst of the dialectical conflict between the project goals and the gritty reality of the moment, sketches are things that let you find a way to proceed. “If we get rid of this, what will that look like…?” What if we add a fourth section here…?”

How can you have a conversation with something that has yet to exist? Easy. The simple act of externalizing anything changes it, so that your vision has to fit into lines and colors and volumes of space, and your idea has to fit into words. The results are always different and force you to confront the reality of making anything. Your design is an embodiment and must therefore be different than the mental image you have. There in the difference between the idea and sketch lies the center of the design process and the conversation. You have an idea and the sketch you produce, and never the twain shall meet in my experience. It’s a quantum phenomenon Heisenberg would recognize – the act of externalizing changes the vision. How your design forces you to confront your goals and plans is its part of the conversation, if you’re listening.

Why sketch?

Exhibit development shares much more with movie making than it does with software development in terms of process. A major motion picture might spend years in pre-production, and only a few weeks in principal photography, the part that most people think of as being “the meat” of the act of making a film. A major exhibition may take years to develop and a few months to fabricate and a few weeks to install, the part of the process most people visualize when you say “I make exhibitions.” Fabrication and installation are also very expensive, so a good process does everything possible to minimize the cost and duration of the fabrication and installation phases. Figuring it out on paper or on-screen is a lot cheaper than building it and then trying to figure it out. Moving a display case on a plan is easier than having four people pick up the real case and schlep it across the gallery, especially if there’s a chance of someone saying, “Nah, that doesn’t fit. OK, put it back where it was.” Moving a button on an interactive is easy on-screen, and less embarrassing than going to the fabricator and asking them to drill a new hole in the freshly-built exhibit and plug the old hole with… something. That kind of design laziness gets old fast.

The most common tools for managing the evolution of the vision during a project are written documents of various types; exhibit outlines, taxonomies, specifications, style guides, artifact lists, and so on. Documents have some significant benefits; they are concrete, they last, they are easy to share. But documents also have significant drawbacks. Documents have to be interpreted by the reader and I’m sure we all have had experiences of two people reading the same document and coming away with completely different interpretations of what was said. Documents also have a hard time adequately expressing the abstract, the vague, and the uncertain; precisely the qualities that any not-yet-created thing will possess until very late in its gestation. Many is the time I’ve seen colleagues look at a preliminary floorplan or concept document and say, “But if I show this to ____, they’ll think this is what the final is gonna look like, and we know it’s just our current version!” Documents can have a frightening concreteness. Calling them sketches robs them of some of the solidity they possess when you treat them like products. You have to look at them as temporary manifestations of your thinking. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth Life.” Putting dates on everything is a great way of expressing the idea that every sketch has an expiration date and old sketches should be treated as suspectly as an old quart of milk in the fridge.

2011’s provocative questions

A new year seems to be an auspicious time for asking big questions and reflecting and recommitting to what we do as museum professionals. And judging from what’s coming in through my feeds, I’m not alone in that.

One of the last things I read in 2010 was a blog post by Jasper Visser, seductively titled, “What is a museum (as well)?” He provides a long list of things visitors use museums for that all fall completely outside our plans for what they should be doing.  Examples include

  • A place to go on a first date.
  • Cool inside when it’s hot outside.
  • Somewhere to dump your kids.
  • A place to challenge your opinions and ideas.
  • Somewhere to dump your husband/boyfriend when you go shopping.

And so on. A great list, all things I can immediately visualize either doing myself, or watching others do.  This question, “What do our visitors think a museum is for?” stuck with me over the holidays, and today, staring at a clean desk (for now at least) and a new year, it seemed fitting to be rolling a big existential question around.

Plowing through the accumulated posts and tweets I came across Nick Poole’s synopsis of a difficult conversation he had over the holidays with a group of well-educated adults from different walks of life who didn’t see much point to museums any more.  The part that made me feel a bit sick comes near the end,

And then one of our company turned to me, in all earnest, and said ‘your industry is like typesetters, or vinyl manufacturers. Its time has come and gone. The real question is how long it’s going to take you all to realise what has happened.’ But that wasn’t the killer blow. The killer blow was watching people around the room nodding in assent. Yes, they seemed to think, museums could have been great, but they just didn’t keep pace with the times.”

The whole post will probably give some of you a stomach ache, because it reads like a museum professional’s nightmare. You’re at a nice party, and suddenly the whole room turns on you and eviscerates your profession as pointless and irrelevant. That said, the larger question of “What good are museums in the modern world?” can be a challenge to lift our gaze from doing what we’ve always done and be more mindful of who we’re supposedly serving and how we do it.

Just to complete a trinity of calls to wake up and look around, my eyes bugged a little when I read Charlie Carlson’s question to the ASTC-ISEN-L listserv the other day about evaluation. As someone deep in the throes of a couple of U.S. government grant proposals, both of which require substantial evaluation components, it was startling to say the least. It read, in part;

“For some years I’ve wondered about the efficacy of exhibit evaluation, wondered whether or not it is useful, or more directly a bureaucratic hurdle that provides useless and specious validation that satisfies an inner need and social, political need to feel affective.  A CYA exercise by politicians, bureaucrats, and museum professionals.  To put it bluntly: Are museums and taxpayers spending a significant amount of money on something of questionable value?”

Wow! Now there’s a provocative question! If you don’t read this listserv, you owe it to yourself to check out the whole thread as it continues to unfold.

What questions are you wrestling with for the coming year?


UPDATE:  The original questions have generated some interesting commentary. I am particularly struck by Koven Smith’s response to Nick that behind the relevancy issues is,

…that, for the first time, museums have competitors. The choice is no longer between museums and nothing, but rather between museums and something similar that’s more convenient. And in a market with competitors (particularly competitors without the years of baggage that museums have), simply proving value alone isn’t enough. We have to also differentiate ourselves from the competition (even if that competition is mostly benign).

The idea of having to make the value proposition and the differentiation clear is, I think, crucial.  We have a unique set of experiences to offer that we could do a better job of making clear. Pretending that we don’t need to differentiate is basically akin to putting our heads in the sand, or covering our ears and going, “La, la, la!”