Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting a session at the National Association for Interpretation conference in Spokane, WA. My talk was, “The Care and Feeding of Exhibit Designers: A Survival Guide”, and it has turned out to be one of the more popular subjects I have addressed.
The relationship between Design and Content is fraught with pitfalls, and we often end up in an adversarial relationship. We make a lot of assumptions about each other, it seems.
For me, the process of preparing this talk led me to re-examine how we, as writers and planners, approach our work. One of the first things to occur to me is that we often fail to do a good job of communicating our roles. So here’s my first instalment in a series.
What A Designer or Manager Needs To Know
Interpretive planning is the up-front work—the stage I call pre-design.
The first task for the interpretive planner is to help you identify the goals for your project: what will this exhibition try to accomplish? How does it fit into your five-year plan? How will it benefit your mission and your business plan? And how will you measure your results?
Next, I help you analyze your market research, and identify your target markets for the exhibition. We think of target markets as the people you need to reach in order to meet your goals. Hint: it’s not the general public.
Lastly, I help you create a thematic framework. In an exhibition setting, this involves working closely with curators and subject matter experts. What exactly is this exhibition going to say? What do we want the visitor to think, know, feel as a result of this experience? And again, how will we know if we’re successful?
Where does design fit in?
Though I call it pre-design, the exhibition design team should be involved from the beginning. Designers need to know (and need to help craft) the project’s goals. They need a deep understanding of who the target markets are: their patterns of visitation, their tastes, their needs and interests, and so on. (And the ability to design a visitor experience that responds to target markets’ needs rather than a designer’s tastes is what separates professional designers from artists who dabble in design. More about that later.)
And designers definitely should be involved in the thematic framework—their job is to craft the non-verbal part of the message.
From pre-design to schematic design
Once these three major milestones are complete (goals, audience and theme), the team begins to flesh out the actual visitor experience. This is the transition from pre-design to schematic design. In schematic design, the interpretive planner works with the design team to start to crystallize the high-level plan, and turn it into a concrete design document with sketches and sample texts. This is the fun stuff, and it’s also the most important part of the entire exhibition design process. Get this right, and the project flies along from here. Get it wrong, and your exhibition will be a giant smelly bucket of fail.
Schematic design ends when you have a document that promises a kickass visitor experience—one that is beautiful and elegant, and connects your themes to your target audiences in order to meet your goals.
Your interpretive planner often takes on the role of content development, and the transition between these roles is a kind of continuum: one flows into the next. Where it gets confusing is when designers, curators and managers don’t quite know the difference between the two, and hire one when they really want the other.
Content development is a catch-all term for all of the labour-intensive tasks involved in putting together the stuff of the visitor experience: coordinating the research, documenting the interviews, finding the artefacts and the photographs, liaising with the design team, making purchases and drafting loan agreements. It’s hard work, and it takes a ton of time. If you can afford to have your interpretive planner do content development, you definitely should—you’ll ensure that the original vision is properly executed. But sometimes this work can fall to a less senior person. (And by senior I mean expensive.) An interpretive planner generally costs a bit more than a content person, because the impacts of their work are greater, and the costs of getting it wrong are steeper. You can fix content mistakes fairly quickly (if you catch them early), but fixing a bad interpretive plan or schematic design is messy.
An interpretive writer has a fairly focused task: they take research and turn it into exhibit text that is digestible and gratifying for the target audience. They don’t do primary research, as a rule—they are normally handed a document, in rough form, from the project’s historian or biologist or other subject matter expert. They work within the constraints handed to them by the project team—word limits and style guides—and, like any professional writer, generally can get things done independently and efficiently in a fairly short time.
Good interpretive writers are worth their weight in gold—they will make or break your visitor experience. But they’re surprisingly affordable, probably because writing is a competitive market these days.
Knowing Who(m) to Hire
If you’re a manager trying to put together a design project, it pays to know who to hire. I often see “interpretive writer” in a request for proposals when it’s clear that you’re really looking for a content development expert, or an interpretive planner. And while it’s not unusual to find someone (like me) who can do all three, the scope of work (and the price tag) for each is radically different.