I do a lot of exhibition development work. I team up with a graphic designer, a project manager, a 3D designer, and sometimes other folks to facilitate the making of interpretive magic (my role is interpretive planner and content developer—and usually workshop facilitator). A big part of what we do is gathering the client group together to get them involved in brainstorming. We do this because it’s fun; because they’re passionately invested in the outcome; and because it’s way better for the project when the client team can see themselves in every step of the creative process.

But it means that very often, we’re working with people who don’t do a lot of product development in their daily lives. These folks are scientists, administrators, search and rescue people, finance officers, historians, and so on. So it can be a challenge. You have to set them up for success.

First you walk them through your project goals and your site’s target markets. Next you bring them up to speed on themes and messages: you share with them what you want people to feel, learn, understand about the place. You share the whole thematic framework with them. (Normally they would have had a hand in developing that in a previous workshop.)

Getting to work

We often do a slide show of examples of innovative products (exhibits, interactives, games, programs, amenities), and we have printouts of inspiring examples stuck up on the walls. Sometimes we ask the participants to share memories of great visitor experiences that they’ve had in their travels.

And we split the participants up into groups with a job to do: come up with great ideas, cool media, innovative programs, memorable opportunities for visitors to really connect with your place in a meaningful way.

And sometimes that’s all you have to do. Sometimes they just set to work and start spitting out amazing ideas—really creative, workable stuff. And you sit there and try to write it all down while thinking WOW this is all gonna be awesome.

But sometimes it doesn’t go like that.

Here’s where I find things fall apart: if you don’t create enough of a framework for them to brainstorm within—if you don’t come up with a few creative constraints—things tend to fall silent. The whole giant world of possibility is just too daunting for them and they come up with nothing. Or maybe they just don’t have enough experience turning interpretive themes into visitor experience products, and they can’t make the leap without help.

Product ideation is hard.

Looking back on my last few workshops, here’s the strange thing that keeps happening: you ask them to brainstorm products, and they just come up with more messages. It goes like this. I say, “OK gang, we need you to come up with some kind of cool experience to communicate the climate and weather of this wetland.” And you check in ten minutes later and here’s what they’ve got for you: “Ok we really want to talk about climate change.” “Oh and we have to talk about winter precipitation because that’s huge.” “Oh something about the water cycle for sure…” and on it goes. So you reassure them that yes, those things have already been documented and now it’s time to come up with HOW we’re going to connect visitors to those things.

it’s time for the medium, not just the message.

It can be really hard for some workshop participants to make that leap.

I have struggled with this for a while now and I have a couple of new ideas for adding some creative constraints to channel my participants toward success.

Just enough constraint is the key.

“Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

-Marissa Mayer

Coming from a background in the performing arts, I know from experience how constraints spark creativity. Sometimes it’s much easier to produce ideas when the sky isn’t entirely blue and you’re not dwarfed by the possibility of it all.

So instead of just asking them to come with products out of the blue, give them focussed and specific challenges. Like these:

Prescribe the experience type for them.

“Brainstorm an interpretive art installation that connects people to place as they enter our park.”

“Brainstorm a series of theme nights that helps expand our audience base.”

“Brainstorm a digital interactive that teaches people about this place and its inhabitants.”

Tighter constraints: Prescribe the target audience and testable outcome.

For this one, each workshop group gets to draw an assignment out of a hat. Written on one of the sheets is the name of a target audience—local families with young children, say—and the name of a testable outcome. “The local young families will identify two wetland plants and two animals that depend on them.” The assignment: “Create a visitor experience, say no longer than 40 minutes, that gets that target audience to the desired testable outcome. Describe it in detail.”

Prescribe target market and message

Here’s another challenge, prescribing message instead of testable outcome:

Audience: Date-night couples at an evening event with a cash bar.

Message: “Underwater invertebrates have wild reproductive lives.”

“Brainstorm some kind of experience that communicates that message to that audience in a fun and memorable way.”

Ninja-level constraints: three random variables

Participants draw from three hats. In the first is all your target audiences. In the second is all your interpretive themes. In the third is at least twenty different product types. They pick one card from each hat, and they have to come up with the visitor experience that unites all three variables. Here’s a possible combo:

  1. Grade 7 students
  2. Message: Camouflage is a smart way of life.
  3. Medium: interpretive game or scavenger hunt

Here’s another one:

  1. Empty-nest couples
  2. Message: This place is an international airport for birds.
  3. Medium: themed washroom facility

One more:

  1. European bus tour visitors
  2. Message: Wetlands can clean the water of heavy metal pollutants.
  3. Medium: popup interpretive object exhibit

How about this:

  1. Local community members
  2. Message: If these buildings could talk their stories would break your heart.
  3. Medium: Photography exhibition

Now, picture the variables above mixing and matching. Could you switch things up and brainstorm an interpretive game for European bus tour visitors on the international airport for birds theme? I could. Hell yes. Could you do a popup interpretive object exhibit for school kids on the subject of camouflage? Absolutely. I could brainstorm on those variables for hours. The sky’s the limit.

Oh and here’s the other part of the activity: pitching their concept. Once they’ve had time to flesh out their ideas, they stand up as a group and pitch their concept to the other participants as if they were in a Hollywood mogul’s office. As if they were on Shark Tank.

Watching my participants work within just the right level of constraint is exhilarating. You can see the group bounce from work to play to work to play again. You can see them getting excited about—and invested in—their own ideas.

And you can end up with a kickass interpretive plan at the end of the day.

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