Design Considerations

By Katherine Yee

This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attend the 2014 Annual Meeting

Creative Director – This is not a common title in the museum field. It is a much more common title used at a design and marketing agency.

I went to school for graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I have always had an interest in designing in three-dimensional spaces and even debated going into architecture. Then at RISD I took an exhibit design course and loved it. It was the prefect blend of graphic design and designing spaces. I decided after taking that class that I wanted to work at a museum. Unfortunately, when I graduated, the economy was in a slump and none of the museums in New York City were hiring so I took a job at a design firm as an Environmental Graphic Designer. I worked on branding offices spaces and corporate events for Pepsi, American Express, and Cigna.

After working at that company for a couple years, I was hired by the San Diego Museum of Man as a Graphic Designer and was eventually promoted to Creative Director. It was an exciting time to join the San Diego Museum of Man. The museum was undergoing extreme transformation, including hiring a new Executive Director, making significant staff changes, and developing a new strategic plan.

Coming from an outside trajectory, I’ve learned a lot about designing and developing exhibits at the Museum of Man. As Creative Director, I am responsible for managing the exhibit and graphic teams to develop and design the museum’s varied and multifaceted exhibits. I’m lucky to say that I think my job knowledge and the museum exhibits have grown at the same pace. The first exhibit I was responsible for was a traveling photo show, which was fairly simple to layout in our galleries. The next show I worked on was also a traveling exhibit, except this time I redesigned the walls that contained the show. The latest exhibit that we opened at the Museum of Man was completely developed in-house. This included everything from writing the content, designing the branding and gallery, and then fabricating all the elements. While learning on the job is always fun and exciting, I am always looking for opportunities to expand my exhibit development abilities. I am so thankful for the Wanda Chin Scholarship for allowing me to attend the WMA Annual Meeting this year.

I think the best kick-off to the conference for me was the pre-conference workshop I attended called “A Day of Design – Two Workshops in One,” which included “Museum Signage 101: Way-finding & Donor Recognition” and “High-Impact/Low Cost Exhibit Design.” Wayne Hunt of Hunt Design moderated the workshop, and the presenters included Jennifer Bressler, Principal of Hunt Design and Heather Linquist, Principal of Harvest Moon Studio. Wayne started the workshop off by reviewing some basic rules of directional signage, discussing sight lines, limiting the number of directional steps to get locations, and verbiage. Then he transitioned us into groups to work on a directional signage project for the Fort Worth Museum (a project Hunt Design had actually worked on). We worked in teams to develop a library of different signage types, from pylon signs to flagpole banners and then assessed the floor plan to determine the best locations for the signs. Wayne Hunt walked around between the groups and gave pointers for where he would suggest we position the signs, or helpful hints on factors we should consider. I found this workshop extremely engaging and a hands-on way to learn from an expert about way finding strategies for complex environments. The Museum of Man resides in a historic building and the Museum regularly faces challenges in directing our visitors through the gallery spaces. I look forward to bringing the knowledge I learned in this workshop back to my museum as I spearhead a new way finding system.

The second half of the day was focused on “High-Impact/Low Cost Exhibit Design.” We broke into two teams and were given the challenge of developing an exhibit on coffee. The two teams were given different budgets to work with: one with a low budget and the second with a high budget. I was on the low budget team. Additionally, within each team, we were assigned a role. The roles included curator, graphic designer, exhibit designer, multimedia designer, and project director. We were given two hours to develop and design the hypothetical exhibit. It was quite a challenging task and we had a difficult time narrowing down the content into a big idea and then figuring out how we wanted to layout the space. At the end of the day, I think everyone in the workshop felt invigorated by the projects and bonded by the experience. It was a really nice way to start meeting some of the 2014 Annual Meeting attendees that shared common interests.

Having such a great workshop to start the Annual Meeting was only the beginning. I really enjoyed all of the sessions I attended, as well as the evening events visiting the Mob Museum, Neon Museum, and Atomic Testing Museum.

The 2014 Annual Meeting session that stood out the most to me was “New Life for Aging Permanent Exhibitions.” Bill Smith, Principal at Storyline Studio spoke about how you should not always start from scratch but look at the original exhibit objectively and see what is worth keeping or improving in the new iteration of the exhibit. He used the Suquamish Museum as an example and showed how they improved the canoe artifact display by adding wooden figurines to hold the canoe up. They also saw value in the existing timeline and brought new life to it with an updated visual form. Tim Willis, a museum consultant, spoke about his experience with the Provincial Museum of Alberta where he made decisions to balance visitor’s nostalgia and the factual accuracy of the Mammoth display. With the Museum of Man, we have recently started a master planning process that has established new strategies for our exhibit programs. These included plans to renovate each of our permanent galleries in the next 10 years. I plan to use the knowledge gained in this session to better address our museum’s situation and transform and refresh our permanent galleries.

The WMA 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas was a really great conference. It had the perfect balance of interesting sessions, workshops, and networking opportunities. It showed me what a larger museum community I am a part of and how the work we do at our individual museums connects to museums everywhere.

Katherine Yee is Creative Director at the San Diego Museum of Man. She has a BFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and serves on the board of the AIGA San Diego, the professional association for design.



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