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Stories shape our reality, our understanding of the world, and even the perception we have of ourselves. We rely on many forms of communication and storytelling to make sense of things. This includes written communication, verbal, audio, and immersive experiences. In all forms of communication, designing the medium through which the story is told is a crucial element of the story itself. 

Whether it be graphic design, user experience design, user interface design, or website design, the single purpose is identifying how the intended message will land with the user. Or in the case of exhibit design, the audience. 

We are often quick to associate ‘design’ with visual design or graphic design. However, there is so much more to the discipline. Design can encompass the creation of many things, not just the graphic elements of a story. The entire experience from buying the entrance ticket to the museum or science centre, to the floor layout, the individual exhibits, the sounds, and the types of interactions, are all carefully curated through design.

Plotting out a Roadmap

Designers are ‘visionaries’, mapping out the journey for different audiences from the time that they step into the museum or science centre until they leave the building. Design guides every step of the way.

The very first stage of design is for the designer or design team to understand and navigate the users’, or audiences’ valuegraphics, not demographics. Valuegraphics define our values as individuals, it places us in ‘categories’ based on our interests and personal values. Our values drive our decision-making, how we interact with others, and what initiatives we choose to support. Where demographics previously guided design and storytelling, valuegraphics is now taking over as the more accurate background information to understand an audience. If you think about this in more detail, we are more likely to base our decisions on what we value and love, and less so on our age or where we live. Demographics will always play a part in communication and storytelling, however, valuegraphics are a designer’s primary focal point when understanding the audience. 

Once a design team has gained insight into the valuegraphics of their audience, the next step is to contextualise the story and extract the most important key messages. These key messages will act as nodal points in the story where the audience will engage with a design element and start to build their own storyline. To do this, designers have to be good storytellers themselves to identify the key messages that need to be transformed into a visual, audio or experience through their design work. 

Understanding the Big Picture

Once these key messages have been identified, an ideation phase will test different ideas for the best medium to use to deliver the message to the audience. In a typical museum or science centre exhibit, multiple forms of design will be used, and therefore many different mediums. 

Often when we tell the story of how an ecosystem functions, it includes different environmental processes, seasonality, inhabitant species and human intervention. A story like this can be layered and complex. Designers will take the story, separate the key messages, subject matters, and components and design the entire experience. The audience will be immersed in this world, they will be able to interact with the sounds of the different species, they can toggle different functions to alter the season and see how the environment changes, and they can completely immerse themselves. An entire immersive experience like this starts with ideation. 

Once the ideation phase is complete, the design team will prototype different design concepts. To communicate a single key message, multiple design concepts and mediums will be tested. Design prototypes will be built to test functionality, look, and how it is received by a user. Prototyping can be done in a simulated / virtual environment or physically. Often experience or user interface design prototypes will be tested with a real audience to collect data and information on how to improve the design. Prototyping is a rigorous process and it involves a lot of trial and error, testing, updating and sometimes starting from phase one, ideation, all over again. When prototyping is carried out correctly, it builds confidence towards building out your final design. 

Once the prototyping phase is complete, the design is ready to be built. Building out a design really means bringing the story to life. The build-out is centred around the user, or audience. Every stage of the build is tested to see if it clearly communicates the key messages that were identified. Even once the final design of the exhibit or display is complete, the design work does not stop. Often exhibits are updated based on user and audience feedback. This concept of collecting audience data and feedback and updating the design elements is known as the lean design process, and it is what keeps our design work audience and user-centred.