By Chris Cummings, Senior Exhibit Designer
How does a professional know what they don’t know? As a museum exhibit designer, you have presumably developed your creative voice and obtained a level of achievement and professional experience. You have also likely become an expert in your office culture and mission, your teams’ working styles, and several suites of software. What you may not yet be an expert on is how all aspects of your designs are actually implemented, and how they may perform in the real world. At times your designs can seem like an abstraction; happening in a distant place, behind doors that aren’t always open. Today I would like to share some reflections on my recent effort to make that gap shallower.
It started for me between sessions at the 2013 XLab conference when Sapna Budev, the Executive Director of the Signage Foundation*, took the stage to talk about something called Sign Expo. I was participating as a museum exhibit designer, where my work only occasionally bridges the gap into signage, so initially I thought ‘this is for someone else.’ As she went on however, I was intrigued by her pitch: She was asking mid-career designers to take part in a program of hosted events, exclusive tours, and education sessions during Sign Expo. These emerging professionals would join other architects, city planners, brand managers and fabricators in gaining valuable insight into the business of sign fabrication and design, while also networking with their peers in the industry. The proposition stuck with me over several years- a conference program targeted at professionals with just enough experience to know what they didn’t know. This year I was lucky enough to participate.
Learning about LEDs at the Agilight booth (photo by The Signage Foundation)
The education program blended presentations of work by sign fabricators of various sizes, sessions on wayfinding in public space as well as healthcare, tours of the sponsors’ booths and case studies presented by our hosts at the Signage Foundation. Between those sessions we were free to walk the show floor – a fume-filled, noisy, sometimes bewildering display of all things signs: From machines for assembly, to cutters and benders of all materials, to printers that can put an image on pretty much anything. I found myself gobbling it up – asking anyone and everyone questions about their products.
While as a museum exhibit designer I may not be in the market to purchase a machine that cuts channel letters, I found learning about the process and business fascinating. Two insights in particular stand out: First, the best solution to a design challenge often comes from an unexpected place, and as a museum exhibit designer, being aware of the market and technology can help tremendously in developing the best one. If an exhibit could benefit from floor graphics, is a wall-to-wall printed sheet vinyl product best or can the same goal be accomplished with a custom-cut graphic mat? Second, the sign industry is keenly aware of economies of scale, so for example, if one needs to produce hundreds of signs, distinguishing between two different thicknesses of acrylic may impact their energy consumption and cost of fabricating them significantly. Spending time with professionals whose work makes such fine distinctions between what to me had seemed like similar products or processes gave me new appreciation for the precision and deep experience that those in this industry offer.
Some inspiring signage and graphics products (photos by Chris Cummings)
Finally, we were able to participate in a tour of the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, with representatives of the Orlando Magic organization, the design team and contractors. A personal highlight of this tour was a visit to “Stuff’s Castle” – a branded play area intended for kids eight and younger. Because of SKOLNICK’s extensive work in Children’s Museums and Libraries, I was familiar with the challenges and opportunities of working on an interpretive environment such as this.
Signage at the Miami Children’s Museum “Baptist Children’s Hospital” designed by SKOLNICK Architecture + Design Partnership
That day I saw it with new eyes, knowing now how the letters in the sign could have been assembled, or what products could have been used to paint the bridge, print the wallpaper or seam the padded walls. For me it was the culmination of the trip, because it tied what I had learned in the past three days firmly to my work at SKOLNICK Architecture + Design Partnership.
I took that as a good sign.
“Stuff’s Castle” Children’s Play Area at the Amway Center (photo by Chris Cummings)
* The Signage Foundation, Inc. is a 501c(3) organization that analyzes and communicates the societal benefits of on-premise signage.