Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What aesthetic does a prototype need?

By Maria Mortati, Sr. Exhibit Developer
Should a prototype exhibit or space in a museum feel as refined as possible, or like an experiment?

We've been working on this with a client who is starting to test out ideas (as well as themselves) through prototyping. The Fort Collins Museum and Discovery Science Center merged last year, and while they are in development of their new facility, they have moved in together. They are smartly using this opportunity to test out new ideas, their relationship, and inviting the public in to participate. 

One question that's come up is what should this look like? Does it want to look like a finished exhibit? 

Our recommendation is that it is more inviting for visitors if it feels like a prototype- leave things unfinished (but safe) and loose.  For example, print out graphics and clip them up, leave the walls bare white or unfinished. Clamp on lighting- you get the idea. 

This creates an environment where both ends of the relationship can take risks and have permission to mess up and iterate.

Our experience is that the visitor will be more open to raw ideas presented if they come into it as an invitation into your experiment. They can feel like they are a part of the process at the museum. Which they are.

You can also invite them to come back and be a part of the testing and development as things progress. A great vehicle for repeat engagement. 

We're excited to see how things progress, and we'll report back from time to time as things progress. This is going to be fun.


Paul Orselli said...

"Refined prototype" seems like an oxymoron to me!

It will interesting to see what the Fort Collins folks come up with.

Your blog readers might be interested in a free PDF copy of an article I wrote about prototypes and prototyping called "Million Dollar Pencils and Duct Tape: Some Thoughts on Prototyping"

You can get it from the resources section of my website at:

Maria Mortati said...

Oh you are funny as always!

Yes, the FTC folks are moving from making everything a fully-realized exhibit to making an exhibit prototype space.

They have good staff for fabrication- it's the idea that sometimes making something intentionally feel like unfinished has it's role.

It's a shift in mindset, so it's all an experiment.

They may have seen your article already, but I'll make sure they get it, it's great!

Nina Simon said...

The "raw" appearance definitely improves participation at the Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre, and it was useful in Side Trip at the Denver Art Museum. The downside, and this is more apparent at WFIC than in Denver, is that visitors can sometimes get frustrated by things that don't work (or don't have instructions) or confusing piles of stuff. They believe that helps people learn "innovation skills" overall, but not everyone responds well to it.

A real prototype space has to allow for some failure as well as success, and that requires clear messaging, since most museum experiences are built for consistent (though not necessarily exciting) wins.

Maria Mortati said...

Hey Nina- yes, I didn't get into it, but the messaging is the most important thing here. If the whole experience isn't contextualized then people (and the staff, really) can get easily confused/frustrated.

I think it's also important to be clear about what it is you're setting up as the prototype: is it the entire exhibit space? Are they entering into a sub-zone of (essentially) behind the scenes exhibit development brought out onto the floor? Or is it a single interaction?

Children's Museum of Denver has a space where they set up tests and an adjacent observation room where they can watch what their public is doing. They have an informal feel, and have signs on the chairs that say something like "you may be video taped". It sounds weird, but in reality, it is an excellent tool for them.

Chris Luomanen said...

Check out this story about Giovanni Sacchi--model maker in Milan who helped bring to life objects for guys like Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni.

While this is just one type of prototype, an appearance model, they are at all different levels of done-ness.

But to answer your question, it should be as refined as it needed to be for the prototype maker--no more.

Maria Mortati said...

By the way Chris, thanks for that link. The entire office has enjoyed it.