Monthly Archives: November 2010

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

One of the reasons  I started this blog was so I could use it as a way to synthesize and refine my thinking about my chosen profession. A lot of it has been metacognitive, thinking about how I think. Maybe it’s because the Museum of Science spent decades developing exhibitions on teaching thinking skills. Maybe it’s my natural inclination, I don’t know. What I do know is that thinking like an exhibit developer requires certain skills and habits of mind. Just in time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, here’s the first of several posts on thinking like an exhibit developer. What do you think are the most important habits of mind an exhibit developer needs?

NOTE: I will intentionally use the words “develop” and “design” throughout to refer to the same thing, not because I think my skills qualify me to apply for exhibit designer jobs, but because making exhibits is design. Small “d” design.

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

Thinking like an exhibit developer is all about being prepared for the unknown and being able to make good judgments.  Thinking like an exhibit developer requires not only the ability to live with uncertainty, but to befriend it.

An exhibit developer’s job is to create something complete and whole; an experience. A good exhibit developer needs to able to envision how to put the pieces together, to see the limited subset of pieces at hand as a complete and coherent whole.  Their initial vision is necessarily based on incomplete knowledge about smaller parts, but being able to use those to sketch in the missing bits is an essential part of exhibit development and design intelligence in general. Where someone else sees an empty gallery, a good developer sees a completed exhibition vaguely, and then more and more clearly until they have finished and made it.

Every design project is unique and requires the developers to be responsive to the work, attentive to the situation, and self-reflective as they figure out the process their particular project needs. Good exhibition design is not about finding the “right” way to do something, or coming up with the rules, or framework, or checklist that will apply to any situation and solve all potential problems. Being a good developer means being able to live with not knowing exactly what the final product is going to look like and being at peace with that truth.  Developers who make exactly what they set out to make aren’t paying attention.  They may still make something useful and beautiful, but I would argue they will never make something truly great, because that requires taking advantage of sudden opportunities, capitalizing on unexpected outcomes, and most importantly, being willing to fail quickly and fruitfully.

Making something new is hard work, and looking out into the void is often terrifying. It’s rarely dull. Making the same thing somebody else has made is easy, that’s why it happens so often. Especially in the science center field, “proven” ideas tend to proliferate like weeds. Making something new involves chance; it forces the developer to explore the unknown and create some new reality that even he or she can’t see clearly at first. Every time they begin a project, a developer will confront situations where they will have opportunities to see things they thought they knew in a new way, to learn new ways to do their work, and to resolve thorny dilemmas mindfully and straightforwardly. In other words, they will have opportunities to be creative while creating.

Exhibit development is neither a linear process nor strictly an iterative process. It is a dialectical process where the “big idea”, the current plan of work, and the specific tasks being done all influence each other continuously in a crazy feedback network.  Each new interesting fact requires the reflective developer to reassess the plan and the vision and decide whether to incorporate that fact and let it alter the vision, or keep the vision and lose the fact, or choose some other outcome. It’s a central tenet of prototyping at the Museum that, “Anything you fix usually breaks something else.” A good developer fixes and breaks and fixes and breaks. Working this way requires courage. It takes courage to avoid the simple solutions that others will take to save time or money or effort. It takes courage to challenge the prevailing understanding of the present situation and see it for oneself. It takes courage to oppose simplistic interpretations of how to solve that problem.

Dilemmas

I mentioned dilemmas above, and they need a little definition. A good exhibit developer must remember that a dilemma is not a problem in the logical sense of the word. 2x + 4= y is a problem. There are solutions, values of x and y that will solve the problem and there are values that won’t. The former are “right” and the latter are “wrong.”  Dilemmas don’t have any answer that solves every single need or want. With dilemmas, every possible outcome leads to something getting sacrificed. The developer’s job is choosing what gets sacrificed. That is the dilemma. Dilemmas are a central aspect of any design process and the place where most personal conflicts arise, because resolving dilemmas requires giving something up, and that’s hard to do, particularly when what someone is giving up is their idea or their vision of a potential future. In my experience, the hardest part of exhibit development is not deciding what the exhibition is about. The hardest part is deciding what it’s not about.

Reading back over this, I’m aware that readers may be thinking I’m a masochist from my descriptors thus far; responsibility, uncertainty, dilemma, terrifying, conflict, courage, sacrifice. Designing something new is hard and it inevitably involves pain. There are things a good developer can do to lessen the overall amount, but nobody can eliminate it entirely. Nor should one try to. Avoiding conflict may be a useful coping skill in other aspects of life, but it is the death of creativity. Judy Rand once said to me at the outset of a major exhibition project, “You can have your pain now, or you can have it later. You can’t not have it, and the longer you avoid it, the more pain you’ll have in the end.” My experiences since then have confirmed that statement over and over again.

The premise that pain is bad is false when it comes to design. Creativity thrives on tension, conflict, and pain.  Pain is necessary and beneficial to the final product. When you can resolve it gracefully, you often get startling, beautiful results. You walk around the finished product, and all the pain and conflict seem to diminish. A completed exhibition that beautifully balances experiences, meets visitors’ needs, and contains surprises is worth all the hard conversations and arduous decision-making. In fact, there’s nothing like the feeling of walking through something you helped give birth to.

Writers on Writing, or Why I love Eric and Theodor

As part of my plans for the interpretive writing workshop I did at NEMA last week, I was going to have a presentation of inspirational quotes and handy bullet points on writing.  I find those kind of short, succinct points go over well when you’re getting ready to settle down into an intense task like revising a text.  Luckily for everyone involved, I realized that the time and format really didn’t allow for spending time looking at slides. But having gathered quotes from some of my favorite authors, I couldn’t put them down, so they’ve turned into a post on exhibit writing and being a writer.

Having backed into a writing career, it took me a long time to get to the point where I could reflect on the motivations and characteristics of being a writer. Looking for examples in literature of writers describing how they worked has been a valuable tool to examine my own writing process. My two favorite writers who wrote about writing are an odd couple – the novelist Eric Blair (whose pen name was George Orwell) and the German social theorist Theodor Adorno. They represent poles of thinking about writing that I often oscillate between – clarity versus precision.

Orwell was a vigorous opponent of decorative, showy writing. “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Orwell said.  The writer’s job is to get the right words down on the page and disappear from the text. In Why I Write, he says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” In his descriptions of Newspeak in 1984, you can see his contempt for the bureaucratic tendency to turn prose into propaganda, and fill up space with meaningless words.  When I’m meetings where people talk about “impactful leveraging of core competencies” I like to imagine Orwell bursting in and spanking them with a dead fish. Simplify, clarify, simplify.

Adorno, a giant of the Frankfurt School, had a completely different interest; precision, saying exactly what you meant and nothing more or less. His English (and German) prose can be hard to get through, because every noun and verb, every modifier, has been carefully chosen.  You skip a word at your peril, and I often have to go back over the sentence I’ve just read because some word has slowed me down or stopped me and sent me running for the dictionary.  Adorno probably wouldn’t mind that I needed a dictionary to get through his prose, if  I was learning what he was trying to tell me. The author’s job is get his or her point across.  Adorno says in Minima Moralia, “The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful.” He seems to echo the words of R. Buckminster Fuller, another big man in my personal pantheon, who said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” This has been my quote of choice when I’m prototyping a new exhibit, but it applies to writing just as well. A label that doesn’t read well can’t be right.

Writers and critics who like needlessly dense prose (I’m looking at you, critical theorists), often cite Adorno as their answer to what they see as Orwellian oversimplification . For them, if you can’t use the words you like to say what you mean, then you can’t say it well. And if only your colleagues can understand you, that’s OK. But Adorno is very careful to distinguish precision from pretension, “There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary.” Boo yah! Whenever I’m tempted to be recondite and pretentiously slovenly in my writing, I can picture him menacing me with a hardcover volume of Kant.

So what does this have to do with label writing?

Everything! In the bizarre craft of writing exhibit labels, Orwell and Adorno are like the daemons that sit on your shoulders, yelling into your ears to clarify, to be more precise, to be less jargony, be more ruthless in cutting.  In the end, they are both advocating that writers be more conscious, more careful, and more critical in their craft.

Take your time

The first time I worked with Judy Rand, she laid out my writing schedule for me and I almost burst out laughing when she told me it’d take me eight hours to write a good two paragraph label, and four hours to write a simple artifact ID. I soon learned better, though.  We had a very concrete sets of goals and messages that we trying to convey with every label in the exhibition, and it wasn’t long before I found myself lying on the floor of my study with my list of the two labels I was supposed to have done that day, a zillion crumpled up drafts that didn’t say what I wanted, were too long or too vague, and five or six versions that came close but quite make it.  And if I got those two done, I’d felt like I’d gotten a good day’s work in.  Good writing takes time.

Don’t be a baby

When we got to label review part of the process of this same job, Judy sent me a postcard with a picture of a woman modeling lingerie at a fancy party where everybody else is in evening wear. “This is what writing for others feels like.” she was saying. You feel naked, exposed, and open to being ridiculed by everybody else. Writing is hard work, and in the midst of any writing project bigger in scope than a short letter, I’ll go through bouts of self-doubt and angst.  Getting past that pain to actually finish something is hard work. Here, both authors have some tough love for writers. Orwell says of authors, himself included, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery… Writing … is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Adorno is even more forthright, “The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work.” Suck it up. Stop sighing about how hard it is and get cracking!

Don’t just move stuff around. Revise!

When I was an undergraduate, computers were still rare enough that I typed most of my papers on a little portable typewriter. Many were the pages I was forced to retype because I made an error on the last line. Text editing is so much more forgiving! The joy of being able to cut and paste, move chunks of text around, it never gets old.  It also makes it easier to be flabby, though. Pushing the pieces around becomes an end unto itself, and the after the initial burst of writing, I get stuck in my half-baked paragraphs, interesting phrases, and big ideas. Adorno describes this process beautifully, “In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them.” Long before I discovered Adorno, one of my rules of writing was, “The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

Adorno says, “Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further.” You’ve been there, I bet; that moment when you realize you’ve spent hours cutting and pasting and rearranging and you like the result less than what you started with. For me it usually means I’m too in love with what I’ve written, or I’m too lazy to abandon words already on screen, and it’s time to start over.

Cut, cut, cut

When I first accepted the invitation to run a writing workshop, I thought about all the times I’ve coached people who were new to interpretive writing. The hardest lesson is almost always learning to be succinct.  Especially for really smart, really knowledgeable people, the desire to share everything they’ve learned about the subject at hand, can be almost insurmountable.  To write well, you have to invest a bit of yourself in believing that what you’re writing is worth writing about, but our particular kind of writing imposes strict limits on what you can you write. Visitors in a free-choice environment like a museum are not reading a book. Numerous studies have shown that visitors make determinations about whether they’ll engage with labels based on their impression of the total amount of text in an area.  Lots of six paragraph labels will ensure that visitors won’t read those labels, AND any other labels around them.  Not to worry. Adorno comes to the rescue, “It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it.” Interpretive writing demands it more than any kind of writing I can think of.

If it’s so hard, why do we do it?

Rather than attempt to answer that, I’ll leave you with Eric and Theodor and let them speak for me.  Orwell writes, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1             Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, … It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

2            Æsthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

3            Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4            Political purpose. —Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. “

He ends with, “I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I … was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

Adorno, though noted for his dense (even by German standards) prose, allows himself a description of good writing that is marvelously lyrical, “Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them. … Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next… In the light it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.”

Orwells’s “Why I Write” and Adorno’s “Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life” #51 are both short texts that get inside the process of being a writer trying to turn ideas into words and words into narrative. I recommend them both to you.

A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the worst of times…” Part Two

I have to admit that I’m more than a bit schizophrenic when it comes to my feelings on location-based service apps.  On the one hand, I can see the potential of linking your physical location to intelligent services that can mediate your experience of being in the real world. I mean, wow! What potential.  Especially for a museum or other heritage organization. We all collect and preserve mountains of information that have ties to real-world locations, so the idea of being able to link that to the experience of moving through 3D space gives me little frissons of excitement.

So I’ve downloaded apps and read press releases and reviews. I’ve tried Foursquare and Gowalla and SCVNGR. I’ve been declared mayor of my local farmers’ market and the Department of Public Works drop off.  I’ve gotten points for checking in to places and I’ve unlocked badges. And in the end, I’ve deleted all the apps from my phone because I don’t see any return on my investment of time and attention.

Recently Mia Ridge from Science Museum, London (@mia_out) wondered via Twitter whether these kinds of services were useful for museums or a slightly wrong space for us to work in. Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum (@sebchan) responded that badges plus location don’t equal a good story or compelling gameplay. Museums are story machines and should remember that. Clearly, the field is looking and wondering and trying experiments.  As part of that discussion, I add my own experience with a big SCVNGR event.

#2) SCVNGR The Quest For Innovation Trek

When I got the invite to The Quest for Innovation, I had high hopes. According to the press release, it was going to bring together,

“all aspects of the entrepreneurial, innovation and creative communities for a high-tech exploration and celebration of Boston’s long heritage as a leader in driving global innovation. Competing teams in the mobile scavenger hunt will consist of entrepreneurs, techies, creative types, business leaders and other members of the New England innovation and educational communities.”

The Kendall Square area, where the Quest was going to take place, has been a hotbed of high-tech innovation for decades.  Between MIT and its offshoots, the big biotechs and the incubators, you could do a dozen interesting explorations of the area. This stood a good chance of being a really social mobile event that had a strong content connection to its audience. A niche audience, to be sure, but an audience nonetheless.

I managed to convince a couple of colleagues to come along and so we found ourselves in Tech Square at the appointed hour with a over a hundred other players. We checked in, got instructions on how to download the app, a cool t-shirt, and bottled water.  Some companies sported big teams with uniforms or goofy hats, some were in plain clothes. Everyone was excited to be there. Apps were being downloaded left and right, user accounts being created, and everything that would indicate a popular mobile event was happening.

We gave it a go, we walked around Cambridge, and we laughed and had a good time with each other and the other teams we bumped into en route. We did challenges, collected rewards and after awhile, we stopped and went our separate ways. The next day when we met up and debriefed our shared experience was, “It was fun, but…” This was not at all what I was expecting, and I’ve had to think long and hard about what made such a promising event so unsatisfying for me.

So what made this experience not work for me?

I couldn’t make the app work

I started having problems immediately. My iPhone 3G would hang halfway through the SCVNGR app login process.  My colleague with a 3GS fared a little better, and the colleague with the Droid managed to get in eventually. Maybe it was my phone. iOS4 has certainly decreased the responsiveness of other apps on my phone, maybe SCVNGR was a victim of the same. I did manage to get the app to load a couple of times, enough to get into the trek and do a social check-in with my teammates before it hung again and we decided to use the Droid as our team phone.

I felt excluded

The event began, complete with speeches by local politicians, the event sponsors, and finally the CEO of SCVNGR, who gave us our instructions on how to begin our quest. These included the suggestion that we find somebody who had Verizon as a service provider to be the person whose phone we used. Which is of course, another way of saying “Don’t use an iPhone.” There were some smirks and titters from the Android users and off we went. I was gobsmacked. “Really? I took time out of my day to come to this, I stuck it out even though my user experience has been pretty terrible on my phone (which is within the spec for running the app), and I’m in one of the most saturated free Wi-Fi environments on Earth, and that’s the solution?”

I will happily agree to most of the faults people find with Apple and AT&T on a range of issues. No Flash at all? In the name of open standards?  Um, OK, Steve… I continue to be amazed at AT&T’s ability to find the most amazing spots to have poor reception and bandwidth issues, like, oh…big chunks of Manhattan and San Francisco and MIT, you know, the kinds of places that are likely to be crawling with technologically savvy users. But, at a certain point, blaming somebody else just doesn’t work.  Even the Android users were waiting a long time for the app to respond, and everything else on my phone that required connectivity worked at near-typical speeds. So it wasn’t just an AT&T issue. To make a Star Wars analogy, go to the Cantina scene (start at 0.45) to see who I felt like.

The folks at the Quest were much nicer (and way less menacing), but the message was the same, “We don’t serve your kind here.” Ouch.

There was little connection between where we were and what we were doing

I stood outside Google’s offices and made a collection of things that were the same colors as Google’s logo. I looked in the window at the Broad Institute and admired a mobile inside. At the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, I guessed which name Doc Draper shared with a famous superhero. Aside from the thrill of discovering the clue we were supposed to find, I could’ve done most of the challenges with a picture.

This is something I’ve wrestled with whenever I think about using the current crop of location-based service (LBS) providers. My ideal tour would take inside these place, and prompt me to find out things. The logistical hurdles of getting that to happen make my head want to explode, so I can see how the compromise winds up being, “Stay outside, stay off private property, look in windows when you can.” I had this same issue with the very well-reviewed “Murder on Beacon Hill” iPhone app. It sounded great and looked great at home, but when I actually went and took the tour, I kept asking “Why am I here?” and not finding an answer. You can read my full review of Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill app at MuseumMobile.

I didn’t learn much as I’d hoped I would

I think I might wear my educator hat a bit too tightly, and expect more of these kinds of experiences than is warranted, but whenever I get approached by vendors with LBS solutions, they always talk about how it can be educational.

I thought I’d come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of what all these places and why they mattered, but it felt very much like an insider game. If you didn’t know what the Whitehead Institute did, you weren’t going to find out. Draper Labs is an important place. They made the guidance systems that put men on the Moon. The biggest engineering prize in the world is named in honor of Doc Draper, who legend has it had a clock in his office that he could set to 5PM with the press of a button, because gentlemen don’t drink before 5. All I got was that he and Iron Man’s alter ego share a name.

This isn’t just a SCVNGR issue. The whole scavenger hunt mechanic doesn’t easily accommodate going deeper. It’s about going fast and finishing with more points. I have this same issue with the paper scavenger hunts I see kids doing in the Museum all the time. Their bodies are visiting, but I’m not sure their brains are.

What did work?

People like to play games with people

Despite our problems, it was really exciting to be in a large crowd of strangers all getting ready to set out exploring. Technologically-enabled real-world play! The event had all the fun of a competition, with little of the anxiety. It was a race to get the most points, and certainly many of the start-ups and VC firms that fielded teams were in it to win it, but there is something about a scavenger hunt that seems to preclude getting too wrapped up in winning. It’s a way to have a good time with your teammates.  That has always been a strong lure for me. People like these kinds of activities. There is something innately satisfying about the game mechanic and it comes about as close as anything to Jesse Schell’s vision of the future of gaming in the real world.  Watch his DICE 2010 talk if you haven’t already.

People like comparing themselves to others, especially people they know

A lot of the challenges were great opportunities to insert yourself into the game, by taking a picture of yourself or something you’d made, and people eat that up, including me. SCVNGR lets you see what your competitors are doing, so you can compare your keychain sculpture to your friends, and decide who has the funniest recreation of Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone call. From what I could tell from past experience and watching other users, the app does a good job of making it easy to explore what’s going on in the game, and the goofiness of a lot of the challenges makes it impossible to take your success or failure too seriously. Being a goof, I always appreciate that. They have done an excellent job at lowering the bar to entry to the activity if you can get in.

So, a mixed bag of experiences, some negative, some positive. SCVNGR has a lot of momentum behind them, so it’ll be interesting to see how their platform evolves in the near future. Despite my issues with the Trek I described, I have to give SCVNGR credit for actually devoting resources to exploring the museum sector as a place to use their product. They certainly aren’t going to make big money working with museums, but they continue to dedicate resources and smart people to museum projects. I imagine they’ll be back and I’ll try their app again.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on SCVNGR and location-based apps like this and what works and doesn’t for you. I have the nagging feeling that something this popular has to have educational uses that I’m just not seeing yet in the current crop of services out there.