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.
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.