Iowa State graphic design students team up with Chicago's Field Museum

AMES, Iowa -- Melissa Alfirevic grew up making regular visits to Chicago's Field Museum from her home in suburban Hinsdale. She knows the museum is a world-class institution with a "big presence" in the city -- a "must see" for visitors. So when the Iowa State University graphic design senior learned her Exhibition Design class would design an exhibit for the Field, she was thrilled.

"It definitely made an impact on me," Alfirevic said.

Iowa State is one of only a handful of schools in the country that teach the art and science of designing exhibits that communicate, educate and entertain in museums and trade shows throughout the world.

"Exhibit design has traditionally been an un-defined area within design," said Fontaine, an associate professor of graphic design. Since 1993, she has taught an elective studio on exhibit design.

"Exhibit designers often come to the profession from other design areas, such as architecture, interior design or product design. And science educators get into it from the content side," she said.

"But graphic designers can play a huge role in helping communicate complex issues with clarity," Fontaine said.

A surprise invitation

Last March, Fontaine took her spring semester class to visit museums in Chicago and to meet with Álvaro Amat, exhibition design director for The Field Museum. Fontaine and Amat were acquainted through their professional association, the Society of Environmental Graphic Design. She had arranged for Amat and his staff to critique models of exhibits her students had designed for their first class project.

"Alvaro and his staff were pleased with the level of depth the students achieved, and asked what we were working on next," Fontaine said. "He unexpectedly invited the students to do a conceptual project for the museum."

The students were so excited, Fontaine said she couldn't say no.

From spring semester: Design by Justin Rumpza.

So she scrapped the upcoming project, and her students worked on concepts for a future Field exhibition on conservation. An ongoing collaboration between the museum and Iowa State's graphic design program was under way.

Interactive experiences for visitors

In late October, Fontaine took her fall semester class -- which included Alfirevic and 16 other juniors and seniors -- on a similar trip to Chicago. Amat again critiqued models of the first class project. He challenged them to think about their exhibit from the visitor's perspective.

"He gave them a lot of feedback about functional issues," Fontaine said. "He seemed pretty impressed with their thinking skills and decision making, but he was able to tell them helpful information -- 'people don't want to read that much text,' or 'video would be helpful there.' "

Amat then announced the topic for their Field Museum assignment: Ants.

The students were to create a graphic style and interactive experiences for a traveling exhibition on ants. The rest was left to them.

What's so special about ants?

While the students had considerable freedom to select their own ant-related subject matter -- for example, varieties of ants or habitats of ants -- Fontaine reined it in through a managed process. They were to write three proposals in their subject area, each with a fully developed interactive experience. This required researching, identifying and writing the learning objectives and the content, then designing the interaction itself.

"Before drawing or designing anything, they had to think about their rationale and intent," Fontaine said. "And it's one of the first opportunities for many graphic design students to focus on the users and think about structure, safety and access, for example."

Amat and his staff reviewed the proposals and selected one of the three for each student to develop fully.

The graphic style

Design by Melissa Alfirevic.

The students also had to come up with their own graphic style -- typefaces, colors, and visual elements -- that could also be adapted to other interactions. Iowa State's graphic design faculty selected the top three, which became the look for three student teams. Each student designed his or her interactive experience, adhering to their team's graphic style.

With so many layers and issues to consider, the exhibit design assignment was more complex than most, said Alfirevic, who proposed a touch-screen interaction about the materials ants use for nest construction.

"When you're used to working in two dimensions, just picturing things in three dimensions is difficult enough," she said. "Then you have all these other considerations --Is it sturdy enough? Will it stand up to little kids pulling on it, or shoving their little brothers into it?

"At the same time, you're trying to design an interactive experience that is new and captivating to visitors, making sure the information is not lost in the interaction."

Welcome to the world

Most of all, Fontaine said, the students gained a strong sense of responsibility toward the users.

"It's not just about being a pretty object," Fontaine said. "They had to switch back and forth between learning objectives and graphic style, and that's difficult. But it's what the world will ask of them."

And solving a real client's problem gives the students a sense of accountability, she added.

"Students can't just skip over problems in the design without resolving them," she said. "Throughout the process, they learn how to relate to a client, how to explain their ideas and convey their design.

In mid-December, the students presented the designs for their 17 interactions to Amat via Skype.

"They provided an excellent, impressive pool of ideas," Amat said. "Their ideas were well thought and developed, with a very special focus and care in visitor experience. The level of definition and quality of their proposals was impressive."

Although it could be some time before the museum develops the traveling exhibition on ants, Amat expects that a few of the Iowa State students' designs are strong candidates to be the starting point and inspiration for some exhibition components.

"We at the Field Museum had the chance to witness what's coming in the future of this new profession with these very creative future exhibition designers."