Graphic Design Inspiration from a Historic Collection
At the Goldstein Museum of Design (GMD) research center at the University of Minnesota College of Design, my office is walled off by a constantly-changing rack of multi-colored, garments. They are plain and extravagant, large and small, long and short, old and new. It is so much more exciting than a boring gray cubicle. I overhear students learning firsthand about the different fabric weaves and knits of these objects. I get to sit in on a surface design talk, examining a wide variety of patterns on scarves and textiles.
As a result of designing a “taxonomy of shoes” for a GMD magazine spread, I now know that Gwen Stefani is wearing Japanese-style sandals in the music video for “Sunday Morning.”
As a result of my experience working at GMD, I’ve been exposed to the many opportunities for graphic design work in museums. In fact, a large portion of museum work is communication design. From branding and marketing materials, to working with collections, to exhibition design – graphic design expertise makes museums exciting and engaging places. And on the flip-side, museum work is excellent for building a designer’s skill set and presenting creative challenges and meaningful collaborations.
A recent article on The American Institute of Graphic Arts design blog highlighted the careers of graphic designers who left the corporate world to design for the Museum of Modern Art. Eva Bochem-Shur highlighted the expressive work graphic designers do for a museum, like designing a custom typeface for a Tim Burton exhibition. The designers’ further spoke of the benefits of collaborating with a curator and the challenges and rewards of making graphic design work for the scale and physical nature of an exhibition. Of course, MOMA is a larger museum with a budget for top-notch graphic design, but smaller museums can also up their storytelling game by taking advantage of the creative problem solving skills and visual communication expertise of graphic designers.
One of the most challenging and exciting things about my job as graphic designer at the Goldstein Museum of Design, has been incorporating the collection into creative projects. It’s been a bumpy road (failures and frustrations are part of the creative process), but in the end the work has been delightful.
I remember the first time I photoshopped an image from the GMD’s digital collection database. It did not go over well. What I saw as a rather boring graphic with a lot of gray space and a creepy-looking mannequin, the curator and collection assistants saw as an industry-standard, the professional and official way to show the collection, and a photographic style that had been chosen intentionally for the digital collection database GMD had been building out of beautiful portraits of collection objects. As a graphic designer, my brain was occupied with different considerations – questions like: What is the most interesting way to communicate this thing? What are it’s many angles and perspectives? Does the image need to be literal? How much or how little can I show?
We struggled with the disconnect between using collection images for marketing and communication and using them for documentation and research. We came to an agreement that showing a detail of a garment on communications materials was more visually appealing than an image with a mannequin and a gray background. We decided some of the images of object sans mannequin, could stand on their own as a graphic with a white background.
As non-profit institutions, many smaller museums like GMD aren’t branded and marketed like a for-profit business. Perhaps because this kind of branding isn’t necessary for income from grants and public funding or because they simply don’t have the budget or staff to do so. But larger museums (like Minneapolis Institute of Art and MOMA) are leading the way with branding, and (for better or worse) there is a re-brand trend happening that seems to be an attempt to market museums to a larger audience – to make them seem less “old stuffy, and dusty” and more “hip, cool, and contemporary.”
After, Twin Cities-based branding specialists and GMD board members Heather Olson and Jessica Huang conducted a brand audit, I wondered – how can we bring a historic collection along into this new perception of the hip museum? From my experiences with students, staff, and the collection, I knew GMD was not just a bunch of dusty old ladies’ clothes hidden away in the depths of McNeal Hall, and that the new GMD brand needed to show the collection as active, and vibrant, colorful and exciting, something to be used as inspiration by designers of all stripes.
Using Olson’s and Huang’s comments and observations from the meeting, along with thoughts from GMD’s director and communications graduate assistant, I started with collection-inspired graphics I had made in for past communications materials and developed a visual branding strategy for GMD. Along with understanding how to tailor collection images for a specific context came the graphic challenge of being an academic museum under the umbrella of two larger institutions – the College of Design and the University of Minnesota. Their graphic standards and expectations also needed to be considered.
Museum collections are an irreplaceable resource not only for historic and material culture research, but also for creative research. Museums should freely share images from their collections and celebrate the new ways they are creatively interpreted, edited, or photoshopped. The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt design museum and artist Maira Kalman give a good example in book “My Favorite Things.” And GMD follows suit through collaborations with illustration classes who draw GMD objects, text and images classes who design museum identities inspired by exhibitions of the GMD collection, and MFA students like myself who take on projects that re-imagine visual representations of a collection. When digital collection images are used as inspiration or appropriated in creative projects, it not only brings attention to the museum, but also re-invents the objects, bringing them into current conversations around art and design.
But these collaborations could be pushed further. I envision a long list of graphic design projects for GMD that would demonstrate its essential role in the University of Minnesota’s design education: collaborating with graphic design students to make a brand book; creating interactive online graphics with collection images, facts, and statistics like the Harvard metalab did with the Arnold Arboretum (http://lifeanddeathofdata.org/); designing creative making activities based on the collection; collaborating with faculty or students to design informal “mini-exhibitions” in the form of a zines, books, catalogs, or dioramas; and on and on. Projects like this demonstrate how a museum is not just a place to store things away to look at every once-and-awhile, but can be the place to think of new ways to use and interpret those things, for interdisciplinary creative collaborations, and creative learning experiences.
My tenure at GMD as a graduate assistant is coming to a close. As I would guess is the case with many smaller or less well-known museums, there is not funding to support a full-time graphic designer. It is my hope that graphic designers and museums continue to grow their relationships and collaborations, and that administrators support great graphic design, which is why I’m sharing this post with Museum Hack. Museums have so many excellent resources in both their collections and in the unique knowledge and interests of their curators. Graphic designers can help devise ways to communicate those resources in fresh and engaging ways.
Kalman, Maira. “My Favorite Things.” Harper Design, a division of Harper Collins, New York, NY, September 2014.
Loukissas, Yanni Alexander. “The Life and Death of Data.” Georgia Tech with Harvard Metalab. Interactive Graphic, Graphic Design Research. http://lifeanddeathofdata.org/
McNeil, Tim., Druesedow, Jean., Young, Denise Ed.D., Goldstein Museum of Design External Review. January 2017. meeting and report
Stefani, Gwen, et al. “Sunday Morning.” Tragic Kingdom. Trauma Records, 1995. Music Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiBX-ESFDF0.
Stinson, Liz. “The Fine Art of Designing for a Museum, or Why Designers Quit Their Agency Jobs to Work at MOMA.” AIGA Eye on Design. March 15, 2017, Blog. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/the-fine-art-of-designing-for-a-museum-or-why-designers-quit-their-agency-jobs-to-work-at-moma/?mc_cid=8491cbde77&mc_eid=c832696323.