Design+ Exhibits

In this edition of Design+, Vivien Chow, Senior Environmental Graphic Designer at Reich&Petch Design International, shares her process to design an exhibit with Amy Eaton RGD


How did you get into exhibit design? Do you have any advice for folks interested in getting into this specialized field?
After graduating with a Bachelor of Design, I had every intention of becoming an editorial designer. I had secured a summer internship with a mid-sized communications company that specialized in custom magazines and nearing the end of my internship learned that they would not be keeping me on. It was then that a friend from university convinced me to apply for an environmental graphic design position at Reich&Petch. At the time, she was already working with the company and she believed that I would be a good fit. Despite my initial reservations about veering away from my goal of pursuing editorial, I accepted the position and have loved it ever since. My advice for those interested in getting into this, or other fields, is to value the connections you make and be open to their insights as others often see opportunities for your abilities that you do not.

Don Valley Brickworks Park Interpretive Signage

Photo by ©Kerun IP

How does exhibit design differ from other visual design practices?
Exhibit design combines everything that I love about editorial – analyzing and organizing complex information into accessible and engaging graphics, implementing my visual arts background in both process and application and learning about topics outside of my immediate field – while adding an extra layer of tools to engage my audience. Now, instead of a flat plane, information is conveyed through multiple planes, through multiple senses beyond the visual and with an ever-expanding array of new materials, technologies and techniques. 
When starting a new project, how do you determine the sizing and layout for content when you’re working with such large proportions?
Institutions typically have an existing exhibit standards manual. Similar to brand standards manuals or signage manuals, these outline the Museum’s requirements for text sizes and are often based on or reflect regional or industry standards, as well as accessibility requirements such as the AODA or ADA. When a client does not have existing standards in place, we begin with regional accessibility standards and work with the client through full-size sample prints to come to an agreement on sizing. This is sometimes done through visitor testing exercises.

Toronto Zoo's Giant Panda Experience

Photo by ©Kerun IP

The accessibility of exhibits is a very important consideration. How do you ensure an exhibit is inclusive? 
Similar to print, all the same rules apply to ensuring accessible graphics for exhibits: easy-to-read font selections, 70% contrast, approachable language and supporting visuals. However, exhibits must also take into account physical challenges as well. This includes distance, heights and angles of displays and clearance between structures. To help ensure the exhibit is inclusive to its large audience pool, display heights are positioned to cater to both younger audiences and adults. Special consideration is paid to those using wheelchairs, ensuring displays are spaced appropriately for a wheelchair to navigate comfortably between them and that table displays allow wheelchairs to either roll under or alongside for users to be able to comfortably read information. Other complementary techniques such as audio programs and tactile surfaces are implemented as well so that exhibits do not rely only on our visual senses. These additions are not only useful for the visually-challenged but serve as another layer of engagement for other groups as well.

Joseph Brant Museum's Children Gallery

Photo by ©Reich&Petch

How do you address sustainability in your work?

Sustainability is addressed through specifying environmentally-friendly products, materials and processes in our printed graphics and structures. When these products aren’t viable, we opt for materials that have longevity and durability to avoid having pieces replaced – creating unnecessary waste. In addition, we try to avoid waste in other ways by designing panels that will maximize on typical material sizes and that can be updated in the future. Many of our projects are science-based and, as new discoveries are made, information panels for exhibits need to be changed. By designing our graphic carriers to allow for updates, only the graphic panel needs replaced while the millwork structure is re-used. This works when replacing damaged panels as well.
What types of things make for a good exhibit design? When coming up with concepts, how do you create opportunities for visitor engagement?
The goal of any exhibit is to educate visitors. A successful exhibit is one that understands that visitors have different learning styles – Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Reflective. When an exhibit provides multiple opportunities to learn through these different styles, its visitors are more engaged with the content and the experiences more memorable.
During brainstorming of our initial concepts, we look for opportunities for visitor engagement that can hit all four major learning styles. For visual and auditory learners, we’ll often opt to make spaces more immersive using sound, graphics, props and specimens. We include hands-on experiences that cater to the kinesthetic learners through low- and high-tech activities. Lastly, we always have quiet spaces, seating and prompts that allow  visitors to reflect on their experiences.

Joseph Brant Museum's Costume Gallery

Photo by ©Reich&Petch

Do you have an exhibit that you are most proud of or found the most fun to design?
The reason I love exhibit design is that every project I’ve worked on so far has been different and engaging. I’ve enjoyed working on all my projects and can’t say that I’ve ever been unsatisfied. However, If I had to choose one that stood out, it would be the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Fossils — Deep Time. It is the largest project I’ve worked on to date as the Lead Environmental Graphic Designer and the longest project — spanning 8 years of my career. At its opening, I cannot describe the feeling of pride I felt standing in the completed gallery with the team. The exhibit was everything our team had hoped it would be – bright, lively and full of wonder.

Smithsonian NMNH's David H. Koch Hall of Fossils: Deep Time

Photo by ©Chris Payne

How has the field changed over the last 15 years?
The most notable change in the field is an increase in demand to integrate more high-tech experiences either through AV, touchscreens, augmented reality or gesture-based interactives. Now, more museums are beginning to adopt additional aids for the visually-challenged such as Braille, raised-line graphics and visual-description audio programs.
For new technology, our office collaborates with AV Consultants who specialize in these technologies and advise what is available and how to integrate them into the exhibit as we develop the design. They later take on the design and programming of the piece and oversee its installation in the final gallery, often providing maintenance services to ensure it continues to run properly over its lifetime.
To learn about new tactile technologies to create more inclusive opportunities for the visually-challenged, the Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) organizes yearly trade shows where vendors can introduce new developments to the industry. They also organize a number
of talks throughout each year to help designers keep up-to-date on the industry standards for accessibility. In addition, vendors and fabricators that we have a long-standing relationship with will often organize presentations directly with our office. These are highly effective meetings where we have the opportunity to see product samples in person through a hands-on “show
and tell”; and see how other designers have implemented them in their work. We also often get invites to their fabrication facilities where we can see behind the scenes how some of their products are manufactured. These types of connections help broaden our creative range when designing for inclusivity.

Smithsonian NMAI's Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations

Photo by ©Kerun IP

One last fun question, if you could only work in one medium, what would it be?
I am excited to use the new additive printing technologies that have been introduced in just the last few years. I can see a lot of potential for its use not only as an aid to the visually-challenged, but as a means to engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
For those not familiar with the technology, 3D printing is the printing of substrate layers to create a 3-dimensional form, while additive printing is a process of printing layers of multi-coloured ink or molecules onto a rigid substrate to create a resilient and durable bas relief graphic in full colour. This process has more precision, producing image resolutions up to 2400 dpi and comes off the press ready to install.

Vivien is an award-winning environmental graphic designer. For over 15 years she has been designing graphics for museum exhibits, signage and wayfinding for some of the largest museums in North America for Reich&Petch Design International, a design firm with offices in Toronto and New York City. Some of her more recent projects include the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time, the Joseph Brant Museum’s permanent galleries and a Signage Manual for the City of Richmond Hill’s department of Parks, Trails and Facilities.





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