Design(ing) The Museum

Installation view of J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch. Photo by Johnna Arnold.
As part of San Francisco Design Week (SFDW), former CJM Design Studio designer (and founder) Brad Aldridge gave a design talk in The Museum on designing The Museum—everything from identity graphics to exhibitions. For The CJM Blog, we asked him to elaborate on his design philosophy, on collaborating with others, and more.
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1. What was your approach to creating the identity for exhibitions at The CJM? How did this differ depending on the scale, scope, and content of exhibitions?
The first thing to capture as a designer in a museum is the idea that whole place is a big giant storybook. It’s a lot of different voices trying to guide visitors to have a great journey of discovery, learning, and—on an even more pure level—have a great edifying time. So, as designer, I have to always remember that exhibition content is really leading this process, and every design decision needs to connect back to that material.

If I had to boil down the process, it may be something like answering these questions:

  • What’s the curator or artist trying to do in this exhibition? 
  • What’s the work? —Are they works of art? Found objects? Ephemera from somewhere particular? 
  • What’s the voice of the Museum look like in this exhibit? —Is the artist doing the talking, the curator, or some omnipresent “Great Museum” narrator? 
  • How much “Design” is in the design? —Does the design need to be invisible, or is it a partner to the works on display?
With some answers here, I can start digging deep into what goes on display by finding visual references that surround this material. For an exhibit about photographer Arnold Newman, for example, I got a hold of every book he ever published and did a thorough study of the typography used in the books. (Ultimately, we chose to go with a typeface that was more inspired by the magazines his work was published in.)

I’m working mainly with the curators throughout this process—I like sharing work as it’s getting developed and revealing the visual paths I’m making. This creates a really unique partnership. As I start interpreting curators’ point of view, the exhibit may start to shift around and the design starts to help define or solve problems in space or the layout of works of art. All along the way, there’s the usual budget, timeline, and resources conversation. That’s always a big part of a design process—despite how boring it sounds.

Once you get to the other side of this—with solid visual evidence to support a design direction and the approval of your curator—it does turn into production: the actual sitting down and designing of each item needed in the gallery: wall text, labels, cases, murals, printed matter, apps, etc.


Photo courtesy of Brad Aldrige.

2. How does internal exhibition design both differ and relate to The CJM's external graphic identity?
Early on at The CJM, we tried to make the exhibition design—like the title treatment—match all the external marketing materials, such as advertisements. It seemed like a good idea to have this continuity as guests transitioned from the outside to inside the museum. But in practice, this was a really difficult task: you have the gallery designed specifically for space where a person is standing—say, 4 feet away from a wall. When you take that graphic and put it in a newspaper advertisement or in an Instagram post, it doesn’t work as well—it doesn’t read the same way. Also, when we had different “branded” exhibits on The Museum’s marketing materials, it actually diluted The CJM as a whole: every campaign looked so different, we never built up trust or recognition in our visual brand.

We decided to make a simple rule about how design should work at The CJM. Design exists for two audiences: 1) Those in the gallery and 2) Those outside the gallery. So, what that means is that The CJM’s brand is continuous and aligned at all points up until you walk into one of our galleries. The gallery is then a more intimate and immersive experience that changes with each exhibiton—never is there overlap. 

It’s about voice, too. Imagine it this way: You see an advertisement for The CJM and it’s a very set grouping of typefaces, images, and color. You come to The Museum, and those same fonts and colors are used as you enter, on the ticket you buy, on the wayfinding signage, on the guide you get, and so on. This is the voice of the institution, “The Museum.” But, then you walk to the gallery and it’s a different look—a different voice. I think this is where, as a visitor, you quickly understand: “Oh, here’s the voice of the artist or the curator.” This approach may not always work, but it will most of the time. If The CJM got a “Star Wars” exhibit, it would be imperative to leverage the strength of that very recognizable brand. 

I think for The CJM this can be a helpful differentiator in the San Francisco landscape. The consistency helps build up The CJM’s voice. You can see this so successfully executed by our friends in New York: The Jewish Museum New YorkThe Whitney, and MoMA

Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.
3. Can you tell us about the design process for an exhibition? What type of iterations do you do in terms of layout, typography, etc—and how is the final decision made?
Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman had an interesting course of development because it’s an exhibit with a lot of constraints. The gallery it’s in is a very beautiful room—the interior of the CJM’s shimmering blue Yud Gallery—so any exhibit in there is competing against the architecture. It’s also a rental space, so the exhibit must be movable and storable. Additionally, the exhibit lacks a lot of physical materials—it’s mostly video, audio, and text, with two items from Mr. Hellman. 

I first had to really wrap my head around what to grab onto as a visual reference. After some conversations with our Chief Preparator we struck on the idea of “road cases,” the kinds of boxes that store and transport music instruments for traveling shows. It made a great amount of visual sense to connect the physical space to these visual signifiers for the music industry and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (HSB).

But the graphic identity was a little harder to grasp. The HSB Festival had a strong identity of its own, and I didn’t want to compete with that. The exhibit was about Mr. Hellman first and the festival second. With the idea of the road cases, I went down the path of thinking about live music shows—and ended up thinking about vintage folk, country, bluegrass, and rock poster design. I kept finding photos and reproductions of old country bands, printed black and white with maybe a spot color, with big giant wooden type, hand printed to promote a show at the county fair or at a record store or something. Remembering the work of Hatch Show Print, I realized I could use old block type letters to build a foundation of the visual point of view of the exhibit. After gathering boards of materials and sharing with the Chief Curator, Renny Pritikin, I was able to start pushing forward developing a look and feel for the show’s title, wall text, and an iPad kiosk app we designed.

I did dozens of variations, all directly referencing music posters. I ended up buying some old books of wooden letters and assembled my own typeface from these old printing reference materials. I was able to also find an old banjo engraving, and this ended up being a great focal point.

Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.

Ultimately, the final installation has the feeling of a show that’s just dropped into The CJM, just like a folk group coming into down for the weekend. Even the large title—which is removable for when the room is rented—is made to look like hand painted letters on canvas or paper (it’s really wallpaper material!). 

4. An interesting challenge is keeping a balance between an exhibition’s visual identity and the artwork itself. What is your design philosophy related to this?
In the Museum the art has to be the leader of everything. So, sometimes graphics may be more necessary, sometimes less: ultimately it’s about how to tell the story of the artwork.

For Bound to Be Held: A Book Show, we don’t have a lot of graphic work in the gallery, but we have a pretty awesome title wall and mural installation on Yerba Buena Lane. These were developed to introduce the exhibit and start to lead people into the show’s theme of literally elevating books, making them really important. I worked with Josh Greene on the gallery installation, but the graphics are intentionally minimal inside the gallery—the wall text and labels are all meant to fade away. 



Model for the mural installation in Yerba Buena Lane for Bound to Be Held: A Book Show. Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.

However, for a recently closed exhibit, Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies, there were a lot of graphics. That was simply because each photograph in the exhibit had a lot of content that needed to be presented to fully tell the stories about the people in the photos. 
Graphic concepts for Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies.
Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.
5. Exhibition design involves a lot of collaboration—with curators, the exhibition team, and in some cases, the artists themselves. What does the process of working with these different parties entail? 
Experts are really important at getting great work done. A curator comes up with the show idea and maybe even gets an artist in to work the idea through. Then the exhibitions team figures out how the exhibit will install, how it will look, and even the logistic details—like how will the art get delivered and how will the museum keep it safe.  

As the designer, it’s my responsibility to understand everyone’s roles and be able to change the way I communicate to people in different levels during the installation and design of an exhibit. So, that may mean I’m talking with the curators, but I may take some ideas from that discussion and have an off-the-cuff chat with the fabricators or art handlers. If I can better understand their schedule or their concerns over certain parts of the process, I may be able to improve or alter my design to help them out, or vice versa. 

Half of the job of being a designer is being able to sell your clients that your ideas are good; the secret part is that you should also know how to sell the people that build the stuff that your ideas are good. 
L: The CJM Exhibitions Department working closely with artist Josh Greene. Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.
R: Exhibitions installing the title wall for Bound to Be Held: A Book Show. 
Photo courtesy of Brad Aldridge.
6. One of the interesting things to consider with exhibition design is space—and here at The CJM, exhibition spaces range from traditional "white cube" galleries to the lobby, and even to a long, narrow case. How do you navigate these spatially?
The CJM is a beautiful building, and everyone working on the exhibitions has to think through the complexities of the architecture. The building has a very strong voice, but we want to give the artists a stronger voice.

Our Chief Preparator, Josh Pieper, and I would coach artists a lot in how to think through the space. We encountered many challenging constraints of the architecture and became experts at making the art speak louder than the building. Dave Lane’s installation Lamp of the Covenant masterfully weaves in and out of the historic sections of the Grand Lobby. Péter Forgács’ recent exhibit [Letters to Afar] also utilized the difficult slanted walls probably better than the Museum has ever seen with big projections cast up onto the large, vertical surfaces.
Like many other museums, we would utilize models and 3D renderings of the galleries to really test out how art would sit in space. We would frequently produce paper mock-ups of works of art or graphics and tape them into place. I remember once we even made a cardboard duplicate of a work of art to see how the lighting would work on the piece. Actually getting into the space and trying to test out an idea was often the greatest thing we could do: ideas that sounded great on paper would quickly be proven to be just disastrous when we’d step into the gallery and try it out.

7. The Design Studio was just awarded the Communications Arts Design Competition award for Environmental Graphics displayed in J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch. Tell us about the design thinking behind the exhibition.
I'm very excited about the honor of being recognized by Communication Arts. The CJM team was really trying to figure out the answer to this: "What would it be like to walk into the Mr. Lunch books?" The design started from Mr. Seibold's text, each book was very oriented to travel; so it was immediately apparent that the gallery would have some kind of destination. The gallery crystalized, though, as J. Otto Seibold had a funny idea about visitors going through a metal detector—which is already a requirement to enter the CJM.  From there, we settled on a boat, a plane, and a giant metal detector—later turned into a "customs" queue.  
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About the Author 

Brad Aldridge is a designer, artist, and magician interested in making surprising and indelible visual experiences. He's spent time working in newspapers, museums, and now resides as a lead designer at Butchershop, a SF-based design and branding company.

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