Interpretation design: Think, feel, do

Dr Regan Forrest and Dr Toni Roberts

Museums, heritage sites, national parks, zoos and aquariums all have something in common: they are places where leisure and learning overlap. As well as promising a fun day out, these ‘informal learning settings’ are places where you can find out more about nature and conservation, be moved by a work of art, or discover the inner workings of some steam-era machinery.

Over the past 50 years these cultural institutions have become more focused on the ‘visitor experience’. They seek to attract new audiences and increase repeat visitation by providing innovative, educational and often interactive interpretation of their collections and sites.

Museums’ increased emphasis on experience has come from within and without: both museums and their visitors have changed their expectations in light of philosophical, social, technological and market developments. Museums no longer see their visitors as passive, ‘empty vessels’ to be filled with their knowledge. Collections are less seen as ends in themselves and more as a springboard for visitor engagement. Museum staff are more willing to accommodate pluralist voices and multiple interpretations.

In parallel to this shift, people have become more active consumers. Just as social media has influenced people’s expectation to interact with retail companies and to participate in the broadcast media and politics, so the public expects greater engagement and interaction with the museum environment. The economic climate has also changed the museum’s role and museums are expected to generate more of their own income. Cultural institutions seek to maximise revenue through unique retail products, appealing food and beverage areas and programs such as zoo ‘sleep outs’, music events and ‘behind the scenes’ tours. The boundaries between exhibits, the visitor environment and retail services have blurred, merging into the all-encompassing ‘visitor experience’.

Interpretation Design is integral to shaping the visitor experience. Encompassing many aspects of exhibition design such as storytelling and visitor pathways, it also extends beyond object display to design of discovery trails, artworks, themed play areas, sensory aspects such as soundscapes and interactive elements such as games, puzzles and multimedia. Designers seek to cater to a wide range of audience types in terms of age, interest, learning styles and mode of activity. From the casual visitor to the serious studier, the playful and the reflective, social groups and solitary visitors, interpretation design aims to augment their experience in some way.

little girl writes to writing-books at excursion in museum

What we mean by “experience”

‘Experience’ can be a slippery term, so it’s probably worth us taking a moment to define what we mean by it in this context. Experience can be seen as the accumulation of knowledge and actions over a long period, or in the case of a visit to a museum, as a bounded chunk of time from entry to exit. Experience can be considered a product that is designed, marketed and sold. This is the type of ‘experience’ that is implicit in Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy. But experience is also a process – our subjective and immediate response to a situation, setting or event. Any number of people can be exposed to the same experience ‘product’, but each one of those people will have their own individual experience ‘process’ as a consequence.  Designers can aim to provoke or encourage certain kinds of experience processes, but the final outcome will be shaped by individual factors that extend well beyond the direct control of the designer.

We are both interpretation design practitioners, each researching the impact of design on the visitor experience from different angles. Toni examines the role of designers, their aims and methods in designing for visitor experiences. Regan investigates how visitors describe their experiences in different types of exhibition environments, and the implications this may have for design.

Despite our different approaches, we have each independently produced the same diagram to communicate our ideas about experience:

This is perhaps not surprising as we have probably read some of the same literature from design, psychology and museums, much which draws on Dewey’s ideas about learning through experience. But it also resonates with our practice as interpretation designers. We’d like to unpack what we mean by ‘experience’, explain the value of this model and share some of the findings from our research.

Individual influences on experience

Each visitor brings their own back-story to their museum experience: prior knowledge and interest in the subject matter; expectations based on previous visits or what they’ve heard about the museum in advance; plans for how the visit fits into the rest of their day. These factors set the scene for the visit and influence what takes place during it. There are also the particular circumstances of each visit: who visitors are with, if the museum’s crowded or quiet, whether the visitor is feeling tired or distracted for any reason. Some of these are things designers can accommodate (e.g. blockbuster exhibits will be designed to manage large crowds), but others are particular to each visit.

Designers may use empathy and research to anticipate how visitors might engage with their environment, but once implemented, the impact of the design is beyond the designers’ control. Visitors bring a wealth of prior experiences, interests, motivations and individual characteristics to their visit; through interaction with the designed environment that they co-produce their unique experience.  ‘Experience’ is something internal and unique, which designers do not create, but rather design for by providing offerings that they anticipate will be used in certain ways with certain likely effects.

What happens after the experience? What things will stick in the visitor’s mind – next week, next year, next decade? The experience process continues into the future, as new experiences re-shape the memory of their experience over time:

UX design, although primarily focused on digital environments, has a lot in common with interpretation design in this way.

The Role of the Interpretation Designer

Toni developed the ‘think-feel-do’ diagram below to help communicate the role of the interpretation designer. 

thinkfeeldo

Through her research Toni has found that one of the key aims of designers is to communicate the ‘essence’ of a subject or place, using objects, activities, analogy, art and story to provoke visitor responses. In this way, they aim to engage visitors through cognitive, sensory and physical modes. Some argue that there is another spiritual or transcendent aspect, but this can be understood as an effect rather than a mode by which designers engage visitors.

Designers see their work as integral to the important work of shaping visitor experiences, so engagement early in a project and communication with other key contributors such as architects, curators and writers is essential. Too many times, however, this isn’t what ends up happening; designers are appointed late in a project with limited connection to other contributors, reducing them to just producing the ‘icing on the cake’. This relegation of design to the margins represents a missed opportunity:  designers have a holistic vision, with the capacity to integrate the physical, conceptual and sensory aspects into a meaningful whole.

Interpretation designers play a mediatory role between the interests of the client or content specialists and the audience. Given the audience’s absence from the process, designers often act as the audience advocate, frequently requesting more consideration of pacing and embedded rather than explicit content to minimise visitor fatigue and information overload. Unfortunately, many organisations do not research their audience’s needs and interests thoroughly so designers are working with a lack of useful information and too many assumptions. Co-design and ‘design thinking’ approaches that involve end users in the design process could be applied (and sometimes are), but there are limitations to how well large-scale complex environments can be effectively modelled to gain useful formative feedback.

Meeting Visitor Needs

Regan examines experience from a visitor perspective – in particular visitors’ responses to the designed environment. With the exception of school field trips and the odd reluctant family member being dragged along, people choose to go to museums. Why? There is a whole body of research dedicated to unpacking this very question, however, in a crude sense it can be boiled down to the fact that people decide to go to museums because they anticipate the visit will meet some kind of need. In a psychological sense, our needs can be classified as cognitive (feeding the intellect), affective (nurturing the emotions) or behavioural (relating to our actions).

We have an intrinsic desire to think things, feel things and do things. These are not isolated processes: we are seldom pure reason; pure emotion; pure action. The interesting bits are where they all overlap. How we feel about something will be influenced by what we think of it: the end of a relationship can be a disaster or a relief, depending on who ended it. Similarly, we all have physical and cultural comfort zones that influence where we choose to socialise and how we spend our leisure time. Furthermore, embodied cognition research is reducing the barrier between the body and the brain:  our bodies are more than just a vehicle for our minds. Museums and national parks, being places that we physically go to and move through, offer a fundamentally different character of experience than something we read about or see on TV.

Some years ago, many museologists were struggling with what they perceived to be a tension between the museum’s historic role of public ‘education’, and pressures to be more populist, less stuffy and more ‘entertaining’. You still hear echoes of this debate from time to time, with traditionalists periodically accusing museums of ‘selling out’ or ‘dumbing down’. But from the visitor’s perspective, this distinction between education and entertainment is largely a false dichotomy. As far as many museum visitors are concerned, learning is fun. And learning is something that we do with our hearts and our bodies as well as our minds. Psychology backs up the idea of ‘serious fun’– Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ encapsulates the pleasure and satisfaction we get from being challenged, as long as the level of challenge is appropriate to our level of skill. Too little challenge and we’re easily bored. Too much challenge leads to anxiety. It’s a fine balance, and another good reason to understand more about where audiences are at as part of the design process.

How is ‘think-feel-do’ useful or significant?

Each of us came to the think-feel-do diagram independently: Toni from the point of view of designing for different modes of visitor engagement, Regan as a way of conceptualising the range of psychological influences at play from a visitor perspective. We think the model offers designers a way to plan and balance elements in line with audience needs and interests. It reduces the focus on the form of design (graphics, multimedia, text etc), instead emphasising qualities of the visitor experience. It also provides a way of anticipating visitor needs – emotional, conceptual and physical – and integrating them into the physical and conceptual journey of the visitor experience. This helps designers create experiences that intuitively ‘make sense’ and make the visitor feel at ease, reducing the cognitive load that can be caused by visual clutter and excessive signage. Think-feel-do offers an organising principle that helps designers match interpretation design elements with the needs and interests of visitors.

There is a cross-over of impacts across the spheres as the modes of engagement: physical engagement can lead to cognitive understandings, cognitive engagement can lead to emotional effects and sensory engagement can lead to behaviour change. Design can influence these cross-overs: effective infographics can increase the emotional power of facts and figures (for example comparing the number of sharks that kill humans each year and the number of sharks killed by humans); parallel play can help children to understand the incredible span of a cheetah’s stride; and illustration of the links between palm oil consumption and destruction of orang-utan habitat can lead to visitors changing their buying behaviour.  

There are areas of overlap in the think-feel-do model and possibly a ‘sweet spot’ right in the middle. But there is no best way – it’s all about designing a range of offerings to suit differing visitor motivations and subjects, shaping exceptional and memorable experiences.

Dr Regan Forrest is a visitor experience researcher and consultant who specialises in museums and other informal learning settings. Over the past 15 years she has worked on exhibition projects in the UK, Australia, North America and the Middle East. She has completed a PhD through the University of Queensland on the relationship between museum exhibition environments and visitor experiences. Regan can be contacted by email regan@reganforrest.com.

Dr Toni Roberts is a consultant and researcher specialising in the design of interpretive environments. Toni’s PhD thesis examines interpretation design practice, investigating the role of designers in shaping visitor experiences in zoos and museums. Her research articulates practitioner knowledge and proposes models that support strategic design, seeking to strengthen the relationship between theory and practice and encourage critique of design outcomes. Toni lectures in the Master of Communication Design program at RMIT University Melbourne and runs the collaborative design practice Hatchling Studio. Toni can be contacted by email toni.roberts@rmit.edu.au and her website is  http://www.hatchlingstudio.com.au.