Mar 1, 2010

Dan Formosa, Designing for Humans: the Museum Question

What is the Museum’s Role in Design and Social Responsibility?

Entry #4

Several recent conversations with curators of design collections have radically changed my thinking about the role of museums in our world. The conversations raise the question of a museum’s influence. My classic view has been that a museum’s role is to amass collections of designed items. Historically (although certainly not exclusively) that focus has been on aesthetics.

Museum selections in the past have had significant impact on the designer’s self-imposed role. If the ultimate “compliment” for a designer is to have his or her work included in a collection, then the best way into the collection would be to focus wholly on creating a beautiful object. Museum collections also had the secondary effect of framing the role of design for the non-design community.

More and more however the world is realizing that design excellence is not just about visual aspects of design. A litany of factors contribute to establishing a great product (or building, public space, service, etc.), and many of these factors are within the responsibility of the field of design.

Thinking about the museums’ role makes me realize that we may be in a chicken-or-egg situation. As the field of design continues to change, expanding its role well beyond aesthetics, the museum collections, you would think, would need to keep up. But even that thought is based on my outdated vision of a museum’s responsibility. I generally considered museums as passive – archivists concentrating on what-has-been, either in the distant or the recent past, and reflecting that cultural snapshot back to us.

Think again. If museums are celebrating design excellence and basing that definition on objects that portray some semblance of social responsibility, then the holy grail of having a product included in a collection or exhibition can shift a designer’s future focus. No longer is museum-grade design just about aesthetics. It’s about socially responsible objects. The museums said so!

Even more food for thought – what’s the museum’s real-world interest? Museums are cultural institutions that serve the community. They also need traffic – the more visitors, the better. More public interest in a collection or exhibition is crucial to a museum’s survival. A popular exhibit is therefore in their best interest. The curators I spoke with mentioned something interesting. Museum visitors are drawn to exhibits that are socially meaningful. Dead collections, no matter how beautiful, can be less attractive than exhibits that are relevant to personal or global issues.

This is not a very new phenomenon. New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s “Safe” exhibit opened in 2005 (and there are exhibitions that pre-date that). According to MOMA’s  website the Safe exhibition was  “devoted to objects designed to protect both body and mind from dangerous or stressful circumstances, respond to situations of emergency, ensure clarity and information, and provide a sense of comfort and security.” That thought was certainly relevant to a post 9/11 New York City. Many other museums worldwide have been hosting equally relevant exhibitions and programs.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which museums will either influence the direction of design, or even lead the design parade in the new decade.

Please post your thoughts or comments below. I’m guessing there will be people out there who will state that this has always been museums’ role, a others who will say they never thought of museums that way.

Daniel Formosa, Ph.D., is a consultant in product design and research, and Dan a founding member of Smart Design in New York City. Dan was a member of the design team that developed IBM’s first personal computer, OXO Good Grips kitchen tools and XM Satellite Radio, and has recently worked with Ford to develop SmartGauge, an instrument cluster for Ford’s 2010 hybrid cars designed to influence driving behavior and save fuel – an innovation for the auto industry.
In addition to his design work he lectures worldwide on the physical, social and emotional aspects of design and innovation. Dan also recently co-authored and illustrated the book Baseball Field Guide, employing principles of information designed to explain the intricate, vague and confusing rules of Major League Baseball.
Click here to read his previous Designing for Humans posting.
Photos:, showcased at Urbis in Manchester, UK. Taken by Zelda Harrison

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