Skip to content

Current work on view: “Letters With Wings” sneak peek at the National Postal Museum

28 Mar 2017

If you stop by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum during the next couple of months, you’ll be able to see two exhibitions that I’ve designed. One is New York City: A Portrait Through Stamp Art (on view through May 14; quick blog post here); the other just opened.

Beneath the museum’s escalators, in the Franklin Foyer, are two cases for temporary exhibitions. The museum intends to change these cases often with displays of recent acquisitions, favorite objects, niche subjects, and the like.


I created a design system for the museum’s in-house use when putting together these quick-and-small exhibitions, and I designed the first exhibition to use the system: a “sneak peek” of an upcoming exhibition about WWII airmail tentatively called Letters With Wings.



The design system included color palette, guidelines for layout of didactic and label graphics, sets of case furniture and graphic panels, and examples of case arrangements.



I also designed a series of banners and an “attract graphic” to brand the Franklin Foyer space. The attract graphic will be a geometric, cone-like acrylic structure with a changeable title panel; two will be installed in the open triangles of space between the artifact cases and the undersides of the escalators. (You can see the “open triangles of space” in the photos above.) They will protrude ever-so-slightly into the space, above head level, and draw visitors’ attention from the atrium space. They’re not currently installed, but I look forward to seeing them there in the future.


Back to the currently installed exhibition, Letters With Wings. There are no physical artifacts in either case so artifacts are represented as printed graphics. (Docents will occasionally bring out the real objects for visitors, while they also prepare them for the larger exhibition.) Still, the printed objects are mounted to sintra, which gives the graphic panels depth.



If you’re in the Washington, DC area, please check out this little exhibition, and New York Stamp Art too, while they’re still on view!


Pointe-à-Callière: Crossroads and Building Montréal, plus Snow

25 Mar 2017

My final post about the Montréal museums I saw during my visit to the city in September 2015 (see also the Insectarium, the Biodôme, and “Lazy Love” at the Biodôme); here’s a look back at Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Archeology and History Complex.


The Pointe-à-Callière complex is built on archeological sites that span the city’s history. Exploring the museum is very interesting, and a lot of fun; you take passageways, bridges, and stairs over and through the archeological remains. Like the museum building itself, which was built on pilings to protect the site, exhibition elements tread lightly among the artifacts, and visitors are asked repeatedly via signage not to touch the remains.

Like most places in Montréal, museum graphics are in French with English translations. I like the way the two languages are interwoven on the red lobby banner above.


The permanent exhibition in the basement, Crossroads Montréal, takes you through 1,000 years of the city’s remains, including the first Catholic cemetery (dating from 1643), and the foundation of the Royal Insurance Building (dating from 1861). Excavations continue and more exhibitions are planned to interpret what is unearthed.

On the one hand: very cool premise, and very cool space to explore. On the other…I had trouble getting and keeping my bearings. Perhaps because the graphics didn’t hold my attention? The ruins themselves were more intriguing than any block of text could ever be.


I would have liked more information directed at the museum “streakers” like myself: the people who move quickly through exhibitions, and only read titles and very selective [random] bits and pieces of labels. (On my best days, I can be a “stroller.”) Perhaps a printed guide map would have helped me to understand where I was within the museum and what I was looking at. Perhaps I should have taken a guided tour.


I did like the graphics’ integration into the museum’s building structure, particularly the ceilings, and the minimalist construction-site aesthetic of their structures. Artifact cases, too, were carefully integrated into the site.




Most graphics were rear-illuminated, which worked perfectly with the museum’s underground atmosphere.



Also belowground is the Building Montréal exhibition, where you’ll find the museum’s archeological crypt.


The photo above is of the vaulted stone tunnel built on the bed of the Saint-Pierre River. (See what I mean about the museum being fun to explore?)


Set into the floor of Building Montréal are more than a dozen dioramas that show the city at different points in time. I love this use of space, and the vantage point it gives visitors. (I wrote this post about exhibition flooring, seven years ago, and Bridget mentioned the Pointe-à-Callière in the comments. I finally saw it for myself!)




At the time, the museum had a temporary exhibition on view called Snow, a fun look at winter culture in Canada.



Note the snowflakes cut from the apron fronts of reader rails in the photo below.


Space for Life part 2: Insectarium

15 Mar 2017

(Also check out Space for Life part 1: Biodôme.)

The Insectarium was our second stop in Montréal’s natural museum complex [called Espace Pour La Vie (“Space for Life”)]. It’s a fascinating, excellently-designed museum. (And doesn’t its exterior look vaguely like a home for insects, almost like a bee hive?)


The permanent exhibition is called We Are the Insects and it is predominately…green. Graphics are a mix of strikingly clean layouts and comic book-inspired illustrations.


The view down to the bulk of the exhibition:


Each of the glowing cubes you see is a display case. Specimens are pinned to a rear-lit graphic, around text and images arranged in a clean, grid-driven design. Each layout looked nicer than the last, so I’m going to share photos of many.


Some layouts revealed a sense of humor, like this one with its ants on march.


Accent color and a stylized illustration indicated the habitat of the grouping of insect specimens on display.



Throughout the exhibition there were terrariums, and beneath some display cubes there were dioramas (faux terrariums, if you will).



There were also wall displays, and plenty of interesting charts and diagrams, done as both straight-graphics and as a mix of graphics and specimens, like the family tree below.


There were sections about insect lifestyles, diets, reproduction, and what people can do to protect endangered insects. The sheer number of these displays could have made for a repetitive slog , but it did not feel that way at all—specimens were fascinating, text was succinct, and the layouts were visually varied while staying true to the design system.




Outside were additional exhibitions and a temporary interactive art installation, and then it was off to explore the Botanical Garden.


Space for Life part 1: Biodôme

14 Mar 2017

Back in September 2015, I spent a handful of days in Montréal. I visited a few museums, but at the time, only one temporary exhibition at the Biodôme received brief mention on this blog. This happens all the time—I take photos everywhere I go, and then I just sit on them…

So let’s dust off those photos (or pretend it’s September 2015), and visit the Biodôme.


The Biodôme is part of a museum complex called Espace Pour La Vie (“Space for Life”) that also includes the Insectarium, Jardin botanique (botanical gardens), and Planétarium. You can buy combination admission tickets and pick which you would like to visit, but don’t miss the Insectarium.

The largest exhibition, and primary draw, within the Biodôme is Ecosystems of the Americas. The exhibition is broken into four ecosystems conveyed by immersive landscaping, climate, and live vegetation and wildlife. The air inside the Tropical Rainforest ecosystem is warm and muggy, while inside the Sub-Antarctic Islands ecosystem, for example, it is decidedly chilly.


Inside the Tropical Rainforest you walk through mature and secondary forests, and pass a waterfall, lake, river, cliffs, and caves. Graphics throughout are minimal, restricted to brief labels and occasional monitors. Like most places in Montréal, text is in French, with English translations.


Charming illustrations and species’ statuses are available in the free Identification Guide, but this too is light on information beyond identification. Not that I mind—museums can be exhausting!


Inside the cave you’ll find terrarium-dwellers and nocturnal-types; these graphics were all rear-illuminated, and included a bit more information.


Moving along, you reach the Laurentian Maple Forest. At the entrance to each ecosystem you are greeted by a large wall mural: a collage of color-saturated photos, clean-lined vector illustrations, and a where-in-the-world diagram.



Maintaining the minimal aesthetic throughout, there are still elements of whimsy, such as photos of playful otters applied to the glass wall of their enclosure. Wayfinding elements also show up on the floor, and on support columns.


Downstairs, there are a couple of small exhibitions: the Naturalia Room, which is directed toward children, and a temporary exhibition, which at the time was The Fossil Affair.


Overall, the Biodôme was a fun museum to visit, and the immersive ecosystems were well-done.

(Also check out Space for Life part 2: Insectarium.)

AIGA DC Design Week, at the National Building Museum

31 Oct 2016


DC Design Week events have wrapped. This was a good Design Week—there were many more events than in years past, with a range of design focuses (and I was able to make it to a number of them).

An event of particular interest to exhibition designers was held on Wednesday, at the National Building MuseumDesign Matters with Debbie Millman featuring Abbott Miller: Design for the Built Environment. The conversation touched on exhibition design, architectural graphics, and performance design. And as a bonus, prior to the event start, the museum’s newest temporary exhibition, Timber City, was open to us designers.


Timber City opened in September and is on view at NBM through May 2017. The two huge title signs in the museum atrium draw your eye up and point to the bay where the exhibition is located. Also impressive in its scale is the scaffolding holding up the signage.


The exhibition is not restricted to the interior gallery space. Lining the hall outside the gallery are large plinths, of staggered heights, that feature stories about buildings’ timber technology. Within the window bays are views into the exhibition, and architectural models in cases. The text on the painted green walls appears to be cut vinyl.



Inside the gallery space, the exhibition is made up of large-scale, extra-thick, freestanding wood walls. (You can see the support structures below.) Graphics appear to be a mix of direct-print and cut vinyl. The large murals at either end of the gallery space are applied wallpapers.




Of note: Laminated Strand Lumber does not take cut vinyl letters well (above).


In the center of the gallery space are a trio of cheeky display case plinths, made of stacked wood circles. The wood walls are peppered with infographics, stylized illustrations, and green circles highlighting quick facts about timber.




Timber City was curated and designed by the Boston-based ikd. And thanks to AIGA DC for putting on a great week of design events!

San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, part 2 (color and quakes)

03 Oct 2016

If forced to choose, my favorite part of the California Academy of Sciences would be the Rainforest Dome—check out Part 1 of my visit—but there were many other fascinating exhibitions to enjoy, including Color of Life: Discover Nature’s Secret Language, designed by the museum’s Exhibits Studio and opened last year.



The exhibition uses bright, bold colors, beautiful photographs, and accessible writing to “reveal the significant roles color plays across a spectrum of species.”




Within the 8,000 square foot exhibition are immersive interactive experiences, including a musical color visualizer, designed by Tellart. Video screens respond to strings, plucked by visitors, with a show of images and videos related to that string’s color.


Another interactive experience, popular with kids, is the “Courtship Dance Stage.”


Throughout the exhibition are dioramas and many small interactives that allow you, for example, to see organisms under different types of lighting, or through the eyes of other animals.






Also 8,000 square feet in size, the older (circa-2012) exhibition, Earthquake: Life of a Dynamic Planet, explores the seismic science of Earth’s geologic transformations through installations such as the 25-foot-wide, walk-through model of Earth, and the immersive “Shake House.” Other areas focus on the diverse life forms that evolved and spread as Pangaea split up, and earthquake preparedness.





There are mini-exhibits throughout the museum, including a show of Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species series of silkscreen prints from 1983. In 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list; the other featured animals remain.


Other mini-exhibits focused on variation, in ladybugs and in humans.



Rounding out my visit, I strolled through the Human Odyssey exhibition, an exploration of the origins of humankind, and the African Hall, home to classic stuffed-animal dioramas (and, to be fair, live penguins).


I highly recommend this museum—beautifully designed, fascinating, and educational. I also recommend you consider picking up a City Pass if you plan to visit more than one museum. They are expensive in SF—said from DC, where the museums are mostly free.

San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, part 1 (rainforests and reefs)

23 Aug 2016


I wrapped up June—oh, wow it’s August!—with a trip to Yosemite (happy birthday, National Park Service) and San Francisco, where I spent a day parade-watching and a couple days museum-going.


One museum that filled nearly an entire day was the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Above is a photo of the museum’s exterior and its brilliant Living Roof, seen from the de Young Museum.

There are so many exhibitions within “the Academy” (and so many photos to show) that I’ve broken this post into two parts. Part 1 here covers the Rainforest exhibition on Level 1 and the Aquarium exhibitions on the lower level, most designed by Thinc Design.


After entering the museum I was swept along with the crowds heading to the 4-story, 90-foot-diameter Rainforest Dome. Inside, the rainforest visit begins on a Bornean forest floor, winds upward through a Madagascan mid-story and a Costa Rican canopy, then ends on the lower level in an Amazonian flooded forest.


As a designer, I liked the dome’s juxtaposition of glass and steel and abstracted jungle motifs against living flora and fauna, and the changing vistas as I moved further up the dome. As a nature enthusiast, I enjoyed its subject matter; as a weary museum visitor, I appreciated its delivery: not too much, not too little; brief, interesting, and useful.




The bright, straightforward graphics make use of vivid photographs, and the occasional illustration of an animal signals your arrival in a new area of the jungle. Bamboo- or vine-like vertical posts give a stylized-naturalistic element to exhibit tanks. The light touch with exhibit elements gives the rainforest dome a feeling of exploration and discovery (just ignore the school groups).

At the top of the dome, look out over the three stories you’ve just visited, and down, through a 100,000 gallon tank, to the flooded forest floor. Take an elevator down, then enter the tunnel you were just looking through from afar. Everyone says “oooh.”



The aquarium level felt jam-packed and massive; it’s where I spent most of my time during a 3 hour + visit. There were many exhibitions to see: Amazon Flooded Forest, Water Planet, California Coast, Coral Reefs of the World, Twilight Zone, and more.

Down here, animal identification is found on digital touchscreens. They were intuitive and fun to use, and had just the right amount of information: an animal’s common name, its scientific name, diet, and a one-sentence fact about it.


Below are some photos of the Water Planet exhibition, which groups underwater animals by adaptations. Projected blue and green lighting casts an underwater glow on the sculptural wave walls (similar material here). In the center of the room are curvilinear tanks. [Side note: I was reminded of the Van Cleef & Arpels traveling exhibition, circa 2012. It must be the bubbles.]





The highlight of the Coral Reefs of the World exhibition is the 25-foot deep Philippine Coral Reef tank (above). The exhibit graphics in this area are large image-based wallpapers.



The exhibition Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed had just opened on June 10. Relatively compact, it was memorable for its tanks filled with the most incredible jellies and vivid deep sea fishes.


Also check out Part 2 of my visit to the California Academy of Sciences.