Museum of Arts and Design Digital Wayfinding and Interactives

MAD World

With a newly renovated building, dynamic wayfinding, and engaging interactives, the Museum of Arts and Design enters a new era.

A caterpillar requires 10 days to emerge from its chrysalis as a Monarch butterfly. It takes 10 weeks for a downy cygnet to transform into a Trumpeter swan. For the Museum of Arts and Design, metamorphosis has been a decades-long undertaking.

Founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, it became the American Craft Museum in 1986 and moved into a four-story building opposite the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The name changed again, to MAD, in 2002. “When we had our old name,” says David Revere McFadden, the museum’s chief curator, “the word ‘craft’ was held in great disregard. People either thought it was hobbyist material or folk art. So there was always this kind of second-sister quality attributed to the objects we showed.”

Besides untethering itself from linguistic baggage, MAD’s unveiling came with a new graphic identity by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut.  Block-like letterforms, with body copy rendered in legible Futura, provide a groovy break from its serif-laden past. The museum also announced its purchase of 2 Columbus Circle, a 12-story building designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1962. In September 2008, the completely renovated building opened to the public.

In addition to its dramatically altered interior spaces—Allied Works Architecture tripled the display area and invited natural light into the galleries through a series of ribbon windows—MAD’s interaction with museumgoers has also evolved. Today, visitors’ first point of engagement with MAD’s new home is a series of digital wayfinding and interpretive guides designed by a Pentagram team led by Lisa Strausfeld and Christian Marc Schmidt.

The new interactive elements complement static signage (fabricated by New York-based Visual Graphic Systems), while also effectively connecting MAD’s past and present, providing the hands-on interaction that defines craft while staring directly into the new-media future. In that sense the project encapsulates MAD’s own trajectory. As McFadden puts it, “We take the best of where we came from, the studio tradition, and bring that into a 21st-century context, without denying the validity of either.”

Dynamic directories

Pentagram’s new media elements start at the sidewalk, drawing visitors into the museum and setting the tone for the digital experiences ahead. Exterior and interior “attractor displays” run horizontally between the fluted columns that Stone designed on the building’s ground floor. The 96- by 18-in. Samsung displays—which RP Visual Solutions clad in anodized aluminum and covered with Plexiglas to protect their LCD screens—alternate between current programming information and inviting glimpses of objects from the museum collection.

Inside, visitors encounter the 2- by 14-ft.-tall wayfinding totem, a dynamic floor directory next to the museum’s elevator core. Besides echoing the 2-ft. ribbon windows that cut through floors, walls, and ceilings of the gallery spaces, it offers museumgoers an overview of programming and special events and an edifying distraction while waiting for their elevators. The slender totem of four stacked Akira plasma screens is divided into a series of tabs that synchronize with floor numbers and corresponding room names (allowing the museum to acknowledge its major donors), and the museum’s new identity crawls behind the Futura text. Then, floor numbers remain and information and images of situational exhibitions and events appear; the tabs compress or expand to accommodate additional or abbreviated programming information.

Strausfeld says the totem presents a new paradigm in wayfinding design by combining wayfinding and programming information in a single dynamic display.

“Usually wayfinding and programming information aren’t combined, because events happen over time and change and wayfinding doesn’t,” she says. “That’s an outdated distinction between static and dynamic signage. The basic idea is the opportunity to overlap and combine messaging where it makes sense. This one display tells you where to go, whether to take the elevator or stair, and when a tour or demonstration is happening.”

Portrait-format wayfinding displays on each of the publicly accessible floors mirror the totem’s vertical orientation, reinforcing messages introduced in the lobby and providing information relevant to specific floors.

Interactives: inspired by Detroit and iPhone

Strausfeld had already set precedents at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where her team created a suite of interactive elements designed to make the museum’s collections more accessible.

“We liked what Lisa’s team had done at the DIA. They really brought the collections to life,” says McFadden. Pentagram worked with DIA’s education and interpretation departments to reinstall the permanent collections and re-engage with visitors of all ages. In the gallery of 18th-century decorative arts, for example, visitors sit around a tabletop that shows a video-projected recreation of period dining—starring the authentic porcelain and silver pieces on display nearby.

“That appealed to us,” McFadden says of the dining vignette. “From day one we knew our museum had always been involved with making. And making is something that exists in real time. We were very frustrated with describing, say, cloisonné enamel. But when we can show the process in 20 seconds, people get it.”

When the MAD commission officially launched in 2006, designer and client envisioned translating the DIA dinner, specifically by lacing together existing video footage featuring the museum’s artists and their techniques. “It turned out to be more work to get permissions than it was to create our own content,” McFadden says.

The result was four exhibition interactives that provide windows into the museum’s extensive permanent collections. Fashioned from 30-in. flatscreens, they behave like iPhone applications. Through a series of touch gestures, visitors can navigate collection objects related by technique, form, or artist, launch proprietary audio and video content, and observe still images.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Pentagram’s contribution is the 57-in. display known as the collection interactive, located on the museum’s third floor. As visitors approach, its cloud of images comes into focus as an overview of MAD’s entire collection, which can be rearranged by a series of touch-activated filters or highlighted to reveal additional information about a specific object.

Executing the program was not easy. “Overall, the project’s challenges centered on the native screen resolutions and quantity of the displays, and the fact that we used a variety of  display sizes and resolutions,” says Jaron Rubenstein, president of the programming company Rubenstein Technology Group. “Since all the screens are viewed up close, Pentagram wanted us to ensure that the quality of the images, video, and content took maximum advantage of the screen capabilities in each instance.” That meant customizing Rubenstein’s RubyContent content management system so that it integrated with MAD’s collections management software as well as its website.

“You have to be really careful about putting media in an art museum, because art is the medium,” Strausfeld agrees. Yet for these interpretive interfaces, she also admits a certain ease, especially compared to the DIA assignment. “Software people tend to think about digital references and economies of scale—about unleashing as much information as possible.” Whereas DIA forced Pentagram to be more selective about objects, the MAD interactives invite museumgoers to exercise curatorial control. And when users are encouraged to assemble their own package of educational experiences, they get into the act of making—channeling the craft spirit of MAD’s roots.

--By David Sokol, segdDESIGN No. 25, 2009

Editor's note: David Sokol is a contributing editor for Architectural RecordGreensource, and Surface magazines, and the author of The Modern Architecture Pop-Up Book (Universe, 2008).


Jury comments

“The wayfinding system alone is worth the price of museum admission.”

"The system is simple and compelling. The hardware integration is excellent and lets the visitor focus on the content, which seems to be orchestrated clearly and in a highly aesthetic way. We look forward to seeing more of that kind of work: content over style."



Location:  New York

Client:  Museum of Arts and Design

Design:  Pentagram

Design Team:  Lisa Strausfeld (creative director/partner, dynamic media); Michael Bierut (creative director/partner, identity and static signage); Christian Marc Schmidt, Christian Swinehart (designers, dynamic media); Kate Wolf (team coordinator, dynamic media); Rion Byrd-Gumus, Kai Salmela (designers, static signage); Joe Marianek (designer, identity)

Fabrication:  Visual Graphic Systems (static signage), RPVisual Solutions (dynamic media)

Consultants:  Allied Works Architecture (renovation architect), Shen Milsom & Wilke (A/V consultant), HB Communications (A/V integrator), Sciame (builder), C-nario (software/programming, show control/media distribution system), Rubenstein Technology Group (software/programming, content management system)

Photos:  ©Peter Mauss/Esto

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