Museum of Science and Industry Wayfinding

This Way to Science

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry needs to inspire a new generation of scientists. But first, it needs to show them the way through a colossal space.

If you ever wondered how 27 million people could have attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, then perhaps you haven’t set foot inside the Museum of Science and Industry. Housed in Burnham and Root’s Palace of Fine Arts—the only one of approximately 200 World’s Fair structures still standing—it encompasses 1.3 million square feet.  

Jam-packed with novelty seekers, the behemoth Palace of Fine Arts probably felt cozy on occasion. Nowadays, clocking 1.5 million visitors annually, MSI impresses as jaw-droppingly vast. Expansive gathering spaces and circulation corridors separate almost 14 acres of exhibition content, and the sporadic glimpse to the outdoors does not reset one’s internal GPS but rather pokes fun at its malfunction. The 1998 addition of an underground garage allowed MSI to reclaim its beautiful lawn, but propels tourists into a subterranean ticketing sequence that complicates vertical orientation, too. For the stray first-time visitor arriving alone—say, a 30-year-old journalist appraising MSI’s new wayfinding program by Hunt Design—the first few minutes confronting this Brobdingnagian volume are daunting, nervous-making, humbling.

Yet, once shock subsides, signage elements come into view and to the rescue. On the three exhibition floors above the entry hall, four color-coded stairways—and, just as important, the ceiling-mounted, internally LED-illuminated aluminum “lollipops” that point them out—flank the central public rooms and work as cardinal points in the absence of views to the landscape. Wall-mounted, kid-proof directories in those stairwells are easy to read and not overloaded with information. Duratrans maps in freestanding aluminum-and-glass cases, as well as wall-mounted directories, are consistent with one another as well as with the map one receives at the ticket counter. Without cloying or intruding on the exhibition design, this system of 1,200 wayfinding components figuratively shrinks the oceanic space. 

Vertical horizons

MSI’s sheer size and complexity required the Hunt Design team to “pull out all the wayfinding tricks we could think of to counteract what the building was throwing at visitors,” says Principal John Temple. At the top of the list of challenges: vertical orientation. Exiting the museum’s new parking garage, visitors lose sense of whether they’re underground or above, and whether their next move is to descend or ascend to the exhibit floors.

The naming conventions for each floor only amplified the bafflement. The entry hall, for example, was previously known as the Great Hall, which didn’t provide visitors any navigational clues. Renaming floors based on simple descriptors linked with level numbers—Entry Hall, Lower Level 1, Main Level 2, Balcony Level 3—was more intuitive. Hunt Design also streamlined the number of signs as well as the destinations they advertise. “To help people sort through the information, we directed only to the major exhibits on a given floor,” Temple explains.

Armed with data from the earlier architectural and wayfinding evaluation, Hunt initiated the project with additional analysis that validated the all-hands-on-deck approach of the realized system. Temple points to the escalator landing of Lower Level 1 as an example. This is the middle floor of the museum, and its landing links the entry hall’s ticketing area with the giant rotunda one story above, which team members had conceived as the launch pad for the typical museum visit.

Temple says Hunt Design made foam-core mockups for the landing. “We thought it was going to be a no-brainer, that people would get to the top of the first escalator and see the sign and effortlessly go up the second escalator to where we wanted them to be. We found that happens maybe 25 percent of the time. It was hard to get over people’s tendency to stop at that point, take a breath, and figure out where they wanted to go. People don’t blindly follow whatever a sign tells them.”

Ultimately, project fabricator Nordquist installed a 50-ft.-long arcing aluminum sign that shouts “Up to Main Level” in dimensional acrylic letters, and whose sections were linked in a friction connection and suspended on site, Nordquist Vice President Gary Stemler explains. To make the composition even more unmistakable, additional cues were placed to the left and right of the sign.

Connecting the dots

“We tried to provide a lot of different tools for people to use, and hopefully one of them is going to work,” Temple says. In light of the program’s scope and complexity, Hunt Design unified it using several recurring themes. All letterforms are rendered in Din, for example. In combination with color choices and lamping techniques—such as the tubes of colored neon that backlight the rail-mounted, laser-cut aluminum markers topping each doorway to the stairwells—this typeface evokes a classic American diner. “The building already had this layer of historic motifs, and we didn’t want to mimic that,” explains Temple. “We wanted something more contemporary and fresh.” At the same time, wayfinding elements had to coexist with sometimes-ornate architectural features and contrast with, but not compete with, exhibition designs that occasionally spilled into the arteries of the museum.

Dots of all sizes also predominate. A gradated pattern of dots is digitally direct-printed on the silver-painted acrylic wall-mount panels of each of the directories. The vinyl appliqués identifying parking-lot levels are giant bulls-eyes. Even the lollipops—which Stemler says required “climbing into the catacombs and reinforcing the signs with spanners and stringers”—encourage museum-goers to hit stairwell targets. Temple says the dots tie into a brand relaunch that MSI has scheduled for next year.

Indeed, change is in the works. The implementation of Hunt Design’s wayfinding system is part of a larger effort that includes making over the museum’s identity and its exhibition content. Unlike so many other museums in fundraising mode in the last decade, MSI’s $205 million capital campaign has nothing to do with new construction.

David Woody, the museum’s director of design and development,  waxes philosophical about the transformations underway. “The number of American students who graduate with degrees in science and medicine is dramatically lower than a lot of other countries, and if that continues, we’ll lose our position economically.” The national agenda already resonates among the museum’s board, Woody adds. “[Trustees] are saying they can’t find qualified engineers, people who have the kind of degrees and understanding that they need.”

MSI is trying to reignite young Americans’ interest in the sciences, and Hunt Design’s wayfinding system is one puzzle piece in that mission. “If you are free from the trouble of wayfinding or any other service, you’re going to be a lot more engaged with the exhibits,” Woody says of the children who make up the museum’s main audience. “Let’s get them focused on the main objective.”

[Sidebar]: First, Convince the Board

MSI is largely privately funded, and the efforts culminating in Hunt Design’s wayfinding program cost $2 million of a $205 million capital campaign called Science Rediscovered. Don’t let those numbers fool you. The museum’s executive committee and 80-member board of trustees was not tripping over itself, checkbook open, to realize the project. Signs don’t have the same enticing donor-naming opportunities as content-rich new exhibits, says David Woody, MSI’s director of design and development. More important, he adds, almost everyone in the decision-making pipeline required an education in EGD and the benefits that a comprehensive signage system could yield.

“Although we are a not-for-profit institution, we essentially operate as a private-industry business model,” says Woody, noting that the museum has been charging admission for more than a decade. So MSI made its case to the museum’s executive committee in simple business terms. “Guest experience is an extremely important part of our business strategy. Good wayfinding and operational signage is a cornerstone of a great guest experience.”

“First, we had to define what EGD is,” he adds. “Second, we had to explain that the building was broken and needed to be fixed.” And third, proving just how important wayfinding is to a museum’s success, was the most challenging part. “Was it $2 million important? We had to prove that to them.”

Of the museum’s 1.3 million square feet, he explains, there is more non-exhibit space than exhibit space. “People spend more time in the hallways, restrooms, food courts, retail stores, and parking garages than in the exhibits. They expect the non-exhibit spaces to serve their needs, which includes providing them the information they need to navigate effectively.” He imagines a scenario in which one Chicagoan tells another that a recent visit entailed long lines, cold cafeteria food, and an inability to find the show Junior wanted to see, and he shudders. “Suddenly you’ve turned a conversation that could generate another customer into a rant about customer service.”

Woody recalls first discussing these ideas with the museum executive committee in 2003. The following year MSI hired Perkins+Will | Eva Maddox Branded Environments to conduct an architectural and wayfinding evaluation to prove wayfinding’s intimate link to customer service. Memorably, the team shadowed two families and learned that non-exhibit spaces as well as confusion dominated their four-and-a-half-hour experiences. “Not only did they not know how to get to a destination directionally, they had so little information about what to do that they missed key parts of the museum.” A year later, research in hand, MSI was ready to issue an RFP to which 13 companies responded. Hunt Design was chosen from that group. 

--By David Sokol, segdDESIGN No 24, 2009

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



Location:  Chicago

Client:  Museum of Science and Industry

Client Team:  David Woody (director of design and development), Angela Williams (design manager), Liz Wissner (exhibits project manager), Richard Klarich (capital program manager)

Architectural and Wayfinding Evaluation:  Perkins+Will | Eva Maddox Branded Environments

Wayfinding Program Design:  Hunt Design

Design Team:  Wayne Hunt (principal in charge), John Temple (principal, project manager), In Sung Kim (senior designer), Perry Shimoji (technical draftsman), Dinnis Lee (spec writer), Steve Hernandez (programming support)

Fabrication:  Nordquist (primary fabricator)

Contractor:  Belcaster Commercial Contractors

Photos:  Peter Kiar (except as noted)

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