Design Semester—FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design at AMNH

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This past Spring Semester, students in the FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design program worked in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History (New York).

In March of 2019, students in the FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design program, led by Department Chair, Christina Lyons, embarked on three semester-long “design partnerships,” one of which was with the American Museum of Natural History—just one component of the full-time, 16-month, 39-credit master’s program. Students were tasked to deliver visitor-centered wayfinding and placemaking design development packages based on the organization’s mission and their own surveys, interviews and prototypes by the third week of May.

“To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world and the universe,” is the mission of the American Museum of Natural History, a massive 28-building complex beside Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The museum houses a collection of over 33 million specimens and artifacts, a fraction of which are displayed in 45 permanent exhibition halls. The minerals, meteorites, flora, fauna and fossils—visited an average of 5 million times annually—are maintained by a 225-person, full-time scientific staff. 1

Lyons and Catharine Wesse, director of graphic design at AMNH, prepared a collaborative creative brief prior to the start of the semester; the established objective for the cohort was for the project to serve as an introduction to visitor-experience-centered wayfinding and placemaking design through the proposal of an experiential graphic and circulation activation within AMNH. Using the institution’s mission, audience data and goals, students would design experiential graphics to guide visitors through the grand AMNH Central Park West rotunda entry and all stairwell, which spans from the lower level to the fourth floor. Wesse characterizes activating the cavernous stairwell as an area ripe for intervention; it is often unnoticed by visitors yet has incredible potential to be used for added circulation and activated with exhibition content.

The standard for a successful project required the design of an innovative and easy-to-understand experiential graphics system that would allow visitors to quickly navigate, while referencing the museum’s content in a way that would align with its aesthetic and mission. Additionally, students were asked to be considerate of AMNH’s special conditions in their solutions: International visitors comprise 40 percent of the audience, who are also primarily families with children and K-10 school groups—very active, hands-on visitors; the stairwell in question is an active circulation space, which presents large crowds at times; any signage would need to be designed with accessibility, durability and resistance to vandalism in mind; AMNH currently has a mobile wayfinding app; and a flexible design solution would be preferred as exhibitions change occasionally.

The cohort began the project by preparing a list of questions in response to the creative brief, then met with the AMNH designers to conduct interviews—fettering out the organization’s needs, goals and desired outcome. Students also toured the site and completed a site survey—measuring the site and documenting all types of existing graphics, colors, typography, architectural details, materials and circulation routes—specifically in the Central Park West entry and main stairwell.

Next, students conducted audience studies through on-site observation and interviews with visitors, staff and volunteer docents. They employed techniques such as analyzing the current visitor circulation routes, empathy mapping and persona studies to draw conclusions about the visitor’s desires, needs and deeply understand the factors that motivate navigational paths. “From what we heard from the client, to the site survey, audience studies and prototyping of each phase was of utmost importance for the final design development,” says Anvita Trivedi, MA Exhibition & Experience Design student. “The American Museum of Natural History was a perfect stage for this project, as it is a city in itself and wayfinding is a medium to navigate people through such an iconic landmark.”

The master’s candidates then presented their individual conceptual approaches to AMNH. In addition, they created full-size prototypes of various design components, testing them on site to evaluate the approach and design based on feedback from the client group. “From our first site visit, through the midpoint and final presentations, the [AMNH client group] offered thoughtful feedback to guide our final work into a strong portfolio piece,” recounts Margo Malter, another of the MA Exhibition & Experience Design cohort. “They were very receptive to our observations of the museum, its audience and the design solutions we felt would best serve the audience and institution.”

Along with these periodic presentations and meetings with representatives at AMNH throughout the semester, students also had the opportunity to interact with guest speakers from the industry and attend tours—each uniquely suited to supporting their project work at AMNH. The guests all work on similar institutional projects and included a fabrication expert, a visitor experience expert and an expert designer/creative director. Visitor Experience Expert, Chris Catanese, lauds the cohort’s work as, “innovative, extremely well thought-out and beautifully designed, going beyond signage design to consider the visitor. I can absolutely see many of their ideas being installed—greatly improving the visitor experience of countless museum goers.”

“It is fantastic that the students are given the opportunity to solve a circulation challenge for an actual client and condition,” says Anna Crider, former creative director at Two Twelve (now a principal at Entro). “We discussed assessing institutional goals and objectives, solving for the specific client rather than our own aesthetic preferences and the best ways to conduct research.” Another expert and their partner were markedly impressed by how engaged the students were, and their specific questions about placemaking and wayfinding—even delving into information hierarchy and wayfinding strategy.

The cohort also received valuable information on the physical aspects of experiential graphic design. Peter Haas, project executive at Design Communications ltd. concludes that the students displayed in-depth processes and research to support their concepts; “They presented questions on specific elements of their design from structure and materials, to projection angles and day two content.” In addition to meeting with a fabrication, materials and installation expert, during the semester quite a few of the students were awarded scholarship trips to the 2019 ISA Sign Expo in Las Vegas where they were able to witness cutting-edge technologies and material innovations and applications.

The work culminated in presentations to AMNH complete with design development packages including detailed drawings, specifications, plans, elevations, renderings, visitor experience and audience analyses and complete site studies. Students also addressed their unique conceptual approach and design decisions that informed shape, color, material and typography.

Post-semester, the students report learning valuable skills, like managing complicated workflows and effective prototyping techniques—and having realizations as well. Tina Columbus said the semester’s work not only helped her to understand the graphic challenges the institution is facing: “I realized that environmental graphics not only can change the way audiences experience architecture but also their behavior in space.

As for Lyons, she’s happy to tell us the students went well beyond the project scope and created design solutions and interactives that both direct and engage. “They have created unexpected spaces for visitors that entertain, teach—and certainly inspire!”


The graduate students who worked on the project are: Tina Columbus, Taj Cutting, May Ghadanfar, I Cheng Hsu, Chang Lee, Tracy Llewellyn, Margo Malter, Janine Cohen Meir, HeeJi Min, Anvita Trivedi, Hsin Yi Tseng, Savannah Sears and Jun Xie.

See their portfolios here

More about the FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design program