Design Semester—FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design at NY Aquarium

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During the 2020 Spring semester, the students of the Graduate Program in Exhibition and Experience Design at FIT (New York), collaborated with the Wildlife Conservation Society on a project as a part of their second semester experiential graphic design course. 

Despite of having to transition to online coursework due to the novel coronavirus, students in the FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design program, led by Department Chair Christina Lyons, went forward with their planned “Design Partnership.” The objective of the project was to introduce students to experiential graphic design through a collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. The students worked closely with the client team to deliver and present wayfinding and placemaking programming, analysis, concept, and design development packages based on the organization’s mission and their own surveys, research, and prototypes.

Founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society was one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. and it began with a clear mandate to advance wildlife conservation, promote the study of zoology, and create a
first-class zoo. Today, the WCS oversees four zoos and an aquarium: the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium. WCS states its mission and vision as: “WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth.” 1

The New York Aquarium was founded the following year, 1896, in Castle Clinton in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. In 1902, the Society assumed ownership of the aquarium. Although the location of the Aquarium has moved, first from Castle Clinton to the Bronx Zoo before moving to its current home on Coney Island in 1957, the WCS commitment to connecting New Yorkers to ocean wildlife at the Aquarium has never wavered. 2

Based on WCS’s mission and vision, audience and goals—the EED Grad students worked closely with WCS and The New York Aquarium to fully document the existing site and analyze the audience and client’s needs and hopes to enrich the NY Aquarium entry experience. “Being able to participate in a project with the Wildlife Conservation Society was a great experience in the classroom and beyond, allowing us to receive insightful feedback from the client,” EED student Avery Zucker remarks. “I enjoyed being able to work with such an important organization and fully develop one project throughout the semester.”

The project began by visiting the New York Aquarium and its representatives—including Kyoka Jiang, art director, WCS exhibition and graphic arts director for the New York Aquarium—who continued working with them throughout the semester. During their first visit, Jiang took the students on a tour and gave them an in-depth presentation on the organization and outlined the challenges and opportunities at the NY Aquarium. Following the orientation, the students conducted a site survey to document existing conditions, which marked the beginning of the design process.

Starting from the Coney Island boardwalk pedestrian entry—students identified key circulation and identification points along the boardwalk to lead visitors to the entry. Then, they analyzed and conceptualized placemaking solutions along the boardwalk and entry. The cohort proposed activities to ease and enliven the ticketing experience, and even designed a conservation engagement experience kiosk/interactive that allows visitors to contribute to WCS for conservation efforts.

In addition to the site survey, the students conducted audience studies while on site. Lyons tell us the students explored Coney Island and observed people navigating Luna Park, the beach and—of course—the boardwalk entry into the Aquarium. “Multiple techniques were used to gain a deep understanding of visitor needs such as analyzing the current circulation routes, empathy mapping, interviewing and persona studies to draw conclusions about the visitor’s desires, needs and to understand the factors that motivate people to navigate the space in particular ways.”

The following month the cohort was scheduled for their midpoint design review at the NY Aquarium, but due to the outbreak of SARS-Co-V2, the remainder of their design process was conducted online. In the midst of those circumstances, the students created and presented innovative design solutions to WCS throughout the semester showing large-scale experiential graphics along the boardwalk all the way to the entrance of the NY Aquarium, and placemaking elements. 

In addition to the periodic online meetings and presentations with representative at WCS/NY Aquarium throughout the semester—students also interacted with guest industry speakers and attended tours tailored to their project work at NY Aquarium—some before the stay-at-home order went into effect, and some after via video conferencing. Industry participants included an environmental and experiential graphic design firm, a visitor experience expert who was the director of visitor experience at similar large scale institutions, and a fabrication, material and installation expert. 

The participating design firm was Two Twelve, in New York. Senior Designer Kevin Spencer reports that the visit from students was a “rewarding” experience. “This wonderfully diverse group of students from all disciplines and backgrounds, bright-eyed and full of questions about experiential graphic design, was eager to learn everything they could about making a wayfinding project come to life.” They discussed a range of topics from how to audit an existing environment, to documentation packages and fabrication coordination, to how best choose materials and processes based on context and application. He adds, “I am very grateful to have gotten the opportunity to provide some professional insight about EGD work to the future designers of our field, and can’t wait to see what creative and innovative solutions they come up with!”

Students also met with Visitor Experience Expert Chris Catanese who sensed the group’s energy and passion, even through online meetings. “Their ideas and designs for the NY Aquarium clearly considered the visitor through a very challenging environment,” says Catanese. The cohort impressed across the board: “The diversity of the concepts in both structure and materiality fostered conversation where the cross pollination of ideas resulted in shared solutions,” writes Peter Haas, fabrication, installation and materials expert, and project executive at DCL. 

“This was a great opportunity to really push me to make something that could feasibly be built,” student Laura Pressler says of the experience. “I especially learned a lot about how detailed design development work needs to be to create a functional design.”

The students concluded the semester with online presentations of complete Design Development packages to the Art Director and WCS team. Their presentations included detailed drawings, specifications, programming, plans, elevations, renderings, as well as a complete site study, visitor experience and audience analysis. Their conceptual approach and design decisions included shape, color, material and typography based on the WCS brand guidelines.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, the EED cohort learned lessons that are important to their future careers. “I feel that as design students, we tend to get wrapped into our design worlds, especially during the long term design projects; we sometimes forget that the client is the essence of our jobs,” posits Mustafa Yigit Ecer. “We could be the greatest renderers or the sharpest concept creators, however, if the client is not convinced [of it] you cannot exist and profit from the field.”

“Students proposed unique solutions based on the client’s needs and what they learned about the NY Aquarium audience. We are all incredibly proud of what the students were able to achieve this semester and the client team at WCS is thrilled with the results” says Lyons. More than just thrilled, Jiang told Lyons, “Your students have definitely re-inspired us to go back to our roots and approach our projects with fresh eyes.”


The graduate students who worked on the project are: Avery Zucker, Bhawika Mishra, Cecilia Moscardó, Keith Comley, Laura Pressler, Lior Gensler, Mustafa Yigit Ecer, Samantha Kugler, Selen Imamoglu, Shiya Tong, Tzu-Yu Theresa Hsu, Xuewei Jiang, and Yunni Yang.

See their portfolios here

More about the FIT Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design program