Read Time: 7.5 minutes
The third exhibition in the newly launched rotating exhibit space at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center (Seattle), “Design with the 90%,” was a collaboration between the Discovery Center, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (New York) and award-winning local design firm Studio Matthews.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center recently dedicated one of its gallery spaces to temporary exhibitions that would become host to a nine-month-long “Design with the 90%” show, a collaborative project between the foundation and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The exhibition, curated by Cynthia E. Smith, curator of socially responsible design at Cooper Hewitt, highlights 26 projects from designers across the globe that aim to improve life in some of the world’s most marginalized communities through design innovation—focusing on a wide range of issues in medicine, education, shelter, communications, reproductive health and sanitation.
Design with the 90% is fourth in a series of exhibitions with similar approaches; according to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the first show, in 2007, “Design for the Other 90%,” focused on design solutions that addressed the most basic needs of the 90 percent of the world’s population not traditionally served by professional designers. It was followed by variations on the theme, “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES” and “Design with the Other 90%: USA” in 2011–2012. With this most recent show, there is even more attention on community collaboration in the designs, a factor which aligns closely with the Gates Foundation’s mission.
Local experiential graphic design firm Studio Matthews had worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on several projects previously, including the inaugural exhibition at the Discovery Center in 2012. With their expertise and existing relationship, it made perfect sense to ask Studio Matthews to design the exhibition; in the spring of 2018, the team was tasked with designing a flexible system to accommodate the 26 projects that included an eclectic mix of artifacts, materials, imagery and statistics. The projects ranged from a coffee-grinding bicycle to eyeglasses with liquid-filled lenses whose prescription can be changed on the spot—all of which needed to come together with equal representation into one exhibition extolling the power of design as an approach to real-world problem-solving—a hierarchical and space challenge in 1,500 square feet of gallery space.
The objects themselves, although essential to the exhibit, were not initially available—they had to be flown in from far-flung places and sometimes weren’t exactly “as-pictured” as their designers were working iteratively in the field, or occasionally were replaced entirely. The exhibition design team embraced this challenge with gusto, however (and perhaps a little uncertainty if everything would fit when it arrived.)
The Studio Matthews team was especially intrigued by the glasses, a “hard-to-ignore” fixture of the exhibit with a distinctly “architect-like” aesthetic, and touched by a set of “harass maps,” hand-drawn and notated by young women in the Kibera slum of Nairobi to help others navigate the streets safe from sexual predators. “It was so honest, and having it be hand written really drove it home,” says Kristine Matthews, founder and director of Studio Matthews. Ian Campbell, senior designer, adds: “To give the hand-drawn map as much importance as a refined and professionally-designed medicine-making device went to the heart of the exhibit, I think.”
The exhibition achieves cohesion through the use of color, texture, scale and typography. “Using a clever combination of cardboard tubes, Tyvek banners, provocation posters and pops of color, Studio Matthews created a flexible and elegant approach that accommodates an eclectic range of projects,” says Aleen Adams, curator of exhibits and senior communications officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “The design allows each project to share a distinct story and object and creates a simple framework for visitors to easily understand the overarching themes of the exhibit.”
Because of the varying aesthetics, scales, materials and functions of the objects—which were to all given the same visual weight—the design team carefully crafted the system of graphic panels to create division between projects. A big map provided a “clear, strong moment” and hanging banners bearing statistics lent some needed visual hierarchy to the space. “It’s quite dense,” remarks Matthews. “The goal was to include as many projects as possible, so that pushed the limits of the space.” Matthews believes that how their design pushed the limits of the space is indicative of how much could be accommodated in the gallery—and how significant collaborations with other organizations like Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum could be for the Discovery Center in drawing in a broader audience.
Materially, the Studio Matthews team wanted the exhibition to reflect the content it embodies; honest, accessible projects that aim to improve the lives they touch. To that end, the exhibition was designed to be entirely built from sustainable, recyclable materials robust enough to last through the nine-month-long exhibition. “The projects themselves are very intelligent solutions, crafted from readily available materials,” Matthews explains. “We used a sustainable palette because it was a temporary exhibit and also seemed like a much more honest solution when presenting work that underscores being clever with materials, not wasteful.”
Despite the familiar materials and methods, construction design required substantive testing and prototyping by the Studio Matthews and Pacific Studio teams. “Challenges ranged from the structural limitations of cardboard in the thicknesses that we wanted to use to their availability,” remembers Campbell. “How can we support the objects? What could we span? Could we build vitrine stands out of it? No one was absolutely certain until we prototyped it all early on in the design process.”
The material palette—Eco Board, cardboard tubes, everyday clipboards—feels appropriate for the temporary exhibition but maintains connection to the warm, polished tactile aesthetic of the rest of the Discovery Center. Everything has been thoroughly thought through: Vitrine bases are made from industrial cardboard Sonitubes, project displays are made of Eco Board kraft panels with text printed directly on the surface to avoid using plastic and the oversized black and white hanging images for the exhibition are printed on Tyvek that will be made into carrier bags by the Studio Matthews team and donated to the Gates Foundation Discovery Center for future sales.
Engaging audiences was also a key factor for both Studio Matthews and the Gates Foundation Discovery Center. To that end, the collective team envisioned a section called "DESIGN BY YOU" that challenges visitors to tackle a design problem, inspired by Cooper Hewitt’s “Citizen Design Process Lab.” Visitors can select from a host of issues—such as community, transportation, education, housing—and brainstorm a solution using their own Design Toolkit.
The Toolkit—a set of handy, coaster-sized cards on a keyring—allows visitors to determine what criteria they want to focus on when approaching their design challenge: Sustainability? Cost? Longevity? Visitors gain a critical understanding of the design process and can sketch or describe their own solution, and share their idea in the gallery and on social media using #DesignforAll—a particularly fun teaching exercise for school groups.
Adjacent to the “DESIGN BY YOU” alcove, a simple magnet board entitled “LOCAL ACTION” allows the Discovery Center to draw attention to a topic being addressed by charitable or advocacy groups locally in Seattle, reinforcing that although the exhibit is global in nature, there are problems to be solved right here at home. “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was obviously founded with money from the Gates family, but they want to clearly communicate that you do not need to be a billionaire to make a difference,” says Matthews. “The wall launched with a feature on homelessness in Seattle, and different organizations that are trying to tackle that issue with a call to action: Get involved.”
Design with the 90% opened in September with 14 of the project designers from various corners of the world in attendance, joining hundreds of guests who poured in from Seattle and beyond, and the team at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center is thrilled with the result. “Studio Matthews’ exhibition design is a perfect complement to the spirit and broad scale of the design projects featured in the exhibition,” says Adams. “The end result is both surprising and beautiful.”
The opening was an especially rewarding experience for the Studio Matthews team. “To be designers and champion the work of these designers—who had often been working for years on enormously impactful yet “unglamorous” projects—who were so clearly excited to see their work showcased and seen by so many people and to meet their peers in the show was so powerful for us,” stressed Matthews. “For me personally, it’s particularly gratifying to be able to tell my design students to go check out this free and open-to-the-public exhibit that elevates the role of design in such an influential way.” For the team as a whole, it also just feels great to do work for an organization with a mission like the Gates Foundation’s.
Design with the 90% will remain open through May 2019.
Project Name: Design with the 90%
Clients: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Open Date: September 2018
Project Area: 1,500 sq ft
Exhibition Design: Studio Matthews
Design Team: Kristine Matthews (lead designer), Ian Campbell (senior designer), Jeffrey Underwood (designer)
Collaborators: Aleen Adams (curator of exhibits, Discovery Center), Cynthia E Smith (curator of socially responsible design at Cooper Hewitt)
Fabrication: Pacific Studio
Photography: Rafael Soldi