Read Time: 7.5 minutes
In this series, SEGD connects young designers with the design leaders they admire so they can ask their burning questions and find answers to help guide them on their career path. In this article, FIT Graduate Exhibition Design student Margo Malter interviews Keith Helmetag, partner at and co-founder of C&G Partners (New York).
Margo Malter,Graduate Exhibition Design student at Fashion Institute of Technology (New York), is intrepidly pursuing the furtherance of her career—this year she is already a Deans Fellow in writing and earned the SEGD Student Scholarship Award. In 2011, Malter received her BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and worked in the Baltimore art education and exhibition communities before starting her MA work in 2018. During her tenure as Executive Director of Open Space Baltimore, she oversaw the design and execution of over 30 curated exhibitions in the gallery and two large scale annual festivals: the Artist-Run Art Fair and the Publications and Multiples Fair.
Keith Helmetagis a partner at and a co-founder of C&G Partners, offering creative and management direction to a talented team involved in signage, wayfinding, exhibit and experiential graphic design. Helmetag was educated as an architect at U.C. Berkeley where he taught Communication Graphics in Cities, Architecture and Landscape, as a graphic designer at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and as a business manager at New York University’s Stern School of Management and was a principal at Chermayeff & Geismar. Keith is currently working on a permanent exhibit and media experience about the Birthplace of California and San Diego at the History Center’s Serra Museum; Goldendale Observatory for Washington State Parks and an interpretive trail about Native, Colonial, African American and contemporary settlement along Maryland’s Patuxent River.
Malter and Helmetag were introduced after expressing interest in participating in the interview series because of their interest and experience in exhibition design, respectively. They met in person in New York at C&G Partners' offices, where both reported a delightful conversation—we hope you enjoy it as well.
MM: Your background is in architecture and graphic design; how did you end up working in experiential design?
KH: At GAF Corporation, I worked with an industrial design team creating a camera and package that was selected by Ivan Chermayeff for MoMA’s design collection. With that introduction, I joined Chermayeff & Geismar, becoming an exhibits, signs and art-in-architecture designer. My academic architecture and graphic design background were a foundation to build a dynamic career at C&G Partners that embraces many practice areas including environmental and experiential design.
MM: SEGD’s “E” shifted from meaning “environmental” to “experiential.” You wrote about the transition; where you see the community going in the future?
KH: Change is imperative. SEGD evolved their “E” to broaden their audience, untangle confusion with the “green” movement and stay contemporary. Digital is often central to today’s work, so I’d say the “E” is for “Electric” too.
MM: You also have an MBA. How has having formal business training influenced your career?
KH: A decade into my design career, I was also an adjunct professor in New York University’s Graduate Museum Studies program that included core business classes in their curriculum, which led me to the MBA. That acumen in finance helped me in my collaboration with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta on their headquarters and four branch museums.
MM: What is your favorite aspect of working in this field?
KH: I have worked on commissions that are based in my interests like Yankee Stadium (sports) and Sanford Homestake Visitor Center (astrophysics), or that take me to beautiful places like the Serra Museum (San Diego) and Goldendale Observatory (Hood River).
MM: On the subject of your interests, does your surfing practice inform your professional life?
KH: New York surfing means embracing mercurial conditions and this City’s unique culture, which aligns well with my professional practice.
MM: Where do you go for inspiration when you’re stuck?
KH: I ride my bike to-and-from the house alongside the Gowanus Canal to the studio near Union Square. I see a lot along the way and often stop at galleries and take time to shape creative ideas.
MM: Have you had moments where an experience you thought of as completely unrelated to design has informed a design decision you’ve made?
KH: We are communication graphics designers, so content is a key ingredient. I have found having eclectic interests—sports, nature, finance, religion, politics—to be invaluable in engaging with a broad range of design assignments. At C&G Partners, we knit together what may seem to be divergent topics under our “Design for _____Culture”mission statement.
MM: When you’re working with a client and you’re developing a culture around their content, do you have a specific format and strategy for pulling that culture out?
KH: The strategy for assembling content and uncovering a client's culture is best done with walks together on site, investigative “dives” into archives and with conversation over meals. Once face-to-face dialogue and confidence are established, on-line research and calls will strengthen content poignancy and define a unique culture narrative.
MM: Do you find that you focus more on content coming from a curator or a business versus focusing on the audience?
KH: There have been a few exhibits over the course of my career where we had audience participation and evaluations. Sometimes it's done by a specialist and sometimes the clients do it in an ad hoc way; they pull constituents in and get their opinions. Generally, in product design, companies, clients and designers incorporate some kind of user research—the good ones have the confidence to integrate that feedback as appropriate.
Going back to content, I’m working on a project with Native Americans, trying to build their authentic voice into an exhibit. There’s a museum in Vancouver, B.C. that was entirely organized by First Nations People—every object that was in the museum came to the museum as a result of a Native American person deciding that it needed to be there. Therefore, the exhibition has that voice in it intrinsically. It's difficult to walk that walk consistently: People use the word “authenticity” to the point of cliché now, but the key is that whatever you do should have a sense of place for it to feel very specific to that project. The content is most successful if it’s done with real things that come from the real place.
MM: Can you share another critical insight—this time one you’ve learned from a challenging project or client?
KH: While working on the Nemours Mansion & Garden Visitor Center, the director said, “I hired you to manage us,” which meant educating them to the design process as well as providing tangible ways for client representatives to participate.
MM: What do you think about this new trend of “Instagram museums” and how do you tell the difference between a fad and a trend that is moving design thinking forward?
KH: When “Instagram museums” are successful, there is an interesting alchemy where analog and participatory experiences go digitally viral. Fads have momentary duration and trends evolve over more time. Both continue to “speed up” a given technology.
MM: What’s the last exhibition you saw that really knocked your socks off?
KH: We recently visited Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Despite being located in the remote desert, the tour was packed and smartly guided. Parts of the first closed mission that lasted two years remain in place and, thereafter, Columbia University ran a decade of poignant climate change experiments that are still visible and astounding. Currently, the University of Arizona is staging timely experiments, including one about coral species that can survive warmer ocean temperatures.
MM: This semester my cohort is working on designing exhibits for a newly discovered dinosaur; the project has a lot of scientific research to distill. What’s a good way to pull a coherent exhibition out of a huge packet of scientific research?
KH: Science often is cloaked in exhaustive investigation and calculations overshadowing the wonder of science. In sorting through extensive content, focus on key messages, poignant artifacts and engaging media clips as well as notions conducive to interactivity and immersion to result in a memorable exhibit that preserves wonder.
MM: And lastly, what, in your opinion, makes a young designer’s portfolio strong?
KH: Personality and authenticity should be paramount in student work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.