Recapping the tours and sessions of the Society for Experiential Graphic Design’s latest conference.
Last week I attended SEGD’s Exhibition & Experience Design event in Washington, D.C. As SEGD continues to shift its focus from signage and wayfinding toward experiential and digital design, its organizers do well (for the most part) assembling ambitious, innovative content for its smaller specialized conferences. Here’s a quick recap of the event:
For me, the conference began Thursday at 8AM at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where our group was fortunate enough to get a pre-opening private tour. The museum is immense, impressive, and moving; my five-hour stay barely scraped the surface of what was on offer.
Three levels of below-ground galleries interpret the history of American Americans across 1.3 linear miles of exhibits. While fairly traditional in structure and strategy, the massive collection on display provides a comprehensive, emotional journey from the 15th century slave trade to the civil rights era to today.
Upstairs, within David Adjaye’s majestic structure, are three more levels of equally overwhelming exhibits focused on community and culture, from the visual and performing arts, to food, language, athletics and more. Also here, a smaller, less-traveled gallery presents a collection of beautifully crafted digital interactives – I’ll post a detailed look at this in the upcoming weeks.
Afterwards, I headed across town to my next stop, a tour of the Museum of the Bible‘s ‘Impact’ galleries with Alin Tocmacov of C&G Partners. While the museum itself has a problematic history, these galleries provide a reasonable, objective view of the Bible’s influence on history and culture.
The exhibits here are gorgeously designed and fabricated (by Maltbie), implementing a wide variety of traditional and experimental exhibition strategies. A 254-foot wide, 10-foot tall custom tapestry is a particular highlight, snaking through galleries about the Bible in American history, and becoming a surface for projection-mapped content along the way. A handheld digital exhibit guide, still in beta, used positional tracking to provide information about the exhibits around me, and will soon enable visitors to design their own custom museum tours.
The second day of the conference, hosted again at the Museum of the Bible, was filled with sessions. The event opened with speakers from two relatively young companies: Emily Conrad of Tessellate spoke about her team’s approach to creating strong emotional connections through holistically-crafted experiences. Traci Sym and Daniel Meyers of Plus & Greater Than described how performance and risk influence their firm’s work. In a talkback afterwards, the speakers discussed how their smaller, flexible organizations let them explore experimental and artistic projects that would have been impossible at the larger firms where they previously worked.
The next session was the nadir of the conference for me, as a young tech entrepreneur spent 45 minutes giving a sales pitch for a product which was not particularly innovative or relevant to the event’s theme. I found this inappropriate in a number of ways – for starters, there was no educational component to the session (unless you wanted to learn how to use the speaker’s software). Second, another SEGD member firm had paid to sponsor this ‘educational’ session, and instead ended up paying for another company’s infomercial. And to top it off, the presenter had a few ‘ideas’ about museums, but didn’t seem to have any experience with the field.
I wish SEGD would do a better job of vetting presenters and offering a more diverse set of voices – but to my knowledge, SEGD has never put out a call for presenters; they’ve always hand-selected them from within their own networks.
After an amazing lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian, we returned for a session with Gabe Kean of Belle and Wissell and Sara Pasch of Blue Cadet. Kean discussed how his experience with the zine-turned arts collective Born influenced his firm’s work with exhibit development and its own collaborative, multidisciplinary approach. Pasch proposed the notion of ‘experiential master planning,’ breaking monolithic master plans up into nimbler, visitor-centric projects that enable institutions to learn and adapt as they go. The concept was intriguing, though it seems to have originated as a sales strategy for ‘upselling’ smaller projects into larger contracts.
Next, Jake Barton of Local Projects presented work that addressed the themes of wonder, humanity, and engagement, including some impressive recent projects at the London Mithraeum and the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum. He was joined by Tocmacov, who discussed his firm’s work at the Museum of the Bible, emphasizing the diversity of emotional approaches within, and pointing out how digital elements take on credibility when paired with the exhibition’s physical context.
Finally, Cybelle Jones from Gallagher & Associates, who had hosted the day’s Q&A sessions, was joined by her colleagues Sanne van Haastert and Ariel Efron. The team described the challenges of designing the new International Spy Museum, set to open next year in DC. The institution’s new location offers opportunities to rething the visitor experience, using knowledge gained from 16 years of operation in its original 1875 building.
Did I learn much at the conference? Not particularly, but I was inspired to see some fantastic new work, and to meet and connect with some very talented colleagues. And despite my frustrations with the consistency of the sessions, I imagine I’ll be in attendance when SEGD comes to my neighborhood for the Xlab conference in Brooklyn this fall.