Museum of the Year Finalist

So, it’s well over a year since I published anything here. You know, very busy, no time to write, blah blah.

But just to prove that I have been doing something and not just being lazy, here’s a film that I scripted (and, in a moment of uncontrolled megalomania, presented) for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 which the Museum of Natural History has been shortlisted for. Thanks to Northern Town for producing the film.

It’s been a busy year and an even busier few weeks preparing for the announcement of this, and working for the Museum of the History of Science too: its new exhibition, Dear Harry…, opens on 14 May. Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History we are about to open a new contemporary science temporary exhibition, Biosense, and two new permanent touchable displays all about evolution. Rachel mentions this Sensing Evolution project in the video above.

There have been plenty of other things that I’ve been involved in over the past year that I should really have blogged about here. I’ll try and record more of that, but no promises.

What I might write about soon though was my chance to take Magnum photographer Martin Parr around the Museum of Natural History, as part of the Art Fund promotions. I got to watch him work and photograph the process myself at the same time. A treat indeed.


Shadowy work

I worked with Simon Meek at Okayso to create this video to promote the reopening of the Museum of Natural History. Well, he did most of the work on this; I just waved my arms around at a safe distance (oh, actually I did the music too, which was probably more helpful).

The film below came first actually and, as you can see, I was directly involved in this, as well as in the writing and storyboarding. This was all related to the Goes to Town project too; more on that to follow.

Reopening the Museum of Natural History


One of the things I’ve been nestled away and working on in recent months is a whole batch of stuff related to the reopening of the Museum of Natural History after a fourteen-month closure. The Museum has been closed for essential roof repairs to its glass-tiled roof and we have been chronicling that work – and various other related happenings – on a special closure blog called Darkened not dormant.

In the photo above you can see how all the specimens were squashed up into one aisle while the roof work was carried out in the other areas. Everything is now almost back in its right place ready for reopening next Saturday, 15 February, from 7am to 5pm, or dawn till dusk as we’re poetically framing it.

During the last year I’ve been working on the new visual identity, internal signage, press and marketing, printed programme and floor plan, an audio app (to follow after reopening) and various other bits and bobs. Lots of stuff and lots of fun, so I hope it all looks good next Saturday.

A bit of housekeeping
When I was doing freelance journalism regularly this site provided a record of all my published articles. For the past two years or so, while I’ve been getting established in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Museum of the History of Science, the site has been neglected. But I hope now to retrospectively fill it with a few of the bigger projects I’ve worked on and then continue to add examples of work as they happen.

If you’re reading then great, thanks a lot! If not, it’s a record for me. Thanks me.

QR codes and museums

The Internet of Things is a compelling idea, with its promise of a seamless link between objects in the physical world and associated media in the online world. The implications could be profound: an object will cease to be an isolated entity, but will become the focal point in a web of connected information. Take your dining table as an example. If the table carried a small identifying tag that linked to a central online database of ‘things’, reading the tag would open up the contents of this database revealing, perhaps, the table’s history; the manufacturer’s specifications and the materials used to construct it; its previous owners; the video of a family cat stealing food from a plate left on its top; the written memory of someone who as a child fell into its corner and broke a tooth – and so on.

All that is required to link this digital media – photographs, text, videos or sounds – to a real object is an identifier that can be read by an internet-connected device. One such system, developed in Japan as long ago as 1994, is the QR code. QR stands for Quick Response and the code itself is a square grid of black and white blocks, roughly equivalent to the barcode found on product packaging. But unlike a barcode, which links a product to a retailer’s stock database, a QR code links with a web page or some other online content. These codes are then read by the camera and QR reader software on a mobile phone or similar internet-connected device, allowing the device to open the link.

The appeal to museums of QR codes – and an internet of things – is immediately obvious: digital media can be ‘attached’ to physical objects by means of the small printout of a square code. Although QR codes themselves are essentially just web-address links, when connected to an online database of objects their possibilities become quite powerful. An object in the real world – a museum specimen – can be permanently linked with a growing and editable repository of online material, revealed to visitors through their smartphones or similar devices.

An early, beta version of such a system has been developed by the TOTem research consortium of Brunel University, University College London, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh and the University of Salford. Tales of Things is a free QR based system that links an object with its ‘tales’ – media left by users who have something to say about the object in question. Tales of Things is being used on objects in the Tales of a Changing Nation gallery at the National Museum of Scotland, as well as in the QRator co-creation project at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology and The Petrie Museum of Egyptology.

‘Whilst there are a lot of QR code readers about and websites where you can generate codes to link to other sites, with the Tales of Things app the key element is the ability to add your own tale to the QR code, so that you are not just reading information but also writing back,’ says Jane MacDonald, administrator of TOTem.

In an age where co-creation and sharing – two tenets of any forward-looking museum – are all the rage, this type of system should be a sure fire hit. It permits people to record their personal reflections on museum objects and ‘attaches’ these reflections to the objects for others to see and respond to in turn. Certainly, Alison Taubman, principal curator of communications at National Museums Scotland, sees potential for QR codes to open up a new type of dialogue with museum visitors, breaking from the ‘usual one way traffic of information’. But she also acknowledges that such two-way dialogue has so far been scant in the Tales of a Changing Nation project.

It seems that despite the appeal, museums are finding that general take-up of QR codes is bedevilled by a few technological restrictions in implementation and, perhaps more significantly, a general lack of awareness. ‘I am not sure if enough people know what a QR code is or have their own device [to read one] for it to have mass appeal at this stage,’ says MacDonald. ‘We are expecting this to come, as they are slowly becoming more common. The more that museums and visitor attractions use QR codes, the more people will interact with them. I really see them as a brilliant way for museums to be able to create a truly democratic and interactive experience for visitors.’

Kathleen Tinworth, director of visitor research and program evaluation at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, presented a small number of visitors with a QR code to find out how many people could identify or explain it. Barely a third could and none of those had ever used one.

‘For those who didn’t recognize the QR code, we got responses that ranged from ‘Native American design’ to ‘puzzle’,’ says Tinworth. ‘So what does this mean for using QR or other identification software in museums and culturals? Is it futile? Worthless? Nope. Not at all. We may need to lay some groundwork with visitors, but the pay-off could be high. In time, perhaps there won’t be a need for an app download or a certain type of phone [to be used], but for now the learning curve may need to be built in to the design.’

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has also experimented with QR codes. After finding that too few people had a suitable reader installed on their phones, the museum decided to build a reader into a bespoke mobile application that would serve as an object database and QR code reader in one. This app now supports the museum’s Love Lace exhibition by allowing visitors to access an object’s catalogue entry directly by scanning the QR code on the physical display.

But even this simple system hides technological pitfalls. If the code squares are printed too small, phone cameras and reader software have trouble understanding them. If there are shadows, reflections or poor light on the codes the problem is compounded, as the Powerhouse discovered in earlier QR experiments. The provision of free public Wi-Fi throughout a museum space is another potential difficulty.

On the other hand, despite these relatively small technical issues QR codes are extremely straightforward to produce and equally easy to access assuming a visitor has a phone reader installed and there is a good (and ideally free) internet connection available in the exhibition space.

But as with the introduction of any technology to a museum or gallery, there have to be clear benefits to both visitors and museum departments of using QR codes. While the actual act of using a phone to ‘magically’ read a code may appeal to some (it does: to younger visitors to the Tales of a Changing Nation exhibition, according to Taubman), it is what the code is linking to that is the real issue. Even without referencing a co-created database of ‘things’, there are still plenty of appealing uses of QR codes for museums. They can provide quick and immediate links to material that supports interpretation, education or a marketing campaign, for example.

But as Tinworth notes, getting the content of these links right is vital, whether they are to third party sites or to material generated by a museum itself. ‘The QR code is just a vehicle,’ she says. ‘I believe that for QRs or similar technologies to succeed in museums we have to ensure they provide something of value and aren’t just gimmicky. Whether that’s the back story on an object or a video of an artist installing a sculpture is neither here nor there; it’s about the value added through that content. QR codes are simple to make and inexpensive, which has massive appeal to the cultural sector, [but] are we enhancing the visitor experience in the ways people want?’

This article was written for MuseumNext, 14 August 2011.

Open source – the art of creative collaboration

Collaboration is very much a part of the zeitgeist. Social networks, open innovation, crowdsourcing and an emergent co-design philosophy all point to a breakdown in silos of professional practice and a coming together of previously disparate parties. Across the world, groups with shared interests are using social media to debate, collaborate and act on their ideas in a way that has never been possible before.

In consumer branding too, collaborations, whilst not exactly new, are becoming more prevalent and are taking on new forms, in particular by engaging consumers to generate creative ideas. Over the last few years, companies have started to draw the public into the process of design and development by using crowdsourcing initiatives and open design competitions. The idea, says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design agency Stocks Taylor Benson, is that online crowdsourcing and design competitions allow customers to feel part of the brands they love and use.

‘There is no doubt that crowdsourcing and competitions can be used to generate a buzz around a brand and make customers feel involved and I’m sure it can offer certain small-scale and short term benefits for the brand,’ says Bakowski. ‘By throwing design open to a multitude of people, the brand may also end up with some very good ideas. In fact, with thousands of people submitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them in isolation might be better than those from the brand’s design agency.’

A crowdsourcing initiative recently run by Sony, called Open Planet Ideas, has gathered suggestions from people around the world on ways that Sony’s technologies can be repurposed to tackle environmental problems. ‘Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,’ says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. ‘It’s very interesting to use new ideas from consumers and it’s good for us to understand them better.’

To some, this may seem very appealing but there is plenty of resistance to crowdsourcing and open competitions when it comes to actual design work. As this article was being written, a closely balanced yet passionate debate was unfolding on the Facebook page of Adobe’s Creative Juices initiative, a forum set up by Adobe for professional and non-professional designers to share work, ideas, discussions and design techniques. The controversy stems from a competition thrown out to this community to design the new Creative Juices logo, where the designer of the winning logo receives a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 software.

Some in the community, many of whom are professional designers, feel that the competition is a ruse by Adobe to source numerous creative ideas for free. It can then select the best one and implement it across all its Creative Juices promotional activity, in turn promoting Adobe products to existing and potential customers. Others see the competition merely as an innocent method of allowing creative people to share their work, receive peer recognition and feedback, and ultimately to give the site a community-sourced logo.

Whilst Adobe Creative Juices is a relatively low-key open design competition, it does reveal some of the awkwardness which surrounds public design collaborations, especially on high-profile or commercial platforms. Detractors believe that open competitions devalue both the design process and the skills of professional designers.

Last year, Gap found itself dealing with the seemingly shambolic launch of its new, professionally designed logo. Almost instantly, the new logo – an oddly anachronistic Helvetica and gradient-square affair by New York agency Laird & Partners – was pounced upon by online commentators, many of whom decried it as a big mistake.

In a strange tactical shift, Gap then launched a fleeting open competition to search for a second new logo, asking people to ‘share your designs’. The crowdsourcing bugbear raised its head – free design work for a multinational corporation, anyone? – and in the end the whole thing petered out with a reinstatement of the original blue square logo.

Meanwhile, Marka Hansen, president of Gap brand North America, admitted a mistake: ‘We’ve learned a lot in this process. And we are clear that we did not go about this in the right way. We recognise that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community. This wasn’t the right project at the right time for crowdsourcing. There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way.’

The Gap debacle says a lot about both the power and pressure created by online social media – and brands’ willingness to bow to it – as well as the treacherous waters of crowdsourcing design ideas. According to graphic designer Ben Stott, brands that feel the need to ask consumers for designs are already lacking a necessary connection with their customer base. In Gap’s case, Hansen’s comments would appear to confirm that assessment.

‘I would be shocked if a client who didn’t already have this type of collaboration as a part of their strategy suddenly asked to do something like this,’ says Stott. ‘But then there are brands like Nike who do amazing things that involve people without [participants] really even thinking about it.’

Two things are coinciding here: the unprecedented ability of consumers to debate and respond to a brand’s behaviour, often en masse, and the increased access to creative technologies, allowing more people to design and produce their own content, whether graphics, film, photography, animation and so on. Crowdsourcing and open competition are one response of big business to these two developments. And whilst not everyone is a great designer, if the crowdsourcing net is cast wide enough there’s a fair chance of a catch.

‘Creativity has been democratised for some time and we are now starting to feel the effect of this on the design community,’ adds Stott. ‘Technological advances raise the bar on what everyone can achieve, making us all content producers. Photographers have had it far worse than designers: everyone is a photographer but, as we know, not everyone is a good photographer.’

So do crowdsourcing and open competition threaten design as a profession? The standard design industry response has been to admonish ‘crowdsourcers’ as devaluing design by holding what is essentially a gigantic free creative pitch. Yet most designers don’t really see the public as a threat.

‘Crowdsourcing is an amusing and enjoyable diversion; if in doubt, ask the populous,’ says Howard Milton, chairman of design group Smith & Milton. ‘But crowdsourcing can never belittle the design profession because we all know it is an amateur pursuit.’ According to Milton, we will ‘continue to dip in and out of this source, but it will never replace a well thought through brand design’.

Stott claims that the industry should react with greater poise to crowdsourcing and open competitions. ‘When the design community comes out and screams it looks like protectionism; like we’re saying that only we can design, using our special powers. I have no problem with it at all – and most examples are generally bad in any case – but I do think it will evolve to become something that is less obvious and unnatural than it is now.’

Design competitions and crowdsourcing may still be in their awkward infancy, but a more tried and tested method of collaboration comes through brands linking with high-profile artists and named designers. Coca-Cola’s tie-ups with fashion designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Matthew Williamson, Citroen’s special edition DS3, decorated by Orla Kiely, Issey Miyake’s and Paul Smith’s reworkings of Evian bottles and Adidas collections designed by Stella McCartney are just a small selection of these kind of brand-designer offerings.

Perhaps one of the longest-running and most consistent artist collaboration programmes is that by vodka brand Absolut. Beginning in 1985 with an advertising poster created by Andy Warhol, the brand has remained committed to strong links with the art world ever since, working with such figures as Spike Jonze, Jay-Z and Damien Hirst. ‘Absolut has a rich legacy of creative collaborations that have ensured the brand has continued to evolve,’ says Vlastimil Spelda, marketing director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, Absolut’s owner since 2008.

Of course, professional design agencies should also be capable of evolving a brand, so where do artist collaborations come into an overall marketing strategy? According to Spelda, they are complementary to the more brand-focused design work that is commissioned from agencies. ‘Collaborations provide an effective marketing tool through which brands are able to creatively express their personality. They drive consumer interest and deliver standout and presence within the trade,’ he says.

But Milton believes that if designers were offered the same freedom as artists, similar left-field results could be achieved. ‘There is an assumption that jobbing brand identity is incapable of taking a brave creative leap, yet the ability to grow a brand in the right direction – even in a massive jump – is far more likely to come from the designers who understand and work with brands every day. Regrettably, they are simply never given the chance to fling emotion into the mix because the marketer lacking in real creative confidence will seek to repress and minimise personal risk.’

Absolut’s Flavor of the Tropics duty-free edition was created by design agency Williams Murray Hamm, but agency creative director Garrick Hamm acknowledges that the brand gains something more than just effective design when it collaborates with artists. ‘For Absolut, working with artists is part of an overall strategy. It’s not necessarily about the design output itself – most good design groups should be able to push the brand – but it shows they move in these artistic circles.’

According to Milton, the artist-brand collaboration merely provides a ‘quick PR win’. ‘It’s the addition of cool and the quality by association stamp,’ he says. ‘Basking in the reflected glory of a renowned “creative” might seem attractive to some marketers. For once, they take a hands-off position and let the artist have centre stage, reaping the plaudits and admiration for their daring. This is something few can do when engaging with the “professional” designer.’

In the end, any collaboration rests heavily on the strength and synergy of the relationship. A weak link or a cursory ‘artistic’ flourish will be transparent to consumers, while a committed, long-running programme of focused artistic endorsement could prove very effective. And whether fresh design ideas are sourced from practicing artists, through open competitions and crowdsourcing, or from a standard design agency process, one thing is now for sure: the public, more powerful and vocal than ever before, will respond to the outcome, as Gap discovered.

‘[Technology changes] have turned the world on its head in the past few years and designers have to up their game,’ says Stott. ‘We can’t control everything and we’re no longer closed off from everyone. Younger designers know this – they try things out quickly and online, ditch what doesn’t work and move onto something else. But traditional design has this process: we go away and think and set up a structure. We may have to rethink our process. In 15 years’ time, graphic design will not exist as the profession it is now.’


Case study – Brancott Estate / Sarah Herriot Design

Wine brand Brancott Estate, creator of the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, commissioned jewellery designer Sarah Herriot to create a range inspired by the landscape of the company’s New Zealand vineyards. Herriot was selected partly because she was raised in New Zealand and has an affinity with landscape, but also because of the overlap between Herriot’s and Brancott’s customer profile.

‘Our customers are culturally astute, affluent and discerning so we have to work hard to connect with them,’ says Matthew Bird, marketing controller at Pernod Ricard UK wines, Brancott Estate’s owner. ‘A design collaboration is an effective way of reaching consumers. But to make it successful it was really important for us to take a lot of time to build a relationship with Sarah, establishing basis on which we wanted to work together. As a result, there was a lot more time spent upfront compared to a normal design agency process.’

Herriot’s designs include a women’s pendant and a pair of cufflinks, sold via the companies’ websites. ‘It’s important for me to be able to tell people why I’ve made things in the way I have,’ says Herriot. ‘These pieces capture the vineyard’s location and there is the story of where I’m from. But I wouldn’t necessarily do any collaboration; it couldn’t go against my design ethos and I need to feel happy with the process and results, as in the end it will have my name all over it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 14 April 2011.

Social media dialogue

As the social media explosion rolls on, more and more talk centres around the possibilities – and realities – of interaction, collaboration and dialogue. Now we are all so easily connected, conversations may flow back and forth like never before; at least that’s the promise.

For museums, this is an enticing prospect: the offer of readymade channels through which to converse with the public, near and far, at relatively low cost. But have social media really brought about genuine dialogue between cultural heritage institutions and society at large? And what are the implications of trying to promote such two-way communication?

Many museums are no strangers to dialogue and debate with their visitors. Some of the larger institutions have already developed dedicated physical spaces in order to host and promote debating events. The Natural History Museum’s Nature Live Studio and the Science Museum’s Dana Centre are two high profile examples of science-based dialogue and discussion forums. In fact, the Dana Centre was specifically established, eight years ago, as a facility to engage adults in scientific dialogue away from the notionally kid-friendly main museum. Focus groups had revealed that this kind of two-way debate would appeal to adults and help draw them into the Science Museum.

Online social media would appear to offer an even simpler route to spark up conversation with anyone interested in the work of a museum. In particular, social media allow for ongoing, sustained conversations, as well as one-off themed events. Yet despite this promise, social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter are still predominantly used as marketing and public relations channels, occasionally providing question and answer type interactions between the public and the museum.

But do these question and answer exchanges necessarily connote conversation and dialogue? ‘Crucially, for communication to count as dialogue, it needs a third statement to be made in order to demonstrate that both parties are responsive,’ says Kevin Bacon, curator of photographs at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove. ‘It’s great, of course, that social media are being used for Q&A sessions and marketing, but these are essentially traditional activities that are using new media for much the same ends as before. I think we need to look at social media at a much more elemental level and consider how this can transform museums’ relationship to society.’

At their best, museums are fantastically rich repositories of knowledge and sites of investigation about the world and our lives within it. Because these subjects are so vast, museums arguably have as much to receive from the public as they do to give. Interpretation is often personal and it can be enriching for curators to hear about other people’s knowledge and experience of an object or collection. In a recent science fair at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, for example, I used a West African talking drum to demonstrate the properties of pitch in sound, but an African visitor to the event actually knew a lot more about how the drums were used indigenously than I did.

When it comes to dialogue, museums need to ask what they might want from conversations with the public and what social media can offer. ‘The best dialogue aims at reconstructing collections’ original contexts, enabling people to make new meanings and cultural works and applying this knowledge to the future,’ says Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates. ‘The ultimate goals of the best kinds of practice involve wider social or cultural transformation, the creation of a learning society, for example. These are far more important than corporate goals, although bonus outcomes might be raised profile, participation and support for the organisation.’

According to McKenzie, online interactions range widely. There is the ‘superficial and fragmentary’ testing of social media, as well as more focused corporate programmes that engage people in order to sell tickets, boost membership and generally increase visitor numbers. As we move toward educational dialogue, exchanges can become richer. Traditional ‘informative’ methods offer information about collections, ideas and histories, but at the far end of the spectrum there can also be transformative dialogic learning, ‘where the goal is to solve problems or create a shared horizon of understanding through activities ranging from conversation through to collaborative research or creative experiment,’ says McKenzie.

The depth of these kinds of objectives is a far cry from a few question and answer posts on a Facebook page. They are bound up in the definition of the role, purpose and even operational structure of a museum. Corporate and PR messages do not rely on dialogue, but effective transformative learning surely does. Nurturing this level of communication requires a concerted effort to promote a culture of conversation amongst all museum professionals, not just those who operate the Twitter account. But according to Nina Simon, a leading US consultant on museums and web 2.0, most museums ‘don’t have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land.’

But the numbers are there: Facebook page ‘Likes’ for some of the bigger museums are well into the tens (or even hundreds) of thousands. The real question is what to do with them. For Bacon, using social media for dialogue and conversation could be a step towards embedding museums more directly into everyday life.

‘Museums have changed substantially in the last ten years or so, but I suspect that most people still perceive them as little more than a place where there are things to look at,’ he says. ‘Social media are a very good means of conveying what museums actually do and by showing what goes on behind the scenes there is much better chance of threading museums into the popular imagination. This can then provide a platform for developing new audiences, philanthropy and, perhaps most importantly at present, political support. None of that requires dialogue necessarily, but any conversations that we can hold will enormously enhance and strengthen these new relationships.’

Needless to say, cultivating any kind of ongoing dialogue requires commitment and an investment of time, resources and energy. If museums really want to set themselves up for deeper conversation – something beyond online events listing, status updates and 140-character Q&As – there’s doubtless plenty of work ahead.

 This article was written for MuseumNext, 4 April 2011.

Ahead of the game

If the internet age has taught us one lesson, it is that when people are connected to each other, they spawn new behaviours. Sharing and collaboration underpin many aspects of the information era – from open source, open innovation and crowdsourcing to social networking, flashmobs and online gaming, they all have their own organic dynamics.

Video games, in particular, have the power to connect large numbers of players in one virtual space. And it is often the creativity of the players, as much as of the original designers, that leads to the most interesting developments in emergent game play and games design.

By linking together, gamers have dreamt up new rules and behaviours that flex a game’s original design and turn it into something else – something co-designed by the players.

Halo 3, a first-person shooter developed by Bungie for the Xbox 360 console, is home to a good example of collaborative play. Texas-based digital consultancy Rooster Teeth Productions customised the rules from one of Halo 3’s existing game modes to create Grifball, agame-within-a-game that has all the elements of a full-blooded, 16-person sport. Grifball has been so successful that leagues are springing up all over the world, Grifball character action toys have been manufactured and Bungie has now included the game in its official community playlist as a permanently available game.

’People like making up rules – it’s our natural game-playing mode,’ says Holly Gramazio, lead games designer at gaming consultancy Hide & Seek and curator of Sandpit, the group’s experimental gaming nights.

’When you’re young you make up rules and decide how to play something. But as people get older, they tend to feel less comfortable doing this. Nobody stops in the middle of a game of five-a-side and says, “Hey, let’s see what happens if we draw three circles on the pitch and if you step into one you have to run backwards for the next 30 seconds.”’

Little Big Planet 2, created by Media Molecule for the Sony Playstation, promises players ’a powerful new set of tools that vastly widen the scope of possibility, [handing] you the power to create whole games’. These tools let players create characters, compose music and direct cinematic sequences, as well as design whole playable environments.

This reluctance to change the structure of play is being broken down by video-game titles that actively encourage people to design their own gaming environments.

Not surprisingly, Lego has also unveiled its ’kit of parts’ video-game offer, Lego Universe, which takes the enduring appeal of block-by-block construction and throws it into a virtual world populated by other players and their Lego contraptions.

Although player design is a key selling point of both Lego Universe and Little Big Planet 2, they still provide plenty of pre-designed game narrative for players to follow.

The real runaway success in design-it-yourself gaming is the ultra lo-fi Minecraft, a title created by Swedish developer Markus Persson in which players ’mine’ polygon blocks from the earth and use them to build whatever structures they can dream up. Aside from a few monsters roaming the territory at night, that’s pretty much all there is to it – you create your own gaming world and share it with the other players and their constructions.

’I realised that a game that is simple, yet dynamic, has the potential to be turned into a really great game,’ writes Persson.

’I believe that I can combine enough fun, accessibility and building blocks for this game to be a huge melting pot of emergent game play.’

This simplicity has netted Minecraft more than five million registered users, 1.5 millionof whom have bought the paid version of the game. In 24 hours alone, on 1 March, more than 40 000 new people registered and more than 11 000 paid for the title.

’Minecraft is fascinating,’ says Max Reyner, insight editor of The Future Laboratory’s trend network LSN Global. ’It’s very lo-fi and you don’t really do anything with the designs afterwards. It reminds me of people who build model architecture in their attics. The difference, though, is the audience that can see the design when it’s completed. Minecraft users can place videos of their designs, complete with audio commentary, on sites such as You Tube, and suddenly there is an audience of several million people.’

This is the big change. Historically, some games shipped with a built-in level editor – a piece of bespoke 3D design software that allowed people to design their own gaming environments. Similarly, games like The Sims and Civilization are built on the appeal of player-as-God, fashioning and controlling their own dominion.

But at the time these were largely solitary pursuits; without other players there was no scope for the emergent game play that is particularly exciting about today’s gaming.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Eve Online are almost entirely constructed from organic emergent game play. Eve’s design, by Icelandic company CCP Games, is rich but also very open: it says, here’s space, some planets and some spaceships – off you go. The sandpit is yours – make your own rules’.

This article was written for Design Week, 24 March 2011.

Augmented reality in the museum

In October last year, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

This article was written for MuseumNext, January 2011.

Glitch & Drone Associates

Although this site is a collection of published articles on design and communications subjects, I have also just co-founded a new venture which I think is worth a mention here. It’s called Glitch & Drone Associates and is a bespoke sound and music composition service aiming to support other communications media – such as graphics, objects, spaces and words – with things sonic.

My partner at G&D is digital designer Simon Meek. We are both very much part of the design industry, but we bring a lifelong interest in music, sound and recording to the design and branding process.

There’s more about our thoughts on the value for this kind of service on the site itself, along with a few audio goodies to wrap your ears around. Email us at if you’d like to know more.

Pointers to the future

In 1967 Milton Keynes was formally born as a ’new town’. The child of a 1960s urban design template, its grid-like structure – a radical departure for a UK city – was focused around a very particular aspect of modern life: the motor car. As Tim Fendley, chief executive of Applied Information Group, puts it, the city was ’built on the 1950s American idea that you should be able to get your car as close as possible to the door of wherever you are going’. How times change.

Near Abu Dhabi, another planned city is starting to take shape. Developed by renewable energy conglomerate Masdar, the 6km2 Masdar City has ambitions to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world and an epicentre for energy innovation and clean technology.

A project of this scale has many aspects, but one area that will influence the way the city takes shape is its wayfinding scheme. Unlike when Milton Keynes was planned, today’s urban planning is framed by climate change, renewed ideas of localism and carbon-neutral living. For citizens this means, among other things, more walking and cycling and less driving.

Bristol-based wayfinding consultancy City ID is working with London and Dubai branding consultancy Endpoint on wayfinding aspects of the Masdar City project. These groups are, in turn, working with Foster & Partners on Masdar City’s evolving masterplan. ’Unlike most other projects, Masdar is being created on a blank piece of paper, which means we can really shape the city from a wayfinding and user experience,’ says Mike Rawlinson, director of City ID.

Wayfinding is concerned with how people ’read’ a city, with how they interpret its scale and layout, the character and composition of its different regions and the accessibility of its amenities. Rawlinson describes wayfinding as the psychological or metaphysical aspects of a place. Fendley says that just as architectural planning is concerned with the spaces between buildings, wayfinding is concerned with the space between the ears.

This thinking – and perhaps the term ’wayfinding’ itself – has its origins in the work of American urban planner Kevin Lynch, who published the influential book The Image of the City in 1960. Lynch’s message is that if people understand a place well, they will feel comfortable moving around it and will make the best use of it. ’Wayfinding design expertise is extremely valuable at the masterplanning stage,’ says Fendley. ’An awareness of the psychological aspects of architecture is growing. People are already thinking about it more in relation to building interiors, and it will start to play a bigger role in city planning.’

It is widely agreed that sustainable futures will come through shifts in outlook and behaviour as much as developments in technology. Masdar hopes to represent both: ’As a company, Masdar is a laboratory looking at what’s possible in terms of sustainable and clean technology; the city is to be the physical, living embodiment of that,’ says Rawlinson.

So what might wayfinding design’s role be in achieving this? Wayfinding is not just about signs, but about considering the whole infrastructure and layout, including transport systems, the climate, areas of shade and light, lines of sight and vistas. AIG’s Legible London scheme promotes awareness of walking routes, and, in particular, the idea of a five-minute walk radius, a ’scale and principle that is valuable for community neighbourhoods’, says Fendley.

Rawlinson also believes that walking will be crucial to the ambitions for Masdar: ’I think the whole environmental credibility of the project hangs on the development of a walking culture. We’re talking about promoting and encouraging new types of lifestyles,’ he says.

If Masdar City is successful in a region that has some of the highest CO2 emissions in the world, it could become an exportable commodity – a blueprint for future cities based on low-energy dwelling and the life à pied.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 January 2011.

Museums, writing, design and photography scott(at) @sbeebee / 07859 825 496