Category Archives: Digital

Facts in focus

One of the more interesting outputs from the early stages of an otherwise slow-starting World Cup was the extraordinary amount of data generated from the minutiae of the games themselves. With data feeds streaming into news and press organisations in real-time, there is very little that isn’t recorded: for each minute of a match we can see the number of passes, possession and zones of play, fouls and cards, balls won and lost, player touches, shots, corners, the frequency of World Cup tweets on Twitter and, if you’re lucky, even the odd goal.

All this raw information is fired around the Web in the instant after the events occur, feeding number-crunchers and data visualisers everywhere. A nice example is The Guardian’s ’Twitter replay’ tool – an animated visualisation of what people were saying at each moment of a match: the more frequently a term is used, the larger its bubble blooms. It’s the 21st century’s Kop erupting with shouts and cries at a malicious foul or a scorching goal.

The competition provides a concentrated and global focus on stats and data, but this is by no means a World Cup phenomenon. In all kinds of fields we are recording and sharing more data than ever. As more of our behaviour is mediated through digital technology, the statistics of this behaviour are recorded as we go. Your iTunes, Spotify or other media player, for example, may well ’scrobble’ all the songs you listen to straight to your Last.fm profile, leaving behind an ever-lengthening trace of your musical predilections.

Many more complex and sensitive datasets are being recorded and disseminated too – the British dead and wounded in Afghanistan or details of local crime incidents, for example. And the volume of available public data is growing fast, fuelled particularly by the work of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who has pushed hard for greater transparency of Government statistics.

But making useful sense of this sea of data can be a complex design challenge. Interactive, graphic and information designers alike are tasked with finding ways to let us mine these streams of words and numbers in meaningful ways. ’It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re at the beginning of something really big,’ says Alex Morrison, managing director of Cogapp, a digital consultancy which recently designed The Sunday Times’ General Election data visualisation tool. ’We’re entering a new world where events, locations and contextual information are open and shared, and it’s going to be huge. Visualisation is the sexy graphic output of that, but the challenge will be in designing information architecture which makes sense of it and allows people to do something useful with it.’

As anyone who has compiled a stats-led report will know, achieving a correct and context-sensitive presentation of data is crucial. But with the volume of accessible data growing, the likelihood of misrepresentations grows too. ’We have access to information like never before and it’s almost overwhelming,’ says Michael Robinson, head of graphics at The Guardian. ’Improvements in software have made it easier to input data, but what people are doing with it creates a whole other problem.’

According to Robinson, the explosion in data visualisations, infographics and mash-ups has produced a number of ill-informed, badly designed and even misleading representations. With certain datasets, this could have serious ramifications. ’With any data you can always do something, but a visualisation isn’t necessarily accurate, helpful and good,’ he says. ’Data doesn’t always paint the whole picture; you have to look at why a particular figure might stand out. Having spent years trying to get people to use graphics in journalism I’m now faced with this wash of stuff that’s not good. And if people just produce stuff that’s visually impressive but not good, it will eventually hit back on graphics.’

But there’s no doubt that data can be aesthetic too. Eric Fischer is a computer programmer from California who used Flickr geotagging data to map the volume of photographs taken around major cities worldwide. The result is the Geotaggers’ World Atlas. ’I made the maps because the photo locations seemed like a great source of information about what places in the world people find most interesting,’ says Fischer.

A second series of the Geotaggers’ World Atlas attempts to reveal the differences between locals’ and tourists’ photographs of each city. Comprised solely of coloured data points on a map, when scaled down these images are a visual treat. But they also paint an immediate picture of behaviour, engaging in both content and form.

And as the range and complexity of datasets grow, this is a trick graphic and interactive representations have to pull off – providing engaging and useful access to information without misleading or skewing the truth behind the numbers. Information designers with considerable skill and responsibility will be in demand.

This article was written for Design Week, 8 July 2010.

Platform cues

As the seams at Apple’s App Store threaten to burst, the volume of iPhone mobile phone applications continues to soar. Stacks of apps, from both independent developers and big commercial clients, from trivial little games to a major music platform, are lined up and waiting for the green light from Apple so they can enter the store. The apps micro-payment market is booming. For digital designers, this is a coming of age in mobile apps possibilities. The iPhone’s 480×320-pixel screen ‘real estate’ and button-less operation have opened up graphic possibilities and a new level of intuition in interaction design. And with brands starting to see the value of mobile apps to their marketing mix, the opportunities for professional designers are ripe.

The iPhone is certainly not the only touch-screen mobile around (handsets using Google’s Android platform are emerging, and others run on the Symbian platform) and it’s easy to forget just how small the iPhone market really is: O2 says it has sold ‘more than a million’ handsets, but that’s in a mobile market, says Ofcom, of more than 75 million connections. Yet the iPhone is clearly the designer’s favourite. ‘It is ahead of the competition and although at first sight it’s similar to a Google[-powered] phone, it’s quite different to use,’ says Alasdair Scott, director at mobile group The Bright Place, which has developed a series of i-Trump apps based on the original Top Trumps card game.

Of course, mobile apps did not appear with the advent of the iPhone; there are many available for older handsets, mostly using the Java language, but their visual and interaction capabilities are far more constrained. The arrival of larger screens and touchbased interaction means that visual elements are becoming as vital as coding, opening the door for developers to work in collaboration with graphic designers.

‘There’s a real talent to designing with very few pixels – originally we had 32×32-pixel, black-and-white icons. Now things are a little bit easier. The iPhone gives you proper screen real estate and 57×57-pixel icons, so the experience compared to a Java app is very different. And because of the mechanics of how an iPhone app is constructed, you’re looking at the space as one element, in which you can hang different bits. In the old days of the Internet, you had separate elements like pictures, text and headers and they all looked a certain way,’ adds Scott.

As graphic possibilities increase, so does the importance of visual impact. Advertising agency Fallon’s visual identity work for the BBC’s national radio stations was conceived in 2007 with mobile platforms in mind, and has come into its own in BBC Worldwide’s new Radio Times iPhone app, itself a great bit of information design by US group TV Compass.

But ensuring stand out from the crowd is harder than ever. The ‘open’ distribution platform of the App Store has attracted a swathe of independent developers – some hobbyist, and others seeking to making a living – but often without any real training in visual or interaction design. Independent developer Ed Lea acknowledges that without higher quality design, apps are now less likely to be seen. ‘I’ve noticed a huge shift in the Apple Store since it launched last year. Getting applications noticed is now very, very difficult. Working with a designer to create an application that’s both aesthetically pleasing and well thought out certainly wouldn’t harm [its chances of success].’

Having held number one spots in the App Store charts with his MMS and TV Plus apps, Lea brought in illustrator Emma Anderton to create a character for his latest offer, the ‘novelty app’ BoomBot, which reads out text entered into the phone.

But perhaps the biggest shift for professional designers will arrive when corporate clients start to explore the marketing possibilities of mobile apps. ‘They are very much part of the marketing language, converging around websites, widgets and phones,’ says Jon Carney, chief executive of digital and mobile consultancy Marvellous. ‘And there is a branding impact in using apps too – it’s part of a whole move from being a message holder to becoming an enabler. In this way, everyone has a chance to do something interesting.’

This article was written for Design Week’s Interaction Design Supplement, autumn 2009. 

Second life

Online social media are where it’s at. Brands know this, corporations know this and of course, so do many museums.

Bundled under the rather opaque term “web 2.0″, a host of online sites and services – coupled with wider access to faster internet connections – has profoundly influenced the way that many people communicate.
Previously unrelated individuals can speak to one another, while larger numbers of people come together to form “web communities”.

At its best, this activity spawns new networks of knowledge – sharing, thinking and inspiration; at worst, it serves up a white noise of banalities. And like all organisations that deal with the public, museums have to navigate a way through this terrain, harnessing its strengths and watching for its pitfalls.

With each new social media phenomenon there is a bubble of hype: first it was Facebook and now it is Twitter. Among the hype it is not always easy to ascertain whether these things are genuinely useful; in the case of Twitter in particular, first appearances are generally discouraging, although further exploration yields riches.

The benefits of such services to museums, and how they might approach using them, are even less clear and a lot of head-scratching and question-posing is currently underway.

This Working Knowledge discusses some of the opportunities and challenges presented by online social media, looking at projects from leading institutions around the world. But before heading into the thick of it, it is worth trying to pin down what web 2.0 actually means.

Really, it is a catch-all term relating to a “generation” of online services that are built around interaction, social networking, sharing and interoperability.

Another, simpler way of looking at it is offered by consultants Lord Cultural Resources, which describes social media sites – such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – as an extension of “the sharing of experiences once the sole purview of word-of-mouth communication”.

SPREAD THE WORD, VIRTUALLY

As a virtual word of mouth, it is the sharing of ideas, knowledge and experience that underpins web 2.0 services and user behaviour. This behaviour is typically predicated on relaxed openness, dialogue and a collegiate style of collaboration.

While many museum workers may share these attributes, very often the institutions themselves operate more like corporations, as Bridget McKenzie, director of cultural consultancy Flow Associates, explains.

“In the UK, we’ve followed the US model of shifting to museums as corporations and we’ve learned the rules of PR from the business world,” she says.

“I think this PR mode sits uncomfortably with the collegiate style of critical and independent thinking that characterises most cultural sector workers and increasingly grates against the conversational and open modes of social media.”

As a rule, the US is leading the way in working through these questions, with the Brooklyn Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art both notably advanced. On the whole, museums and galleries that have really embraced web 2.0 are still few and far between, yet many say they want in.

“Over the last six months, one of the biggest things I’ve found is that people say they want to do web 2.0, but when it comes to matching the digital output that’s necessary with the shape of the museum institution inside, there is a mismatch,” says UK-based consultant Jon Pratty.

And we are right at the peak of the hype, says Mike Ellis, former head of web for the National Museum of Science and Industry and now a solutions architect at IT group Eduserv.

“Once upon a time the development of social tools had our fellow institutions looking on with horror. After a while it became entirely de rigueur. Round about now, it has become unfashionable to launch anything without some kind of social element. [This] is more about doing technology for the hell of it rather than looking at how users might really want to interact with our content.”

With this as a word of warning, the following articles discuss the practical, as well as strategic, challenges thrown down by museums’ use of social media. The apparent simplicity of many services and projects is appealing, but it masks a number of complex issues within.

The structure and culture of most museums, for example, is rarely prepared to handle a multiplicity of voices, both incoming and outgoing. Managing web 2.0 content throws up many implications for branding, content generation and authorship, tone of voice, timeliness, marketing, interpretation and more.

The Brooklyn Museum, considered by many to be exemplary in its online community work, is still something of an exception, says Pratty (see link below).

“Everyone wants to be like the Brooklyn Museum, but most UK museums aren’t like that. They don’t allow open voices or allow people to speak and author [content]. We have a hierarchical structure and the exemplars [in web 2.0] are not shaped like this, so museums have to change. This is a big thing to be tackled and it is less to do with technology and more to do with who and what the organisation is.”

MULTIPLE VOICES

One key aspect is the erosion of a centralised, single voice of authority, as traditionally presented and policed by a museum’s press and marketing department. Museums need to adjust to the idea of having multiple voices, says Mia Ridge, head of web development for the Science Museum, London.

“The monolithic museum voice is challenged by social media. It has always been the way that a museum has many voices: curators would do seminars, education teams would do something in school, and marketing people would be sending messages out to lots of different places,” Ridge says.

“But technology makes it much more obvious because you can just search through it all on the web. So if I’m semi-officially writing about work at the Science Museum on my own blog, what does that mean? My [technical] writing doesn’t really clash with the museum [voice], but what if explainers or curators are blogging? That might clash with the official lines. We’re exploring this at the moment.”

In fact, even the most progressive institutions are still exploring these issues, so hard-and-fast answers are scarce. But there are already some great examples of innovative projects out there, including the use of Flickr in competition events, both on- and off-site; blogs that offer staff the chance to share their experiences and knowledge; and exhibitions and online collections that are “co-curated” by the public.

As ever, different museums will need different responses to these challenges, based on their own particular objectives. “[Practical responses] have to be crafted for each situation, using the right channels and communities of interest,” says Bridget McKenzie.

“With social media, I think those generic rules you see everywhere are problematic. Organisations need to accept they need to invest in advice and training staff in these new PR skills.”

Jon Pratty echoes this: “Museums are seeking or searching for digital publishing skills, and they really need to. Publishing and content skills are absolutely needed.”

Or, as US-based museum and web 2.0 consultant Nina Simon puts it: “Do we have to be on Facebook and Twitter and every other damn social site? No – you have to determine what fits your goals and resources. And then just do that.”

This Working Knowledge is loosely organised around the types of activity that museums already do before the emergence of web 2.0 communications.

Some argue that the distinction between departmental functions is eroded by these new communications channels and that a full structural and cultural reappraisal is needed to embrace changes in visitor relationships, curatorship and interpretation.

This may be the case, but in the end much outward activity will fall into familiar categories: projecting what the museum does; building audiences; developing and marketing exhibitions and events; and researching and interpreting the history of objects.

The web can now play a role in all of these areas, even if it is just one channel among many. Web 2.0, for want of a better term, is more than a fad – and it is here to stay.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

New voices

Blogging and podcasting are two relatively easy ways to embrace web 2.0. But museums need to be prepared to allow for different views and voices

Web 2.0 technologies enable people to contribute all sorts of ideas and material to museums’ online activities, yet it is the museum’s own content and expertise that remain the main appeal and focus of an institution.

So before considering how actual visitors, and potential ones, might contribute their own material, it is worth asking how the museum’s activities might be usefully translated, or perhaps expanded, into the online world.

What content do you have that is already suited to the web? How might new content be developed that would bring in new audiences, both online and to the museum itself? And how might your processes have to change to manage these new channels?

Perhaps a more apposite question is why publish online at all. When asked whether blogs, podcasts, videos and so on are produced for marketing, interpretation, education or a form of exhibiting, most museums say it is a combination of the lot.

“It is for all of these in a sense,” says Mark Hook, a web content manager at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), in London. “They are communicating the creative work that goes on in the museum to inform and enlighten the site’s users.”

RAISE YOUR PROFILE

In the first instance, a blog or podcast may function primarily to raise the museum’s profile and allow it to communicate farther and wider to interested parties. It is also a way of forming a record of activities for people inside, as well as outside, the museum, and it can allow staff who may not otherwise write about their roles to do so – itself an empowering opportunity.

Once established, a blog might instigate a dialogue with readers, much as the Tate Modern’s Great Tate Mod Blog was used to garner ideas for the interior design of its proposed extension.

A blog may be written for the general visitor, or, as in the case of some of the V&A’s blogs, it might offer a more specialist and focused view than would be appropriate for the main website.

Glenn Adamson and Tristan Webber’s V&A blog, From Sketch to Product, for example, is a detailed examination of the processes of creation in craft and design. Ultimately, blogs will be more successful if they are more about interpretation than marketing.

If you are considering starting a blog, an internal “evangelist” will help convince other, possibly sceptical, members of staff of the benefits. Fiona Romeo, the head of digital media at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), London, says that blogging is still seen by some people as an exercise in the banal.

“It takes a while for some people to realise that [it] is not about what you had for breakfast, but something where you can talk about serious museum things. The blog of Jonathan Betts [the senior specialist in horology at NMM] offers a very personal account of fixing the Harrison H1 clock, for example,” she says.

MAKE IT PERSONAL

The “personal” is at the heart of the idea of blogging and sometimes this can clash with a museum’s traditional authoritative voice.

Museums embracing web 2.0 channels need to make a cultural change in how they approach communications. Distributive content with a more individually authored tone is to be encouraged, even if this does mean relinquishing some “control”.

Viewing content creation and publishing in this way also necessitates certain practical and operational changes. Staff who previously did not produce any written material may need to be briefed on the suitability of different kinds of content.

Guidelines may be useful, but remember that blogs are individually authored: even if the press office did have time to sign everything off, it would run counter to the ethos of blogging.

“We’re looking at more blogs for the [Science Museum’s] centenary celebrations, but how can we bring them into the institution without making them un-blog-like? Previously, some early blogs had ridiculous sign-off processes,” says Mia Ridge, the head of web development at the Science Museum in London.

On the other hand, there will be instances when press and marketing need control of communication over and above a staff member who is publishing a blog, as Fiona Romeo says: “Once, someone made a blog post before the press office had issued information on what was a fairly formal and slightly sensitive issue.

But to issue a press release or draft a formal letter can take days, so which is the better way? People have different views on this, but we have realised there’s a need to build better planning and coordination into our processes, especially with press and marketing.”

Such cultural and operational adjustments are probably more challenging than any practical obstacles when it comes to publishing blogs. According to Mark Hook, the V&A’s blogs seldom need editing and the web team receives them and uploads them in a short time – most of the onus is on the writers.

Mia Ridge at the Science Museum estimates that it takes about an hour to write a post, if the author has thought about the topic in advance.

Another way of disseminating museum content is through a podcast. This may seem technologically daunting, but can be simple and effective. The NMM’s On The Line podcast is an example of how to harness the participatory nature of the web, while creating a museum-authored production.

As well as featuring museum staff talking about their activities and telling various maritime and astronomical stories, the programme also answers the public’s questions.

“We were keen to have real voices asking these questions so that it was authentic,” says Natasha Waterson, the digital project manager at NMM. To achieve this, people call an On The Line answering machine, which records their questions as MP3 files. A presenter then scripts and records the answers on a handheld device and the two are edited together.

“The voicemail system costs about £2 a month, and we send the file for transcription to Castingwords.com, so the whole thing is really cheap. The transcription helps with search engine optimisation and provides better accessibility to the [online] content. All in, it takes about half a day to do,” says Waterson.

Blogs and podcasts extend museum content beyond a physical visit and in a manner that can be more detailed than is appropriate for an exhibition or conventional website. They can also can be instructive and entertaining while at the same time performing a marketing function, albeit not a conventional one.

Just be prepared to rethink the way the museum authors and publishes its “voice”.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Fan mail

Online communities offer many opportunities to market a museum, event or exhibition. But their interactive nature means you must tread carefully

MARKETING

The temptation to use the internet’s many channels and communities for marketing is great. Thousands of people can be reached at once, often in well-targeted groups.

And if a museum starts a Facebook group or Twitter feed, its “fans” and “followers” are just waiting for marketing messages to tell them what’s going on at the museum – right? Well, not quite, because marketing, in the conventional sense, sits rather uncomfortably in the world of social media.

In many ways, social media are a great way of spreading the word about what a museum is up to, especially if people are involved in those activities. The problem is, the net answers back. Or rather, individuals do – and that is where it gets tricky, at least from a branding and marketing perspective.

A recent scuffle centred on the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York illustrates this. In May, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz used Facebook to comment on the galleries at Moma, which he felt significantly under-represented the work of female artists.

The museum’s chief communications officer, Kim Mitchell, responded to the Facebook group, but in a press release-style statement, using a regal-sounding “we” that irked many online readers who seemingly felt shut off from a proper dialogue by Moma’s corporate communications department.

Without scrutinising the precise language, it is sufficient to say that the museum thought it was engaging with people through social media, while others found Mitchell’s tone to be impersonal and inappropriate for a web 2.0 community that expects discourse.

Saltz was also criticised for using Facebook rather than a more open forum to air his opinions, as only Facebook “friends” could respond directly.

NEW MEDIA, NEW RULES

This episode demonstrates how marketing, public relations and branding do not work in the same way online as they do in traditional advertising, posters, leaflets or direct marketing.

Commenting on Moma’s response to the growing online conversation instigated by Saltz, ArtsJournal.com editor Douglas McLennan wrote, “Traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost.”

This is a sticky subject that, for most institutions, is still in formation and flux. If you are thinking of reaching out online for marketing purposes, first think carefully about how you will respond to conversations – favourable or critical – when they develop.

Where does the museum’s voice reside? Is it with the press office, the marketing team, curatorial staff, the director, or all of these? How do you want your brand to be projected and how closely do you want to police it? Do you care about negative comments and will you engage their authors?

Almost certainly, the view on these types of question – and the structures and processes that support it – will have to change as you engage online, as Fiona Romeo, head of digital media at the National Maritime Museum, London, explains.

“Typically [at NMM], every piece of communication would be controlled with style guidelines, editing and so on. Interviews would be run through the press office and everything was centrally controlled. But over the past couple of years we’ve been moving towards more distributive content.”

The web will serve up a multitude of views about a museum and given that these cannot be controlled, it is better to learn how to respond. Traditionally, bad press is often ignored in the hope that the story will soon blow over. But online comments usually hang around indefinitely, and they are searchable.

Nina Simon, a consultant on museums and web 2.0, advises organisations taking their first steps towards social media to start by searching review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor or Qype to see what people are saying about the institution.

“If reviews include incorrect information, add your own comment giving helpful information. If there are negative comments you want to address, commiserate, be friendly, and help them know that you care,” she says.

You can do the same for blogs, again commenting where appropriate. This is a good and simple starting point to familiarise yourself with the web 2.0 environment and is also a type of “soft” marketing.

TWITTER YE NOT?

The biggest social networking story of the day, Twitter, is perhaps the hardest to pin down from a marketing point of view. Some museums are using Twitter to post regular updates on exhibitions and events, as well as converse with the public. Its 140-character “tweet” limit is ideal for quick updates and short question-and-answer conversations.

However, it is informal by nature and the “voice” of a museum’s Twitter contact is typically individual, not corporate. This is a good thing perhaps, but it does have brand and public relations implications.

“Twitter could be the hardest social media platform to take your brand into because it is a person-to-person platform,” says Jim Richardson, managing director of branding consultancy Sumo.

“You need to have an individual [twittering for your organisation] who understands what your organisation is about and understands the medium. They need to be perceived as ‘that cool person who Twitters from the museum’, rather than the institution itself.

“But the content that this individual tweets can be based on your brand. If I’m tweeting for an art gallery wishing to inspire people to engage with art, this forms the basis of all my activity on the site, not just about my own exhibitions, but about other inspiring things.”

Richardson does not recommend Twitter as a public relations vehicle per se, but rather as a way to engage audiences “with interesting conversations”.

Having said that, Twitter is a great mechanism for quick updates, along the lines of “still seats left for tonight’s screening” or “6-9pm tonight, free bar (while stocks last)”, which were recent tweets by the Museum of Childhood in London to promote its First Thursdays events: direct marketing in anybody’s book.

Facebook is perhaps easier to approach in a straightforward marketing sense because it has a section for event details – and, unlike Twitter information, it is not limited to 140-character updates.

Facebook users can become “fans” of their favourite institutions and they do – in droves. The Design Museum, London, boasts of its 46,000 fans, the Tate has almost 12,000, and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, more than 10,000.

MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS

So what does everyone get from this “relationship”? “We keep them updated with news, information about exhibitions and events, and we run competitions and special offers,” says Mark Hook, the web content manager at the V&A.

“The benefit to the online audience is that they always know what is going on at the museum and they are able to enter discussions with us about areas of particular interest. The benefit to the museum is that it is a chance to get feedback from people who are engaged with what we do and it is also an opportunity to reach new audiences,” he says.

Social media are great at getting the message out and reaching new audiences but the feedback is trickier to handle. So marketing in web 2.0 is marketing, but not quite as we know it.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Shared aims

Sites and services such as YouTube, Flickr, iTunes and WordPress can provide useful platforms for sharing your work and events

THIRD-PARTY SITES

One of the most significant aspects of the move to web 2.0 technologies and social media is just how much online content is now delivered to the reader not directly from the source, but through third-party websites or software.

Photos are viewed on Flickr, videos on YouTube, blogs on hosting sites such as WordPress and Blogger. Designed to get people using their systems, these services are simple, largely free and robustly developed.

As well as hosting content, these services are specifically designed so users can share and comment on this material. In many ways, they are an ideal option for museums, few of which can afford to build complex and media-rich websites to host and manage their own content.

When used cleverly, such services can support museum activities extremely effectively. Used poorly, they could become a dumping ground for largely irrelevant media. There are other issues to consider too: media on a third-party site sits within that site’s branding, not your own. And if the site becomes unpopular – or worse, goes bust – it may be difficult to migrate your content to a different system.

These are two main reasons why, given sufficient resources, it may be worth developing a proprietary content management and publishing system for multimedia content to use alongside third party sites.

Of course, the appeal of third-party systems is that all this expensive and time-consuming back-end development is already taken care of; all you really need is good content and a reason to publish it – the rest is easy.

POST HASTE

Posting images to Flickr should take less than an hour if you are already generating photographic content.

“You can post images from museum events on Flickr or upload event videos to YouTube easily,” says Nina Simon, a web 2.0 consultant.

“The time required is highly correlated to whether you are currently generating this kind of content. But if you are already snapping shots, putting them up on the web – with a handy link back to the museum website – is a cinch, and it’s totally acceptable to do it sporadically.”

It is debatable just how interesting pictures of people mingling at an event are to the wider public, but it is an easy way to kick off an online presence. National Museums Liverpool is using this snapshot approach through Flickr to chronicle construction of the new Museum of Liverpool on the city’s waterfront, for example.

The Tate, London Transport Museum and National Maritime Museum (NMM) have all used Flickr to run competitions, with user-contributed photos feeding into content for accompanying exhibitions and books.

In July 2008 the London Transport Museum’s Flickr Scavenger Hunt sent five teams of visitors on a trail of “cryptic clues” to locate and photograph nearby transport-related features in the Covent Garden area, in central London. All the photos were uploaded to Flickr – and ultimately to social networking site Webjam – where the winners were chosen by public vote.

“You need to be well organised to run a Flickr scavenger hunt and think creatively to come up with clues, but events are fairly low-cost and the more you do the easier it becomes,” says Jane Findlay, a community curator at the London Transport Museum.

“Running a public vote is also a great way of prolonging the life of the event. As well as the competition on the day we had a week-long vote for the best photograph.

“It’s been a good way of developing a new web 2.0 community audience and building a media relationship with bloggers. It’s also changed museum interpretation practices by inspiring the use of user-generated content in all future exhibitions.”

The Tate joined forces with Flickr and book-publishing site Blurb as part of its Street & Studio photography exhibition, to add a public element to the show, which was held in 2008. Participants could add two of their own street- or studio-based photographic portraits to a Flickr site, for example (see link below).

“We use Flickr to run audience-participation projects,” says John Stack, the head of Tate Online. “Our approach has always been to ask people to contribute but then to offer something back: displays in the gallery, or a book of selected photographs [for example].”

USING YOUTUBE AND ITUNES

Flickr is the easiest and most used of the third-party media-hosting sites, but some museums are also making use of YouTube and iTunes. If you are already producing video and audio material in-house, these services are especially useful for broadcasting that content.

Tate publishes its video podcast series TateShots on YouTube, and iTunes and is now producing a small amount of content specifically for YouTube. Audio and film recordings of Tate public events are available through iTunes, as are some exhibition audio and multimedia tours, which can be downloaded to iPhones or iPods prior to a visit to the gallery.

Even if you are already producing multimedia material in-house, deploying it to third-party sites will take some additional resources, especially when you plan to update it at least once a month, as the Tate does.

“Mostly we are reusing content from elsewhere or redeploying it,” says Jane Burton, the head of content and creative director of Tate Media.

“Generally it needs to be recontextualised for the medium, and that’s time-consuming. There is a change in what people do as part of their jobs and inevitably working with social media is additional, rather than replacing existing channels, such as email communications, press releases and Tate Online. There is some staff time involved in uploading and maintaining play lists and responding to comments, for example.”

Given the extra time needed to “populate” third-party sites with content, it is reasonable to assess what the benefits might be. According to Burton, Tate measures the number of referrals from these sites back to the main Tate Online website and has found the results encouraging enough to adopt this approach in all of the gallery’s activities.

“In general, we have found that reaching out to communities on other sites is very successful and we are working on a cross-departmental strategy to embed this within the organisation including Tate Online, marketing, press and communications, visitor services, director’s office, membership, and beyond,” she says.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Crowd as curator

Web 2.0 services, such as social networking sites, allow museums to become truly collaborative and democratic

PUBLIC INTERACTION

Web 2.0 is all about interconnections. It can develop the connections between museums and their users, as well as those between the users themselves, but there are also connections between objects – and not necessarily objects held in the same museum.

And it is this last set of connections that can really be harnessed by the interoperability of web 2.0 services and collaboration with the public.

The digitisation of objects and information to create online collections is not new, even though for many institutions it is a slow and ongoing process. But the way that people, including other organisations, might make use of these collections is now changing.

Web 2.0 services such as Flickr and Facebook allow content to be added and manipulated from other pieces of software through what is known as an application programming interface (API).

It is here that some of the most interesting developments will take place, says Mike Ellis, the former head of web for the National Museum of Science and Industry and now a solutions architect at IT group Eduserv.

“[While we focus] heavily on the social aspects of web 2.0 from a user perspective, it is the stuff going on under the hood which really pushes the social web into new and exciting territory. It is the data sharing, the mashing, the APIs and the feeds which are at the heart of this new generation of web tools,” he says.

OPEN SOURCE

A number of museums are building APIs to allow access to their online collections: the Brooklyn Museum in the US and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, are two leading examples. But what does it mean to have an API?

Shelley Bernstein, the chief of technology at Brooklyn Museum, describes it like this: “It’s basically a way outside programmers can query our collections data and create their own applications using it.” In other words, the data in the digital collections becomes open and can be mined and presented in new ways by other web-based applications.

This means that museums can effectively share their digital collections and the public can potentially “collect” information on objects they are interested in, irrespective of which museum holds the real items.

This prompted Beth Harris, the director of digital learning at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York to ask: “Why would a person want a ‘personal collection’ at seven museum websites? Can we really think about our users instead of ourselves?”

This is exactly what the Powerhouse Museum has done with the creation of “D*Hub”, a resource that uses APIs to search a number of design collections held in institutions around the world.

Developing APIs for digital collections obviously requires a dedicated web team, with time to do the coding, even assuming that at least some of the collection has been digitised. But once created, it could lead to a new form of open access that ultimately saves time.

Shelley Bernstein says: “People [in museums] have been working to create various pan-institution collection databases. By releasing our API, Brooklyn Museum data can now be included in these endeavours without requiring more staff time from us – something that would have been impossible prior to the API.”

As well as staff time, there are other considerations, such as material copyright and terms of use, both of which have to be considered under the ethos of sharing and collaboration that such web services promote.

But as museum collections become more readily accessible in different places and formats, opportunities for the public to contribute to the collection increase. One way they can do this is through “tagging”, where brief descriptions are attached to objects online, allowing people to assign their own attributes or knowledge to an item.

Often, the vocabulary of tagging is neither academic nor curatorial, but instead brings a “lay” interpretation to a collection. But increasingly there are instances where the online availability of collections has brought a direct research benefit.

PHOTO LIBRARY

In January 2008, the US Library of Congress launched Flickr Commons as a way to post photographs held in various public collections online. More than a dozen museums, public libraries and other cultural heritage institutions from around the world have now joined, releasing over 12,000 images to be “perused, tagged and researched by the public”.

In many instances, public users of Flickr have provided, or sometimes corrected, information relating to the images in the Commons collection. The Library of Congress itself has already updated almost 200 of its own records based on information provided in this way.

Similarly, unknown scenes in historic photographs posted by the Swedish National Heritage Board were identified by Flickr users within a day.

Both tagging and Flickr Commons lead to the idea of “the crowd as curator”, where members of the public contribute to museum collections and exhibitions alongside curators and historians.

The Brooklyn Museum’s Tag! You’re It game encourages members of its online “posse”community to tag items for the collection, with the aim that their contributions will make the collection easier for others to search.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) put the crowd-as-curator idea into practice two years ago, before social media had really hit the big time. In the build up to Minnesota’s 150 Years of Statehood celebrations in 2008, the historical society invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history (see link below).

This public engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach. “This online technique brought us about 300 responses,” says Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer at MHS.

“We were pleased with the response, but did feel that we were preaching to the converted, since we reached mostly MHS members. Of course, were we to do this process today, we could take advantage of Facebook, Twitter and so on and have a huge reach.”

The MHS programme has been successful partly because of the collaborative development process, says Roberts. “Had we not used this technique, I feel quite sure that the rich blend of stories and objects presented by real people passionate about their nominations could not have been matched.”

Should the public contribute more and more to the process? “We learned many years ago that our visitors understand there is no single way to interpret the past, and they appreciate exhibits and programmes that invite speculation and debate. Public contribution supports this preference in a real and meaningful way.”

So is this the way museum exhibitions are going? Most definitely,” says Roberts. She is not alone in her views.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

On message

Social networking sites present great opportunities for dialogue with visitors. But you have to accept that along with praise will come criticism

BUILDING DIALOGUE

Social media are about interaction. When it works well, this interaction can lead to proper dialogue and the formation of a “relationship” between those involved.

It is this simple underlying appeal that accounts for the huge success of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the many interconnections of the “blogosphere”. But this apparent simplicity belies a thorny complexity when it comes to museums and heritage organisations interacting online.

Most museums say they want to interact with visitors to build relationships and encourage dialogue, but are they really prepared for the web 2.0 world? Too often they don’t really know why they want to have these conversations or how to handle them when they arise.

“[Museums] don’t have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land. They may be in Rome, but they’re not ready to do like the locals,” says Nina Simon, a museums and web 2.0 consultant.

EMBRACE THE FUTURE

A handful of museums around the world seem to have changed their culture and philosophy to embrace online social media. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, the Tate and the National Maritime Museum in the UK, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Brooklyn Museum in the US are all pretty advanced in this area.

If you are thinking of using social media sites or museum blogs to interact with the public, a good starting point is to look closely at what these organisations are doing.

At Brooklyn Museum, Shelley Bernstein, the chief of technology, claims that dialogue and interaction are now intrinsic to their work. But have they had to change to achieve this? “The easiest way for me to answer this question is to say we live with technology and these tools differently now,” says Bernstein.

“It’s more about ambient awareness – it’s a fifth of what my job entails here, but it’s always on in the background: nights, weekends and even on vacation. That’s not a bad thing; I encourage institutions to find the people in their organisation who live these platforms much like our audience do. They are going to be the most natural at managing the presence in a way that is very fluid.”

Much of the challenge lies in how a single institution with limited staff and time can effectively communicate with many individuals, some of whom are not complimentary.

Take an example on the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) Facebook page made after a recent event held at the museum. A visitor wrote: “I was so disappointed. What an over-priced, uninspiring exhibition and such half-hearted late-night ‘events’. Do not pay £11 to see the Baroque exhibition, it’s a total rip-off!”

This may be an isolated opinion, but you really have to respond, which the V&A did, albeit in a fairly cursory fashion, by saying it welcomes feedback. Spurred by this, the visitor then offered more specific criticism of the design of the Baroque exhibition, which the museum then failed to respond to, at least publicly.

The V&A has almost 10,000 “fans” on Facebook, so these interactions are significant. As Simon notes, a Facebook group is one of the most time-consuming of the “cheap” options for developing web 2.0 activity, but it can reach a lot of people in a targeted manner.

“If you have staff members who are already using these social networks, you can quickly broadcast out to a large group of people at infrequent points and provide a place for that group to meet and interact with each other,” she says.

Another option for starting interaction and discussion is to host a message board on the museum’s site. The site of the UK Science Museum’s Dana Centre, for example, features a Discuss area where people can talk about science, technology and the environment by setting up their own topic threads. In this sense it is simple and easily maintained.

But according to Maya Mendiratta, programmes developer at the Dana Centre, without regular plugging and content changes on the site’s homepage, participation is pretty low.

“We have discussed ways to increase participation, but they all require web editing and we are really lucky if we get one hour of the [Science Museum] web team’s time a week. So I would advise that if you are setting up a forum, you get as much web-editing experience as possible and set it up so you can do it yourself.”

FAN BASE

One of the most developed programmes of social networking is the Brooklyn Museum’s 1stfans (see link below). As an internet-enabled version of a traditional member scheme, 1stfans links an online community directly to museum events.

Information about exclusive member events is delivered via Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to encourage people to visit and mix in person with museum staff, artists and other 1stfans members.

In fact, the Brooklyn Museum has a Community section on its website, dedicated to all its online interactions. Here, users can leave comments about their visit, join a “posse” and contribute to the museum’s online collection, as well as read blogs and watch videos. By all accounts, the Brooklyn Museum presents one of the most holistic approaches to web 2.0 interaction in the museum sector.

“Brooklyn has a community-driven mission, so for us, reaching out in these types of forums is very natural and makes sense overall,” says Shelley Bernstein.

“It’s less about PR and more about community and outreach, and our participation online in this way is very similar to what our visitor services staff do when people come inside the building or what our community manager does when she reaches out to the local communities.”

Whatever your reasons for engaging in social media, remember that some form of dialogue will follow, and the way this is handled will affect a visitor’s relationship with the museum.

Perhaps the most important thing is to have an awareness of potential stumbling blocks before heading online “socially”. Be clear at the outset what kind of dialogue or relationships you want and focus on that dynamic, not the technologies or platforms.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Marketing league tables 2009: the view from design

In the wider world, beyond consumer products and services, one of the most remarkable events of the past 12 months was the successful election campaign and inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the US.

It was remarkable not only historically and politically, but also in terms of marketing, for Obama’s campaign communications and branding have been hailed in design circles and beyond as consistently slick and well-executed.

Street artist Shepard Fairey’s screen-printed ‘Hope’ poster swiftly became its defining image (and an iconic piece of graphic design in itself), but the Obama brand was much more than just a poster. The campaign also embodied a shift in sentiment, important not only to politics, but also in how brands talk to consumers – toward trust, honesty and authenticity.

With malfeasance seemingly rife among politicians and bankers playing fast and loose with other people’s money, public trust has become the scarcest of commodities when it comes to big business.

The design industry is subject to the effect of this in several ways. Design is often the only direct touchpoint between brands and consumers, making an understanding of the mood and sentiment of the day crucial for consultancies advising their clients. At the same time, when companies cut marketing budgets and put projects on hold, agency margins are squeezed.

There is no denying it has been a tough year so far, but the picture for design agencies appears to be mixed: some agency heads are describing conditions as ‘the worst they have been for a long time’, while others are enjoying record business wins as clients shop around for the right partner.

According to Doug James, director at brand consultancy Honey, design agencies need more business acumen to remain profitable and successful. ‘It’s about setting a business up, knowing all the metrics and which ones to watch – the key performance indicators. You need to know where it is you make money,’ he says.

Sara Fielding, senior consultant at consulting firm Results International, agrees that this is a primary concern. ‘There has to be greater clarity and understanding of finances, especially net profitability, not just for the business as a whole, but by client and by service offering,’ she says. ‘Only with these systems in place can they really see where the money is being made and be able to argue factually and convincingly for fairer fees.’

In a recession, the pressure on business metrics is unparalleled, but there are  opportunities as well as challenges in the market, according to Iain Johnston, chief executive of marketing services group Loewy. ‘There are a few things happening on the client side and on the agency side that are coming together,’ he says. ‘There’s more focus on value for money and effectiveness – on exactly what you are trying to achieve. Things you can’t show a return on are the first to go, but there does seem to be a flow of work coming through.’

Not surprisingly, clients demanding greater effectiveness and value are becom-ing the norm. Skincare brand Nude has an ongoing partnership with design agency Pearlfisher and the two are collaborating to become more efficient.

‘A more challenging economic climate can often encourage innovation; it forces us to look at what we’re doing and how effective and efficient it really is,’ says Annmarie Harris, marketing manager at Nude. ‘Design spend, like everything, needs to be well-managed and monitored for efficacy. For brands in fast-moving industries like the beauty industry, to stop spending would run the risk of quickly becoming outdated or worse, irrelevant. However, well-utilised, innovative design can achieve fantastic awareness and be very cost-effective. My advice would be to keep spending, but do it cleverly,’ she adds.

According to Jackie Roberts, senior brand manager for tampon brand Lil-lets, measuring the effectiveness of design investment is crucial. ‘All activity should pay for itself by driving sales,’ she says. ‘While it is difficult to establish the effectiveness of a pack redesign in isolation, it plays an important role in optimising the results of the broader communications activity.’

Loewy-owned product design group Seymourpowell has worked with Lil-lets on the development of a new applicator product. ‘We have invested heavily in the current market conditions to establish this as a better alternative to the market leader in the category. Ultimately, success is measured through sales, but we have measures in place to track individual elements of our integrated communications plan,’ says Roberts.

That efficacy and value for money are being demanded at all stages is due in large part to the rise of measurable digital channels. The continued decline in spend on (and the impact of) traditional advertising appears to be benefiting design generally and in particular digital and packaging, where the ROI is greater.

While digital is becoming more important in brand communications, this does not mean businesses should turn solely to digital specialists to work on brand development, warns Nicolas Mamier, European vice-president of branding group Elmwood.

‘Digital is an increasingly important route for communication and therefore features high on the list of requirements from any agency, but I do not believe that means companies should default to using digital specialists to manage their brand,’ he says. ‘Clients are looking for original brand thinking that makes use of the opportunities offered by digital channels, tools and platforms, not just digital thinking.’

The shift away from traditional advertising also has implications for a client’s strategic needs, says Jon Davies, managing director of packaging design group Holmes & Marchant.

‘Above the line doesn’t hit as many consumers as it used to, which means the high costs do not see enough ROI,’ he adds. ‘But ad agencies have long been the strategic partner for brands, investing heavily in planning support for their clients, paid for by the high fees. Recession reduces fees available and pushes clients to ensure they get ROI. So this old ad agency model is no longer sustainable and clients are looking elsewhere for strategic partners with more relevant products; namely, design and digital. The more grown-up agencies have invested in planning to support this shift.’

By introducing planning to design agencies, their thinking is not confined to creating standout packaging, for example, but ensures that there is a full marketing and communications strategy underpinning and supporting the design work, claims Davies.

The whole story

Bob Blandford, design creative director at integrated marketing agency Haygarth, believes we will see more of this. ‘There will be even more focus this year on brand planning, strategy and positioning. [It is] key not only to design work, but in informing and directing the wider communications strategy.’ In an echo of Obama’s holistic design and marketing campaign, the strategy may well include a ‘story’ that can be promoted through channels such as PR activity, social media and advertising.

One of the most prevalent of these ‘stories’ to hit the FMCG packaging world recently is nostalgia. The apparent reassurance to consumers of bygone days and enduring brands has driven a boom in ‘heritage’ design.

‘There has been a growing number of successful marketing initiatives that hark back to, or celebrate, the past,’ says Barry Seal, managing director of branding group Anthem Worldwide. ‘[Examples include] the relaunch of Wispa, Milky Bar Kid advertising and Marks & Spencer and Selfridges’ anniversary celebrations. This is a powerful and effective way to reconnect to the past and bring back the feeling of the “good old days”.’

Another recent branding theme has been that of the ‘local’. Amid a backlash against globalisation and as consumers focus more on their immediate communities, brands are talking up their local ties or knowledge. However, this is not the same as having a strategy, warns Jim Prior, chief executive of branding group The Partners.

‘I don’t think brands should go down the knee-jerk local response, where they say “Look how we’re in touch with the people of Bangalore”, or wherever,’ he says. ‘This is just a reaction and it rings hollow. It’s the time to be assertive and confident about your brand globally, but be aware that the world isn’t a homogenous place.’

The same can be said of nostalgia branding. Brands with heritage by the  truckload, such as Hovis, can capitalise on it. Jones Knowles Ritchie’s pack designs for the bread brand neatly marry its long history with contemporary colourways and clean typography. Nonetheless, it has to be based on something real and authentic, not simply a tactical reaction. ‘That heritage seems an opportune add-on to a brand could be seen as an indictment of the short-termism of the brand manager rather than a celebration of their ability to catch the wave,’ says Smith & Milton director Howard Milton.

Again, it comes back to the attributes of openness and trust. ‘Consumers are seeking honesty and co-operation and design’s role is to communicate this effectively,’ says James. This is changing the way in which brand language is formulated, according to Terry Tyrrell, worldwide chairman of The Brand Union. ‘Amid this landscape of broken promises and brands, people are sceptical and suspicious. Today’s consumer seeks transparency and authenticity, respects candid answers and expects quality,’ he adds.

This leads to another trend in branding programmes: the real need for change to be internal, as well as external. ‘More clients understand that the way to drive their brand forward is as much about internal alignment as external activities. It’s about understanding and buy-in at all levels of the company,’ says Prior. The Partners has been working with global financial consultancy Deloitte on the firm’s brand positioning of ‘leadership and staying ahead’. According to Deloitte UK head of brand Pia DeVitre, the project focuses on the ‘tangible actions’ of the company and its staff. She believes that working on branding is more important than ever in the current market. ‘This recession has made us focus on the things that really matter,’ adds DeVitre. ‘Brand really matters and we still have budgets to support key components of the brand strategy.’

Broader outlook

Such strategic consultancy includes much more than tangible design work. It is those agencies that under-stand their client’s business issues – and are savvy about providing consultancy outside core design work – that are faring well. ‘Clients need something more than just shelf stand-out and pretty design. This could mean consultancy on distribution methods, cost-savings, materials, innovation and so on – whatever helps their business,’ says Davies.

Materials are a key factor in another major trend affecting brands and design – the ongoing drive toward more sustainable processes. Sustainability is now a key factor in most structural design briefs, whether for ethical or PR reasons, or simply to save money by reducing costs. Design can help brands find more sustainable and efficient ways to deliver their products and services. ‘It’s about being smarter,’ says Harris. ‘With Pearlfisher’s guidance and expertise, Nude is in the process of reworking some packaging to better suit our sustainable goals, without destroying our margins.’

According to Johnston, large-scale FMCG brand-owners are ‘taking a major lead on sustainability’, the fruits of which are likely to be seen in the next 12 to 18 months. ‘The focus is on minimisation in general, from packaging and recycling to supply chains and distribution,’ he says. ‘These projects aren’t going on hold because of the recession and they will make a big splash when they are announced.’ However, he declines to name the comp-anies he is referring to.

There is still some way to go before most companies embed sustainable processes into the way they think and operate. Anthem Worldwide’s parent company, Schawk, recently surveyed major US FMCG and retail companies and found that 83% are being affected by packaging sustainability, but only 28% had a comprehensive plan in this area. The survey also revealed that more than 60% of clients look to design and pre-media vendors for up-to-date information on sustainability. ‘Clearly, more needs to be done in terms of shaping both thinking and best practice, so the design industry has a key role to play in educating the marketplace,’ says Seal.

Sustainability is, perhaps, an overarching issue for most brands now, but all clients have different requirements and problems. Some may be solved by traditional market-ing techniques, others by restructuring a business’ processes or even its culture. Design can tackle all of these because

first and foremost the discipline is about problem-solving, and whatever happens to the various marketing channels, businesses will always have problems to solve.

‘One of the great attractions and anomalies of the design sector is that it’s all sorts of different things,’ says Prior. ‘But designers tend to be problem-solvers. The great consultancies think neutrally about what the solution might be. If there’s one unifying theme across design, I think that maybe this is it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 1 July 2009.

Making magic

Some would say that electronic media is at its most powerful in a museum gallery when you cannot see the technology – when immersion is everything and the clunky realities of hardware and software evaporate into a seamless, fluent experience. As any designer will tell you, equipment limitations should never be allowed to hinder or obstruct the function of a product, space or installation.

Ideally, all traces of a system’s innards – its wires, projectors, power sources, sensors and computers – would be hidden from view, while their visible effects combine powerfully to wow and educate visitors in equal measure.

This is much easier said than done: hardware can be expensive and hard to conceal, software prone to ugly crashes. Not only that, but high-end technology pervades our everyday life. Familiarity with the button-less iPhone and the wireless Nintendo Wii desensitises us to just how clever they are, posing some tricky questions for museums looking to make an impression as well as educate.

Nonetheless, some relatively simple technologies still have the capacity to create exhibition magic when they are built on a great creative idea.

Coupled with specially-written computer software, things like sensors, cameras and triggers can help to make a museum space or historic interior come alive in ways we still tend not to encounter elsewhere.

While touch-sensitive surfaces are becoming more commonplace, such things as motion-triggered light patterns, sounds or projections are still the domain of the museum and installations created by new media artists.

These types of “invisible” technology can be used in a variety of ways, to different ends. Your intention may simply be to stimulate the senses and entertain; it may be to encourage physical interaction with an exhibit, or perhaps to entice people to investigate an environment in a non-linear way.

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH

In Verket, an historic ironworks in the Swedish town of Avesta, a sensory exploration of smelting works and blast furnaces is delivered using hand-held flashlights.

Visitors investigate the dark space, shining torches on glowing targets to trigger media or cause dormant machinery to lurch into motion. An invisible coded beam travels from the flashlight to the target hotspot telling computers in the background what type of event to trigger.

Verket is a complex and large-scale installation demonstrating how sensors and triggers can encourage investigation of an historic site where the building itself is one of the principal exhibits.

But the beam transmitters and receivers are basic technologies: the complexity comes in what is triggered, via software, when the two meet. And this could be something as simple as illuminating different areas of a darkened model, or triggering video footage.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Another “invisible” technology is radio frequency identification (RFID), which can be used to tie together a visitor’s experience of an exhibition, tracking their progress as they go.

For the Science of Survival touring exhibition, created by Science Of (a consortium of the Science Museum, London, and Fleming Media), computer exhibit specialist Joe Cutting provided technical consultancy on a system that uses radio tags to follow each visitor’s choices on a number of its interactive installations.

Users carry a unique RFID tag that is read by a card reader on the front of the installations. In the interactives themselves users make various lifestyle choices and at the end of the exhibition a concluding Future City projection automatically compiles these choices to show their environmental impact on a community in 2050.

“Science Of were interested in using a tracking system and considered barcodes, fingerprint scanners and email addresses, as well as RFID, but radio was the simplest,” says Cutting. “The cards are pretty cheap – around 30p each at the time – if you buy [them] in the thousands. An RFID supplier will offer a range of readers and tags, operating at different ranges. We used some of the simplest short-range ones.”

In The Science of Survival, the radio tags are tracked by software written by Ico Design Consultancy, the exhibition’s lead design group. From a curatorial point of view, the system links the content of the different installations, ranging from eating and drinking to transport and building, so that each forms part of the concluding section, giving an experiential mirror of the narrative thread already present in the subject.

For visitors, the invisible nature of radio communication means that this linking feels seamless and effortless. “We wanted something interactive that would be personal, putting visitors at the centre by showing them something they’ve made at the end,” explains Malinda Campbell, the creative director of Science Of.

The tracking system also gives Science Of access to anonymous information about how many people are using each exhibit, as well as content generated by their choices.

“Although it was driven by the narrative we wanted – that is, to show people, without preaching, how their decisions could impact the climate – there is also lots of information you can gather from this kind of tracking,” says Campbell.

“For anybody looking into such technology, I recommend thinking hard at the beginning about what you will want to know later. And testing is vital: you want to make sure the concept and software work before you order all the kit, but you tend to order all the equipment late on in bulk, so it can get very last-minute. Prototype and test with real people as much as you can.”

Software is likely to be a key component in any installation that uses sensors, cameras or triggers, because it is the software that determines how the information gathered from these input devices is translated into “content” or output.

If you are thinking of commissioning something that tracks or detects visitors in some way, you may end up working with software programmers who are subcontracted to the lead exhibition designers.

For example, an installation at the Curve, a new Rafael Viñoly-designed theatre in Leicester, uses cameras to track people’s movements, translating them into a mimicking “silhouette” played out in LED lights. Jason Bruges Studio designed the system, using software programming and motion capture by Chris O’Shea, an interactive designer and artist.

A wide-angle camera tracks the shapes of people passing through the Curve’s glass foyer and relays this information to a computer. The software then translates these shapes into instructions for a light controller that manipulates banks of LED lights on the inside of the vestibule. As each LED spot can be controlled individually, certain spots are switched off in real time to recreate the visitor’s “shadow” on the walls of the cube, copying their movement.

Tim Greatrex, a designer at Jason Bruges Studio, says the Curve installation was designed to reference physical performances in the theatre, not to perform any didactic function. But it does demonstrate how technologies as simple as a camera and LED lights could be employed – with the right software – to respond in all manner of ways and animate spaces.

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Another example of physical participation is Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Frequency and Volume installation, which was installed in the Barbican Centre in London in 2008. This uses cameras to detect shadows cast by visitors on a white wall and translates the position and size of these shadows into a radio frequency and volume respectively.

In this way, the radio spectrum is rendered visually, and participants can tune the installation’s numerous amplified radio receivers into different radio stations by walking around and altering the size and location of their shadow.

Again, Lozano-Hemmer’s work is not specifically educational (although it was originally conceived to get people thinking about the ownership and allocation of radio spectrum in Mexico), but it is another example of how sensors can help generate dynamic spaces that respond to visitors and so seem alive.

The basis of most of these technologies is pretty simple, but their application can become complex. So, as with any digital installation, it is paramount that at the outset you have a clear curatorial aim in mind and that the chosen system is the best way of meeting this objective.

This could be encouraging exploration of a space, linking and personalising installations, or perhaps unravelling a complex or abstract idea.

When approaching designers to create this kind of electronic media display or installation, look for those with interaction skills and remember that you will need reliable computers to make everything happen and to keep it all running.

Maintenance for other hardware may be provided under a contract with the hardware manufacturer or installation company, but it is worth checking this, particularly if a whole exhibit is dependent on the technology.

On the plus side, LEDs, printed circuit boards, RFID tags and camera technology are all getting cheaper and more flexible. So, armed with a strong creative idea, good designers and a skilled software programmer, a little invisible magic may not be out of reach.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.