A licensed architect by education, I have worked in museum planning and exhibition design in the United States for over 20 years. At Boston Productions (BPI) I oversee the 3D and graphic design team, liaising with museum and exhibitions clients and designers to develop immersive and interactive media environments that engage, educate, and entertain visitors. 

Some of the projects that I have worked on, over the years, include installations at the National Museum of the United States Army, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the Smithsonian Institution (the world's largest museum and research complex), and a number of exhibits for the National Park Service. 

How have you used evidence-based design (EBD) in museum planning and exhibition design?

We use published research and anecdotal evidence. We learn from museum educators, architects and interior designers, to make more informed design decisions that enhance the visitor experience and improve the communication of educational information.

If you think of visitors as a form of customer, EBD can improve the visitor experience, which can encourage repeat visits, or increase signups for different memberships, which can help increase museum revenue and strengthen public outreach.

That said, EBD is still a fledgling area for the sector and museums do not have the same risk profile and level of accountability as, for example, hospitals or prisons, where the need to support design decisions with evidence is much more important. As such, some clients are aware of and incorporating it into their design process, others aren’t.

Transforming museum and exhibition design

What types of EBD resources are available today?

Museum visitor studies have been produced since the 1920s and 30s and give observational data on basic visitor behaviour. For example, as a general rule of thumb we can say that 70-80% of visitors typically turn to the right when entering a gallery space, and the majority only view 20-40% of an exhibition, which is related to attention span, speed of movement, and the amount of time they have given themselves for a visit. Studies have shown that a person’s attention span decreases significantly after about 30-45 minutes, at which point their pace of walking starts to speed up.

More recently, technology has been deployed to gain deeper insights. RFID tracking and internal beacon tracking technology can reveal visitors’ paths through the museum and identify where they are spending the most time.

Any specific examples of cutting edge research?

A recent study at St.Gallen Art Museum in Switzerland saw volunteers wear sensor gloves that measured their entire physiological response to the environment, including their heart rate, the speed they walked through exhibits, the time spent at exhibits and their location. The data revealed patterns of visitation, random outliers, and information on the exhibits that were most effective at holding visitors' attention.

Useful data can also be gathered from the exhibits themselves. BPI designs digital experiences, including computer interactive touch screen displays and touch tables, used by visitors to dig down and access more information, or connect with social media accounts and share what they are seeing and learning.

Data collected can reveal how long a visitor is spending at a computer interactive exhibit, or how frequently they email about a ‘make it yourself’ experience. That can inform design changes to the exhibit, or the design of museum space itself - a short amount of time spent at an interactive may indicate that its user-interface is not intuitive, its content is non-engaging, or that not enough space has been included around it for the quantity of people using it.

What other trends do you see in EBD for museum planning and exhibit design?

The idea of free circulation has taken off over the past decade, based on studies showing that people like to be able to choose their own path, rather than be forced through an experience. At the same time, visitors want clear paths available that allow them to follow a chronological or themed storyline.

Many designers now consult retail research, which is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of collecting data on how customers behave. The book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill, revealed how grocery stores can increase their profit if circulation is counter-clockwise rather than clockwise, and the importance of the average eye height to where important items should be put on display.

Colour theory has grown in importance over the past couple of years, becoming more of a colour science. I have heard marketers say that colour is 90% of the reason people buy a product, which can apply to the design of packaging, or of the retail environment itself. We know that women prefer blues, purples and greens, and men prefer greens and blacks. When people see blue they feel a sense of trust. This has all had an impact on museum colour schemes and the colours of individual graphic and text panels.

Transforming museum and exhibition design

Are there examples of museum planning or exhibit design where EBD is not applicable or relevant?

Exhibition design is a form of 3D sculpture from subject content, using sight, sound, and even smell. It is quite artistic and instinctive, and therefore not entirely reliant on data-based decision making. There is a sense within the industry that data and specific measurements are not always superior to qualitative understanding, intuition and subjective experience. In addition, we are not trying to save lives when designing a museum or an exhibition, there's less risk and accountability than with hospitals and schools, so it is not 100% applicable to this industry.

How is EBD incorporated into your design process?

Research and anecdotal knowledge can be brought to the design table at an early stage, depending on the level of importance placed on it by the client. Later in the process, prototypes of individual digital exhibit experiences are produced and tested on volunteers, selected to meet the specific demographic of visitors. Observations of, and feedback from, those volunteers can be used to inform design changes, perhaps leading to adjustments to the entire graphical user interface, or changing the orientation or the scale of the experience. Prototyping helps ensure that experiences work technologically and achieve proof of concept.

Transforming museum and exhibition design

Is EBD something clients in the sector now expect from design consultants?

That’s the billion-dollar question. There is often a preconception that technology allows us to easily conduct research, but in fact it is not quick or easy. The fact it takes time and money can make it a hard sell as it doesn't always fit within the client’s budget and not all clients have the luxury of a lengthy project schedule. In an ideal world, EBD would be used at an early stage, there would be proper prototyping and visitor assessment, plus post-installation research to gain the full benefits of the process.

Are designers that use evidence to back up decision making seen as more credible by clients?

Yes, designers often get stereotyped as artists whose ideas are subjective and open to interpretation. If we are able to come to the table and back up most, if not all, of our design decisions with clear evidence and data, clients can have much more confidence in our design concepts.