The first London Design Biennale – sponsored by SPARK THINKING client, Jaguar – has been taking place throughout September at Somerset House. With over 30 installations from different countries and territories, the exhibition presented newly commissioned works that explored the theme Utopia By Design. Architects, designers, scientists, writers and artists from leading museums and design organisations explored big questions and ideas about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities and social equality. The result was an engaging and interactive exhibition with innovation, art and design solutions presented as an immersive, inspiring and entertaining tour of the world.
As you would expect, navigating the breadth of the globe involved deep preparation in planning your route and locating key points of interest for itinerary inclusion. Unfortunately for me, time was not on my side. I attended knowing it would be a fleeting visit as I did not have the time to explore the exhibition in its entirety and peruse the intricacies of each and every installation. My desire to attend the show was still strong, even after an exhausting morning spent building a 250m² booth for one of our clients at ExCeL. I wanted to use the chance opportunity that i was in London whilst this debut exhibition was on to see what thematic inspiration and influences I could take to potentially apply to future projects.
Somerset House was the perfect setting to host the eclectic responses to the theme. From the perspective of a 3D designer it was interesting to see how each country had interpreted the brief, each using different design skills and mediums – some spliced with indigenous scenarios – providing a nod to their cultural heritage. Each country had a different background, different barriers blocking their path to utopia and different opportunities from which to explore the theme.
So without having the luxury of time on my side, what did I do? As I walked around the installations it became obvious that I was influenced by how quickly the installation engaged with me as an individual. I found myself concentrating my limited time on those that were effortless in grabbing my attention and managing to maintain it. This could have been something fun or playful, other times something interactive and in other cases something simple but visually stunning. Other installations that perhaps seemed cluttered, confusing or needed more time for me to interpret the meaning automatically received less of my time. In essence, if it was difficult to engage there was little chance it succeeded in portraying its message. I simply moved on to the next installation.
For years I have used a similar philosophy when designing booths and exhibits for our clients. Whilst we carefully consider the objectives and the message delivery mechanisms we also need to grab the attention of a busy professional that is potentially being bombarded on a busy exhibition show floor. So what did I learn from my experience?
Firstly spending time at the outset of any project to explore and decide on the right message for the client and situation is time well spent. Challenge your assumptions, explore all ideas, re-visit these ideas if you need to and then share these ideas with trusted colleagues with different views and experiences to your own. The more time you spend in the exploration stage the more likely you will find the nugget of gold you are sifting for. It is much easier to develop or refine your ideas from this point but if you choose the wrong message from the outset the project may not achieve its objectives and will certainly not be as effective as it could have been.
Secondly, when designing the physical space for delivering the message, ensure it is engaging for your visitors and carries the message you have decided on earlier in a clear and simple way. I like to use a constant check during this process, asking myself what is the BIG IDEA, why will visitors spend time on this exhibit and how will they take away the all-important message? If the tools you are considering add little value or reinforcement to this message you can legitimately question the use of it. When it comes to the message and the levels of engagement put yourself in the visitor’s shoes. Think about their demographic both as a collective and as individuals. What would make them want to engage with your exhibit? If you can answer all these questions you know you have a good grounding to deliver an effective and engaging exhibit.
So what was my favourite installation at London Design Biennale? The United States presented an interactive installation called The Immersion Room. The clever design used digitised wallpaper and an interactive console table to create a personalised wallpaper design created from images from the Smithsonian Design Museum archives. The wallpaper was then projected live into the 3D space around you. It was engaging, interactive, immersive, simple and – above all – memorable.