I enjoyed an accomplished decade-long design career with Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), a regional art museum 25 miles south of Seattle, Washington. During this time, the museum completed a successful capital campaign and exhibited over 4 dozen nationally and regionally focused exhibitions. I started as their first graphic designer and departed as their Web Design Manager and Associate Creative Director. I had a hand in everything design-related—small advertisements to elaborate fundraising event campaigns with invitation sets and digital event decks; quarterly member magazines; digital displays; visitor services, cafe, and store communications; gallery text panels and interaction design; and all levels of web and digital promotions.
At the time, I did not have the UX language or rigor of formal training as I do today, but I see that I was practicing UX design methodology. Following is an interpretive exhibition infographic project that demonstrates this.
Art AIDS America
TAM’s Chief Curator, in partnership with the Curatorial Director of the Bronx Museum of Art, started a project over a decade ago with the idea that HIV/AIDS shifted the trajectory of contemporary art in America. What resulted was Art AIDS America, an exhibit that explores the spectrum of artist responses to AIDS from the 1980’s to the present day (2015). It included works by prominent artists, including Félix González-Torres, Derek Jackson, Kia Labeija, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Martin Wong.
In addition to 120 contemporary artworks gathered from around the United States, the curator had more to the story he wished to include in the exhibition.
A collection of data was shared. It included facts about all of the works of artists, artworks, key medical milestones, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's HIV infection rate data, sprinkled in with information from popular culture. He tasked me to present the information on the gallery walls in a visually compelling way that could demonstrate the interconnectedness between the content of the artwork created, how it related to everything else that was happening around HIV/AIDS.
The first thing I do when starting any complex problem is to analyze and organize the information.
I needed a system to help represent the information. A venn diagram could possibly show the relationship between the information. What if we started with a basic bar chart and built out from there? All data points referenced a date of discovery, creation, or documentation. Revisiting a Jakob Neilsen principle—design a match between system and the real world—I recommended organizing the information architecture in the form of a timeline. It provided natural and logical order to the information. It made sense to me. But would it make sense for others?
I presented a rough pencil sketch of this idea to the Chief Curator, Education Director, and Marketing Director. It made sense. They supported the idea of a timeline. I started on the mock-up that weekend.
When my co-workers arrived the next day, they were greeted with a large mass of post-it notes on my wall. Curious, they asked what I was working on. Curiouser, I asked them to tell me what they thought of what they were seeing. An impromptu user test ensued.
This step validated the timeline idea. Additionally, I learned that popular culture references resonated with everyone. I recall comments such as, “I remember when that song came out.” This was important. These data points provided a reference to a personal moment in their lives. It would do the same for our museum visitor. I decided to pull out the pop-culture information into its own category and encouraged the addition of more pop culture reference points.
Pop Culture references to HIV/AIDs resonated with everyone who view the mock-ups. I made it a category of its own.
I’d love to say that the rest is digital but there are numerous design considerations made in the process of creating any visual communication project. The act of creating is iterative. I continued to refine the form, surface design, and production logistics. I separated the different topics into blocks of color and devised a typographic organization system to accommodate the variable word counts.
I also decided how to show the rate of infection juxtaposed with a second chart about related death rates. Deaths were down, but infections continue a steady climb.
Further, I created and followed a typographic layout system that would accommodate late-in-the-process copy text revisions, decided what software was appropriate to support a 12-foot wide end-product, and shepherded revisions reviews in a timely manner so that we could meet vendor and installation deadlines. Part of my work process includes production thinking because I take responsibility to make sure that my work is delivered on time and within budget.
With the groundwork and functionality of the visual information system pre-approved because I kept the directors informed and made sure I had their approval before I started on the digital production, the timeline stayed true to my mock-up.
Validation, Did it Work?
Gallery attendants provide the best feedback. They see, first-hand, visitor interactions on a daily basis. The exhibit opened with huge fanfare. The feedback was tremendously positive. Visitors were spending time with the presentation. The timeline enhanced the exhibit experience. It afforded another reason to pause, and another opportunity to connect with the art. It worked, so much so that it was even mentioned by an art critic in The News Tribune.
After the opening weekend, I was asked to price out recreating a smaller, paper representation that visitors could take home. The timeline was in demand. Unfortunately, budget and production restraints did not allow for print reproduction.
Don’t miss the timeline tucked away in the corner—the juxtaposition of artwork with political and social events against a rising yellow mountain of HIV infections is an excellent primer.
Reflecting on the rate of work produced at Tacoma Art Museum, the maximum amount of time I had to complete this project from conception to the moment it needed to be released for fabrication was four weeks. We moved quickly at the art museum! With a solid team, anything was possible.
The exhibit was on view for three months at Tacoma Art Museum before it traveled to the Bronx Museum of Art in New York. A third installation appeared as Alphawood Gallery's inaugural exhibition in Chicago.
Project Lives On
The content of the exhibit lives on in a handsome hard-cover exhibit catalog designed by Marquand Books, Seattle.
Digital and Participatory
The next iteration of this project includes robust user testing with the ultimate goal of informing design decisions for a digital representation of the timeline. I would include a participatory, user-contributed content function to the digital iteration because visitors were forthcoming and vocal about their personal experiences around HIV/AIDS.
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to contribute to Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum.
Art AIDS America, was co-curated by Jonathan David Katz, Director, Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Art AIDS America was accompanied by a nearly 300-page catalog featuring essays by 15 contributors and with more than 200 illustrations. It is published in association with the University of Washington Press of Seattle and London and designed by Marquand Books, Seattle.
Art AIDS America was generously supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation; the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art; and Gilead Sciences, Inc.
Header graphic was an advertisement used to promote the exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum and displayed for demonstration purposes. All rights belong with the artists.