Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Co-Creating Exhibits with Teens and Volunteers: The Importance of Criteria

What's the biggest mistake people make when involving non-professionals in exhibition design? Here's one I've made twice: not providing participants with clear criteria for success. It's a surprising fact that volunteer designers don't want a blank slate for their creativity. They want articulated goals and expectations. In this post, some exploration of this mistake so it doesn't happen to you (or me... again).

This summer, I worked with the Chabot Space & Science Center on a design institute in which eleven teens from their Galaxy Explorers program designed media pieces for an upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on black holes. When we did the final evaluation for the project, one comment from the teens really surprised us: they complained that it felt like we were "hiding" the goals of the project from them in the first of three weeks. At first, we didn't understand what they were talking about. Hiding?! We gave them all the information we had, and on the first day they had a 90-minute conference call with the real exhibit designers.

But we were not entirely specific with them about where their media pieces would fit into the completed exhibition. The answer was: we don't know. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics folks knew that the media would be included on the exhibition website, but that website is several months from being initiated. There was no initial design, no graphics, and no idea of where the teen' work would fit into an overall structure.

And the adults thought (as many would) that this was an opportunity, not a setback. The teens were free to be as creative as they wanted, without limitation of specific requirements or criteria. But what staff thought of as "being open," the teens saw as "hiding" the real needs.

Earlier this year, I encountered a similar confusion while working with creative amateurs in virtual concept design of real-world interactives for The Tech Virtual Test Zone. There, we had clear criteria--but the criteria changed during the project. We were hasty experimenters, and when one technique didn't work, we would alter it, much to the perplexion of the volunteers involved. In the end, we learned that the more criteria we added--and the more we spelled out our "hidden" requirements--the more satisfied participants were.

Why did I make this same mistake twice? More importantly, how can you avoid it?
  1. Give people something to work for. The obvious, basic one. People do not sign up to help design exhibits the way they sign up for an afternoon workshop. They want to be contributors, not just dink around. Of course, you can make their work a more fun version of real work (and give them the most fun parts of real work to do), but it's important to maintain the overall stance that their activities are in pursuit of a goal that is valued and needed by the institution.
  2. Find a way to control the structure, even if it's artificial. In both of my examples, the core reason I made the error is that I was not in a position to entirely control the criteria--I had other people to answer to who were fuzzy on their goals and needs. But from the perspective of participants, that's no excuse. You're the authority, so you need to portray that. In the case of Chabot, if we had made up (reasonable) answers to questions like "where will this go?" and "how long should it be?" the participants' desire for clarity would have been satisfied without detriment to the projects. You can always add more criteria if the ones in need cannot be found.
  3. Sharpen the criteria based on your needs. Cloudy criteria make for cloudy evaluations. How do you know if you got what you wanted if you weren't clear what that was? In the case of Minnesota History Museum's user-generated exhibition MN150, sharpening the criteria (and tightening the language) for user submissions made for both better user-created content and easier decisions by the staff on what to include in the final project.
  4. Give your participants a client to serve. At Chabot, we were lucky to have a representative from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics come twice during the design institute to review the projects and offer her feedback. Having a client to embody the goals can help participants get on the right track, even when those goals are not explicit and formal. The client need not even be real. The most extreme example of this is the writing programs at 826 Valencia, which feature a mean, unseen editor who demands books from the students. The editor is portrayed by a staff member who pounds on the door and growls about his needs. He's an entirely fictitious device used to create criteria, add drama, and help focus the kids on what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly open task at hand.
  5. If you can't control the criteria, be honest about it. This saved me with The Tech Virtual participants. When things in my world would change, I communicated as directly and transparently as possible to the volunteers. No one was happy about the changes--but we all understood that they happen. And by inviting discussion about the uncertainty, we became a group of people tackling the challenges together rather than a confused authority and a ticked-off volunteer group.
Someday, we'll have such advanced community co-creation processes that we can engage our co-creators in all the ambiguity and frustration that comes in the exhibit design process. But we've got to start by being benevolent dictators, by letting people design inside well-supported, specific boxes. Think of the first creative work you did for your institution. Didn't you want to know what it would take to succeed?

5 comments, add yours!:

Matt said...

I've had a similar response (no surprise) with undergraduate students. While grad students and professionals tend to like openness and flexibility, clear rubrics for success inevitably lead to better undergraduate outcomes

Tim K. said...

I agree, I wouldn't have thought of this problem at the beginning of the project. (I was the lead student in the Chabot Galaxy Explorers Project) But my basic feeling is that in a client-contractor relationship (where the contractor is an architect, an exhibit designer, or similar professional), the client always has at least some goals, which the contractor can build off of to create the final product. When you build a house, you don't know what kind of house you want, but you know you want 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a place for a big screen TV. Every detail helps build the house the way you want, and you don't worry about crimping the architect's creativity. Similarly, we didn't want or expect a storyboard and script, but we were looking for direction along the lines of the target audience of the larger project(i.e. who is the target audience of the website), the target length, the format, and basic content you (not you, per se, but the client) expected to convey. While I realize that in this case, the client would have been happy with almost anything, it's hard to attempt to please a client who has no idea what he/she wants.

Incidentally, I'll have the produced content up on the GE website by Friday. When that's up, I'll send a link.

Anonymous said...

@tim Right on the money.

If I could count the number of jobs I've had as an employee where openness and flexibility are confused with not having goals.

I have a reputation as always wanting real specific information at various stages of a project -- when do you want this done by? who is your audience? what are you trying to achieve? why have you brought me on? -- my clients are happy to fill this information in usually and my coworkers (creative directors, account executives) are always surprised that I want specificity.

The Make It Stick guys have written about the importance of parameters for improv actors. Perhaps it's my earlier background in theater. Perhaps I'm just a rigid Taurus, but I can't think of a situation where a situation without rules produces better results. It just doesn't. And frankly, I'm not even sure if there really is a situation that doesn't have rules.

There's something exceptionally deflating about working on something that is seemingly endlessly open only to discover that things are quite as open as they were presented as -- you'll never want to give 100% again.

There's always a goal, there's always something that restricts. It might be big picture or really specific. But there is at least a line SOMEWHERE. You can then determine, once you know where it is, whether you want to cross it or not.

You can't color outside the lines unless you can see them.

sarahkli said...

i think that your list of approaches can be applied to a wide range of cooperative activities. as the newly minted graduate student adviser to an undergraduate researcher in a chemistry laboratory research setting, i hope to use a similar approach.

Anonymous said...

Nina, you've identified two challenges in this post, which together create the perfect storm for "clients" and "contractors," as Tim identifies them. First, the museum/client doesn't always launch the exhibit process with a clear notion of who the audience is, what the "thesis" or "argument" is, or sometimes even what the budget is; the unspoken expectation is that those pieces will emerge as the process moves along. Second, in this case you were working with a group that didn't enough (or any) experience with the exhibit process to be comfortable with that uncertainty. As Tim points out, a contractor with experience can fudge the answers for a while, until the real criteria emerge, but teens and volunteers don't have that experience to draw on.

But this discussion is a great reminder that clarity is definitely better sooner rather than later, whether working with volunteers or staff. Community exhibit collaboration is really an art, but so enriching for both sides!