Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fifteen Random Things I've Learned about Design for Participation This Year

We've been offering a host of participatory and interactive experiences at The Museum of Art & History this season. All of them are cheap, mostly simple, and occasionally, dangerous. I loved Jasper Visser's list of 30 "do's" for designing participatory projects earlier this month. I thought I'd add a few of the little things we've learned about visitors (and ourselves) through our monkeying. Please share yours in the comments.

  1. Cut your instructions down to as little text as possible. This is true for any kind of exhibit. If you don't need them, dump 'em. 
  2. In contrast, people will read signs that explain how their work will be/was used, or that the giant sculpture of metal fish they are looking at was made by visitors. They will be impressed. They will want to participate. Accolades are more inspiring than instructions.
  3. If you want people to write and/or draw, encourage them to draw. The timid ones will write anyway, and if you give them the option to write, no one will draw.
  4. Different activities need different levels of materials to appear "open for business." For crafting activities, putting out a small number of materials encourages people to use sparingly and respectfully. But for voting activities with objects in receptacles (in our case, coffee beans), the receptacle has to be pretty full for visitors to comfortably understand that they can use some.
  5. Put out seating for two or more with every activity, unless it's something incredibly personal. People will talk about what they are writing or making.
  6. Artists work incredibly hard to produce their work. Design paired activities to reflect or at least respect the sensibility of their work, and where possible, involve them in the design.
  1. If you put out pencils and paper for an activity on a table that reads like a table, you're fine. If it's a couple of pedestals that you painted and attached to make a table (no wax, matte paint), kids will scribble all over the table. The same is true for paper instructions mounted on the table. Laminated = safe, mounted on foam core = not. Get a good eraser.
  2. Have a game plan for what you'll do with past visitors' contributions as you prune to make room for more. We do different things with different products. I keep visitor comments in my office. For an activity in which visitors write stories on butterflies and pin them to a board, we group older stories into "clumps" of butterflies at the edges of the board to look pretty and make room for new contributions. And the crayon drawings on the fridge door in an exhibition of award-winning local artists? We throw those away.
  3. Prune for diversity and clarity, not quality. The contributions that are the "best" may be a narrow reflection of your own personal preferences.
  4. Don't go overboard in affixing things to the wall or table or surface. Visitor behavior will tell you how much glue or lamination you need. We guessed wrong.
  5. You can put out full cans of coffee beans on a third floor hallway overlooking a stairwell and people will not throw fistfuls of coffee beans down the stairs. They will very conscientiously pick up any beans that drop on the floor. Small kids love this task.
  6. Have extra coffee beans, index cards or whatever you're using on hand at all times. Make sure staff/volunteers know where they are. Schedule volunteers to prep more butterflies.
  1. "Make and share" is more powerful for many people than "make and take." Most people--including kids--want to display their creations, not keep them. 
  2. People of all ages can use sledgehammers with minimal oversight. We had over 400 successful bangers with no injuries. The risk of liability was worth it.
  3. People love pleasant surprises. Our most commented-on change by far is the brightly painted chairs in the elevator. This isn't even participatory. It's just fun. 
  1. Find a way to get back in touch with people to let them know that their fish/butterfly/story/object is on display. We haven't figured out a seamless way to capture emails so we can do this yet.
  2. Encourage gifting. We are trying some activities that invite people to make things for others, or to take something made by a previous visitor. Most people do not take the bait. We need to find a more appealing way to do this.
  3. Figure out what to do with the giant collaboratively-created objects when an exhibition run is over. Right now, we have a lots of vacant space, so visitors are helping us paint murals and make massive mobiles. But we won't want those things forever, or we'll want to create new things for those sites. I'm not sure whether this is the ordinary churn of the museum or if we need a more thoughtful "deaccessioning" plan for collaborative work.
Here's to a 2012 filled with more experiments, dialogue, and surprises.
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