Media Partnership / Graphic Design

How to design a museum: the making of London’s new Design Museum

The art of designing a museum is one filled with expectation and promise: a unique challenge for designers. It’s been a rare opportunity for the talents of Fernando Gutiérrez, Morag Myerscough, Cartlidge Levene, OK-RM and Hato to define the character and personality of this new incarnation of the Design Museum in South Kensington. The project has seen them create the identity, the wayfinding and signage system, its inaugural exhibition, the Beazley Designs of the Year show and its permanent display. As expected, with a new location comes a new aesthetic, so what should a museum of design look and feel like in 2016?

Originally founded in 1989 by Sir Terence Conran, the new Design Museum will reside in the formerly derelict Commonwealth Institute building in Holland Park. To revive the hollow concrete structure, the space has been redesigned by architect John Pawson. The new building is three times larger than its previous location, with one permanent collection display, two temporary exhibition displays, two shops, a restaurant, studio space, an archive and plethora of other nooks. The new museum aims to be a hub for “contemporary design and architecture and an international showcase of design skills”. Here, the individual designers and studios tasked with filling the space discuss their part in designing the museum, the nature of communicating to a diverse and international audience with varying levels of knowledge and the importance of the institution’s new home.


Design Museum interior. Credit: Gareth Gardner


Design Museum interior. Credit: Gareth Gardner


Design Museum: Signage and Wayfinding, Cartlidge Levene

The identity for the Design Museum is crisp, clean and acts as the nervous system of the museum. The job was given to Fernando Gutiérrez and his London-based studio of the same name, which has an international client list and a talent for creating identities, exhibitions and signage. The initial brief given to Fernando was to “create an identity for the museum that is about ‘growing up and not growing old’, and to design a flexible base”.

A phrase that stood out for Fernando was “a design museum that wants to explore design”. “I wanted to create an identity that is timeless, and can fit in with all types of aesthetics,” explains Fernando. “The director Deyan Sudjic was keen to establish the authority of the institution in its new location by using the definitive article, The Design Museum and build on the elements that existed in the previous identity.”

Fernando and his team spent time with the different museum departments, listening to what they thought worked and what didn’t. The process continued to be open as the designer ran a workshop to give an overview of the day-to-day running of the museum. Other aspects of the project saw him look at the different audiences the museum has and mapping the journey of the visitor. “As well as creating the identity for the public, it was also about organising the museum internally and getting everything working together in a consistent manner,” explains Fernando. “The identity needed to be a canvas to hold the different styles and approaches of work contained within the museum – it has to work in harmony and work for everyone.”


Design Museum: Identity, Fernando Gutiérrez


Design Museum: Identity, Fernando Gutiérrez


Design Museum: Identity, Fernando Gutiérrez


Design Museum: Identity, Fernando Gutiérrez

The studio commissioned Henrik Kubel from A2 SW/HK to draw and kern the new logo, in a special mid-weight between bold and regular of the Schulbuch. “Monotype re-drew the Schulbach typeface for us, for print and digital usage and we also decided to highlight the roof and use it as a graphic link on the Design Museum communications,” he explains. The challenges for Fernando’s studio was the amount of people, opinions, agencies and stakeholders involved. “Timelines were at different stages as some elements had started with external partners – we had to find a balance with the roll out of the identity.”

The balance was achieved by paying attention to the character of the new building and the design heritage of the museum as an institution. “I had very good examples of contemporary creative interpretation of the building by John Pawson, through his decisions on space and materials,” he explains. “The Cartlidge Levene signage programme works in harmony with the building and the space using the Schulbuch font and the classic Otl Aicher icons to navigate.”

Fernando believes “the move to the new building in Kensington will bring design to a broad audience, keen to discover what design is all about.” Echoing this sentiment of discovery is Ian Cartlidge founder of Cartlidge Levene, who believes the Design Museum is “vital to our industry”. In charge of creating the wayfinding and signage of the new Design Museum, Ian and his team had to cover all aspects of the visitor journey. Like Fernando, a fundamental task for Ian was to create a seamless solution that incorporated the whole range of design elements that make up the wayfinding system including; landmarking, exhibition promotion, destination signage, level directories, printed guide.


Design Museum: Signage and Wayfinding, Cartlidge Levene


Design Museum: Signage and Wayfinding, Cartlidge Levene


Design Museum: Signage and Wayfinding, Cartlidge Levene

From analysing a range of visitor journey scenarios using the architectural sketch-up model and holding workshops with museum staff to predict behaviour, Ian was able to “establish the wayfinding and visitor communication elements required at each step.” Ian explains: “Once the fundamentals were in place, the task was to create a graphic and physical design language, taking a holistic approach to the wide variety of elements.”

With the scale and importance of the building in mind, the main challenge of the project was the duality of the Museum’s location and site. “The Design Museum is a civic space and will have 500,000 visitors annually, and a high-end residential community consisting of three apartments blocks of 55 units,” explains Ian. The contrast between the vibrant and attention-grabbing promotion of the museum with quiet and private living. “We turned this challenging aspect of the project into a virtue by pulling the Design Museum threshold forward onto the street,” says Ian. “The large white lettering, that we have introduced on the residential block undercroft wall, facing the street, suggests that this is the entrance to the museum – this is where your visit to the museum begins.”

Other touches include Otl Aicher’s “seminal pictograms”, designed in the 1970s and used throughout the system. “Rather than designing our own set of pictograms, which we would normally do, we decided that this was a great opportunity to use ‘pictograms as a museum object’,” explains the designer. “We developed a folded metal holder to house the pictograms which are printed onto acrylic panels. This creates the feeling that the pictograms are framed objets on display and we enjoyed blurring the boundaries of functional information and museum exhibit.”

The signage is an integral part of the museum being interacted with each day by visitors and staff. Cartlidge Levene’s wayfinding system demonstrates an appreciation of design in our “everyday environment”, and it’s a notion Ian values in the Design Museum and believes it purpose is to communicate “the storytelling of the creativity, ingenuity and beauty of design” and “satisfies the needs of passionate designers, hungry for knowledge and inspiration.”


Design Museum: Designer Maker User show. Credit: Gareth Gardner

In a similar vein, the Design Museum’s semi-permanent collection showcases and celebrates the institution’s collections and archive. Tasked with creating a home for its existing and future acquisitions was Morag Myerscough, known for her brightly-coloured, experiential projects. “The Museum Collection is usually a hidden resource, kept in storage and gathering dust, only a tiny percentage is seen and enjoyed on ‘permanent display’,” explains Morag. “It has been a very interesting project to work on with many consultants and stakeholders involved over a period of six years and since we started lots of things in the world have changed. It has been really important that the exhibition has kept to its string values and ambitions but has been ever evolving and so we have built an exhibition that is now.”

Morag and her team have created the Designer Maker User exhibition for all types of visitor. “We worked very collaboratively with the Design Museum team over the years – we visited various permanent exhibitions in museum in Europe and the USA to see what had been done, what we liked and what we thought could be done better,” Morag explains. “We set about working out ways of interpreting everyday objects in a stimulating informative. We wanted an exhibition that people will return to and get different information each time.”

“It is important to get ideas across, start dialogues and understand the world around us.”

Morag Myerscough

The exhibition is nestled in the roof, a sweeping, dramatic paraboloid structure that is a key feature of the building. “We were not able to attach anything to the walls or the ceiling and so the exhibition has to work as a stand alone element in the building. Therefore engineering was key in our build,” says Morag. “As the exhibition is visible in the main space it was very important to make a piece that responded to the existing building and the John Pawson’s refurbishment. It will be there for several years, so materiality of the exhibition was key and I was particularly interested in layering different types of materials to give the exhibition and richness.” Despite the challenges Morag relished the opportunity to discover the pieces of design the museum has in its archive. “I love the large objects, the full size neon orange model of a Gerberet from the Pompidou Centre, the Model ‘T’ ford chassis, the Frankfurt Kitchen, the Laver’s Law type. For me it is all exciting at the moment every new piece that is installed gives me a feeling of joy.”

This piecing together of both the physicality of the space and the objects on display, is echoed throughout the exhibition and the museum itself. “The exhibition is about connections and how so many different disciplines working together are involved to make things happen, to make advancements and changes in the world,” the designer explains. “It is important to get ideas across, start dialogues and understand the world around us.”


Design Museum: Beazley Designs of the Year, Hato


Design Museum: Beazley Designs of the Year, Hato. Credit: Luke Hayes


Design Museum: Beazley Designs of the Year, Hato. Credit: Luke Hayes

The Design Museum aims to be at the forefront of innovation by not only celebrating where we’ve come from but also where we’re headed and this is epitomised through the Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition. Deemed as a show that “celebrates design that promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year”, it selects a young graphic design company each time to create the identity for the show. This year it was Hato, the design branch of the multi-faceted organisation that also include Hato Press.

“To an extent were given a very open brief and the freedom to explore what we could do with the exhibition and space,” explains Ken Kirton, founder of Hato. “At the core of the brief was a need to engage with a wide audience.” The team considered space and materials of the “new-old building”, and what this particular show is about. “Unlike most exhibitions, this one is about exhibiting objects of the future and expressing an opinion on them,” says Ken. “We were also interested in exploring the exhibition’s notion of an award… When it comes to design, the answers are all highly subjective.”

The identity considers how people share and express opinions in 2016, and big themes like emojis and the idea of “liking” informed this year’s design. “Our emojis went through various iterations and a lot of criticism (!) before we reached an approach we were happy with,” says Ken. One of the highlights for Ken and the Hato team was creating the digital interactive voting system for the show. “It weaves in every design element and has some really fun animations which change in real-time as votes are cast by people online and the gallery,” explains Ken. “It’ll be great to see how people use it – anyone can have their say and the results will determine both a Social and People’s Award.”

This sense of community and encouraging involvement from visitors, is something that seems to be a part of the Design Museum’s wider move to a new premises. “The Shad Thames site will always be an iconic building, and although there was something charming about its isolation, this is a really great opportunity for the field of design to be appreciated by a bigger audience,” says Ken. “British design is so important to cherish and nurture, and that to us is exactly what the Museum represents.”


Design Museum: Fear and Love, OK-RM


Design Museum: Fear and Love, OK-RM


Design Museum: Fear and Love, OK-RM. Credit: Luke Hayes

London-based studio OK-RM was brought in during the early stages of the Design Museum’s inaugural exhibition _Fear and Love, and initially there was no content or confirmed participants for the exhibition. The show presents 11 installations and aims to demonstrate how design is deeply connected not just to commerce and culture, but to urgent underlying issue – issues that inspire fear and love. The idea for the exhibition existed just as a thesis, there was a title and a mood that Justin McGuirk (head curator at the museum) had been working to define in the early stages of the project. “He asked us to help solve the very pressing problem of creating an image (or a series of images) for a show which didn’t yet know what it was exhibiting,” explains Olly Knight, co-founder of OK-RM. “In the absence of content, and the ambition to create a figurative rather than a typographic image, our intention was to try to articulate a mood which would capture the spirit of the curatorial thesis.”

Justin shared hundreds of images with Olly and the team to help build a visual reference for the ideas he wanted to be conveyed in the exhibition, which ranged from celebrity snaps to natural disasters, and everything in between. “We wanted to make a series of images which offered a surreal interpretation of the reality of the world as it exists today,” says Olly. “Images which drew a fine line between reality and fiction. We commissioned Thomas Traum, to make a series of 3D renders which would capture the sublime, offering Magritte as key reference.”

Along with the visuals, the physical exhibition design, the book and the communications campaign needed to be created, which required a “total programme of design”. “The key challenge was to articulate a coherent mood across a variety of mediums (both inside and outside of the museum) using distinct visual elements each appropriate to their context,” explains Olly. Reacting to the mood of the show, as opposed to the concrete idea, OK-RM has realised the exhibition in various ways including an animated neon installation, re-contextualising a selection of insulation materials as graphic surfaces and creating specific exhibition architecture using iridescent pole structures and a felt curtain backdrop.


Design Museum: Fear and Love, OK-RM. Credit: Luke Hayes


Design Museum: Fear and Love, OK-RM. Credit: Luke Hayes

“_Fear and Love_ is an ambitious opening exhibition,” says Olly. “To quote Justin McGuirk: ‘It steps beyond the traditional certainties of design in which form follows functions and problems are solved’. It questions the role of design within a complex world and it sets out to challenge it’s audiences perception of what design is. From our perspective this is a refreshing and exiting stance for the Design Museum to be taking and it is precisely this type of bold approach which highlights its relevance as a contemporary institution.”

Sir Terence Conran founded the Design Museum 27 years ago, with the goal to “encourage this country to become a workshop again”. He saw the museum’s existence to serve as an education at “all sorts of levels, from schoolchildren to industrialists”. Fast forward to 2016 and these sentiments still remain for Conran as he sees the new building as making “our dreams and ambitions to create the best and most important design museum in the world a step closer to reality”. Fernando, Morag, Ian, Olly and Ken, and the teams that have worked with them, have defined a new era for the Design Museum and it’s one full of discovery, innovation and celebration, all housed under one vaulted roof.

The new Design Museum opens to the public 24 November 2016.