Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Design Aesthetics and Usability

I took a few personal days in late March and visited a place I've never been before. Right now I'm keeping the location to myself because my criticism isn't meant to be personal toward anyone, at least not personal when I have a fantasy of having them hire me to consult with them...

As is my habit, I visit nearly every museum I pass (I'm also magnetically drawn to brass plaques oddly enough) and in this town there was a terrific nature center/botanical garden with some top-notch exhibits, and a small community museum. The contrast between them would have been hard to have been more pronounced. In the nature center, the exhibits were heavily thematic. Each island exhibit in a sparse room had strong titles that were great theme statements, exhibits that not only worked well together and reflected the resources being interpreted, but also could have stood alone and done a quite good job. They used native materials, appropriate technology, and were thoroughly professional without being slick and out of place in a somewhat remote site. Just wonderful.

And then there was the small museum. This was a tiny resort town that is well known and financially comfortable. The town and its surrounding area have a pretty interesting history that, unfortunately, is only partly reflected in the museum. It's a pity.

It's located in an historically significant building where many visitors will end up, so attracting people to the front door isn't difficult. The staff that I met seem to know their town and are proud of it, no problem at all. Unlike a lot of small museums I've visited that look like someone's garage, full of interesting stuff with no rhyme or reason (or explanation) there are clean, professionally designed and built cases, adequate lighting, and though the circulation path isn't great, I've seen much worse.

So what was wrong? Aesthetics and design. It was, for the most part, just beautiful with a light, airy grace. but this artistic aesthetic was its own worst enemy.

With a clear design focusing on a kind of sparse beauty, it failed in communicating the essence of the subjet matter. It looked a little bit to me like an art museum. Interpretive text was painted or screened directly on the walls. To make matters worse, much of the text was about 70% grey on white walls, generally over five feet off the floor. Text panels arranged to continue the case design, without any special lighting, and difficult and in one case nearly impossible to read due to the low contrast.

In one gallery, there were pull quotes on the walls to emphasize certain elements of the subject matter. Again, it was a beautiful design that unified the different panels by being in a light blue strip painted along the walls at about two feet. But the doggone text was applied in a light grey that was to my eye, nearly identical in reflectance! Just beautiful, and totally useless. Sort of like a Corvette in a lumber yard I guess. I never was able to read much of the text. Some of it I was able to read by getting on one knee at an oblique angle to the text, because the paint was flat and the text somewhat reflective, and I could catch it in the light. Others I was able to photograph and then pull the text out so I could read it in Photoshop. This was all very frustrating, because the subject matter concerned the town's connection with a professional sports team that interests me, some prehistory of the area, and some early 20th century cultural history concerning people and events I'm kind of familiar with.

When I spoke with the manager of the store, he told me that he too had trouble reading some of the exhibit text. The director, he told me, had worked previously at an art museum.

Bingo! There's the problem. My emphasis as an interpreter is on successful communication (and accuracy!) In an art museum, I think it's fair to say that the setting, the virtual and physical frame, sets the tone for the piece of art, and aesthetic design often reigns supreme. There's more to it though, than just my personal opinion.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) contains policy and guildelines for this sort of thing, and it's the law. Many years ago, I attended some ADA training where I was told something that has stuck with my ever since. Most of us think that there are just those who are disabled. We heed to think of this in reverse. Those of us who are fully able will eventually get a disability of some sort. Poor vision, hearing loss, mobility impairments, failing memory, and on and on and on. I guess I could argue that many people over 50 (including myself) don't have the same level of acuity, endurance, or longevity that we had when younger. "I just can't stay up all night or work 14 hours a day any more!" is a gripe that indicates a slight disability, or at least a lack of being fully able.

The Smithsonian Institute used to have a really great ADA guide for museum exhibits online, so my idea was to find this link and send a nice polite email to the director with a summary of my observations and a suggestion to learn about what the law (and good design) include. I don't think that anyone who is in the communication business wants to prevent people from getting the information that we've worked so hard at, but a lot of us just don't think of these things.

But rats! the Smithsonian exhibit guidelines isn't there any more. They've rearranged the website, and put up a different document that I don't think does as good of a job. It's online at http://accessibility.si.edu/ and there is lots of good information, but I preferred the previous version. I probably have a copy around here somewhere, but since the move, there's a lot of things I can't find.

And for some reason today I remembered that I need to send a polite note to this museum director to hopefully introduce him to the concept of universal design. At least that's my hope. I don't want to cause any trouble or tick anyone off. For some reason, some people get up in arms about universal design and ADA requirements. I once consulted on a website where there was no provision for section 508 compliance (the website equivalent of ADA,) the person handling the contract told me "Why should I care if blind people can read our website?"

Sadly, that person's point of view predominates. The website is not only not optimized for people with vision impairments, but difficult for users of smartphones to navigate. ADA compliance is not only important to be a good communicator, or because it's the law (and there can be penalties involved if someone files a complaint in court,) but universal design is really good design. In the case of a website, the 508 requirements make things more usable for people with Androids, iphones and Blackberries. In museums, clear, readable text is easier for people to absorb in leisure settings, so all of your hard work in researching, writing, design, layout and fabrication has a better payoff. I'm just sayin...

So what does it all mean? I don't know. The small museum stuck out because it was full of 50 cent solutions to five cent issues, and the end product is that the design is to sophisticated to communicate well.

I guess that I had better take the time to write the director a polite letter and see if I can chip away at this, just one little bit at a time.

1 comment:

Jitendra said...

I completely understand your point and can give you a number of such examples here in India. Unlike in India, organisations such as museums might (have to) listen to such important aesthetical points. If you provide them your feedback they might be able to do something during their next cycle of 'house-keeping' and renovation.