As part of our ongoing series of interviews with people making a difference in the education and technology fields, we spoke to Josephine Chanter, Head of Communications at the Design Museum in London. She talked to us about how a museum creates instant access to its permanent collection and how being a design museum put – surprise! – a lot of pressure on its app’s (amazing) design.
You can learn more about the Design Museum at designmuseum.org.
SMATOOS: Can you give us a little background on the Design Museum?
Josephine Chanter (JC): At the Design Museum we believe that without better design, better use of scarce resources, and more innovation, the future won’t work. We see design as an integral part of every aspect of life: a way to understand the world around us, and to make it a better place to live.
For 22 years, since Terence Conran first established it, the Design Museum has championed creative thinking and inspired problem solving, celebrating the talent of the world’s best designers and architects. The museum showed what Jonathan Ive could do before he went to Apple, it is the place that Puma chose to show the world Yves Behar’s ground-breaking packaging for its shoes that cut carbon emissions by half and it gave Zaha Hadid her first solo show in Britain.
The museum has welcomed five million visitors, enthralled 400,000 school children, staged over 100 exhibitions, established a leading education programme and built an important collection of contemporary design.
We teach, we entertain, we collect. We publish on paper and on the net. We make a difference. But we could do much more. The success of our vision has created the opportunity for the building of a new Design Museum. A museum for the 21st century.
SMATOOS: You commissioned the Design Museum Collection app. What inspired you to do this?
JC: The museum’s objective was to increase access to its collection because it is not currently on display at the museum due to space constraints. It seemed natural to do this digitally and the museum applied for some funding three years ago. This funding was finally secured last year and we identified that an app would be the most appropriate format for the resource. Working across the Communications, Curatorial and Learning teams at the museum, we wrote a brief that reflected many of the curatorial and interpretative aims that we would apply to a physical exhibition. We wanted an iPad, iPhone and Android app that would provide audiences with fact and fun: factual text about 59 key objects in the collection alongside more personal and engaging stories from current and past museum directors.
SMATOOS: Was the app created in-house or did you outsource some production elements?
JC: Content was written in-house and all film editing and the development work was outsourced.
SMATOOS: The app has an educational bent, and offers very comprehensible information on the history of the objects it showcases. Why did you decide to aim this app at a general audience rather than audience of people well-versed in design?
JC: The project is intended to extend access and interest in our collection. Many people are unfamiliar with the Design Museum and what might be in its collection so we wanted to explain things as clearly as possible. We wanted something that looked very visually ‘Design Museum’, that was instinctual and encouraged the user to explore the content and make their own learning pathway. We also wanted to incorporate some fun aspects of the technological capability and to think long-term how the resource could work with future exhibitions or could it be adapted for further content.
SMATOOS: What’s the response been to the app so far?
JC: Exceeded our expectations by far! Over 80,000 downloads in six weeks!
SMATOOS: Is there anything to which a museum needs to give special consideration when creating an app that perhaps other companies wouldn’t? Does a museum have any special responsibilities?
JC: The museum is a trusted voice of authority and also at the heart of contemporary design, so, in my experience, is much more focused on producing great design – legible, beautiful and functional with reliable and engaging content than other companies often are. This applies to everything the museum does – including the app. No pressure there, then.
SMATOOS: What was the most interesting part of making the app?
JC: User testing our ideas with a group of museum visitors who didn’t use iPads and apps. After initial resistance, it became clear that the technology and the design have a universal quality about them that is instinctually understood. But the experience also served to remind me that access to and understanding of technology is not universal. Which, in a technologically orientated place like the Design Museum, it is possible to forget.
SMATOOS: The Design Museum Collection isn’t the museum’s first app, but it’s the first to feature items from the permanent collections. Are any other apps planned, perhaps in conjunction with special exhibits?
I now want to make an app about everything! Apps have such similarities to exhibitions – packaging things up in bite-size, digestible portions for people to enjoy – that I can see a slew of opportunities. Also, the importance of learning through play, and specifically games, is underexploited by the museum currently so I dream of producing the world’s most popular design game app.
For more interviews with innovators, check out our archive.
Images from the Design Museum.