Golden Rules Part 1

What Exhibit Builders do – suggested key “rules of thumb”.

Often read, repeated to designers like prayer wheels and still as often ignored and being punished for it by the visitors: the “Golden Rules” are my favorite advice and I quote them often – very often.  To all my collegues that I am training in design and development of interactive exhibits, to clients, to myself. We can’t internalize it deep enough: visitors are humans like you and me. Watch yourself carefully and you can avoid a lot of mistakes and upfollowing disappointments, when designing interactive exhibits. Working with experienced exhibit builders helps a lot to avoid double work from the beginning. Of course nobody is born with that knowldege, but it really helps a lot to take the following rules for serious.

So this part I of the Golden Rules in my opinion is as important as part II, which tell you about what visitors do. It can be found here.

The original “Golden Rules” are written by Ian Simmons with the contribution of Steve Pizzey, Roger Coleman, Ben Gammon, Paul Orselli and Claire Pilsbury. To respect their copyright I will only display this reduced version here. Please feel free to contact them for the detailed texts.

The Golden Rules - Building Secrets I - What exhibit Builders do.

01 Think about opportunities, not messages
When developing an exhibit, thinking in terms of creating something for people to explore,
rather than something to put a point over, tends to lead to a more satisfying and
communicative result.

02 Don’t try and make an exhibit do too much
Adding extra options, bells and whistles confuses people instead of enriching the experience. Stick to providing one experience well, save the other options for separate exhibits.

03 Try and make an exhibit intuitive
People usually don’t read the labels first, a good interactive is simple enough so that people don’t need to be told what to do first. If it has an intuitiveness that makes people “noodle around” and achieve different effects it enriches the user’s experience

04 Be prepared to throw away a prototype
Don’t make a meal of prototyping an exhibit, otherwise you lose sight of why you are doing it. Keep the end in sight and ditch it if it is not working – there is no shame in a good idea turning out to be impractical to build, that’s what prototyping should be finding out

05 Make things simpler, not more complex
When prototyping an exhibit, try and solve problems by making things simpler rather than
adding another bolt-on unit. The temptation is to get ever more complex, ending up with an
exhibit which is so constrained in its operation and has so many things which could go wrong that it is both unpopular and evil to maintain.

06 Think outside the case
It is tempting to try and make an exhibit “bulletproof” by putting working parts in a case and
limiting people’s interaction to pulling a lever or pressing a button in the hope it will make it
maintenance-free. Usually this not only bores the user, but often increases maintenance
problems. An open design which can be easily fixed is far more satisfying.

07 Frame, sub-frame, sub-unit
Think FRAME, SUB-FRAME, SUB-UNIT when designing exhibits. Imagine a broken-down
part needs to be air-freighted or the exhibit needs to be transported. It also makes on-gallery maintenance a lot easier

08 Use a minimum number of screws
Use a minimum number of screws to secure things in place and make sure there are generous sized spaces through which to gain access to an exhibit’s innards. This can make the difference between a quick fix on gallery and taking an exhibit off the floor for several days.

09 Use consistent fixers on all exhibits
In that way staff need only carry round a couple of allen keys instead of an armoury of
screwdrivers in order to do maintenance.

10 Beware things which look like interface controls
Prominent rivets, bright knob-like fixers, lights which look like buttons etc all confuse users
who will enthusiastically press them and pull them, at best ending up baffled, at worst
breaking the exhibit.

11 Beware reset mechanisms
If an exhibit has to pause to reset itself it can make users think they have broken it or done
something wrong. Ideally, an exhibit should only reset after it has been untouched for 3 or 4 minutes.

12 Filters get blocked
Filters on fans etc get clogged in no time and reduce efficiency. If you must have them make them accessible and carry plenty of spares. Use open grills rather than fine meshes for air inlets, meshes swiftly felt up with hair and fluff1

13 Water exhibits and shed skin
If an exhibit includes water which people can put their hands in, don’t underestimate the
amount of “customer residue” (shed skin) they’ll leave behind and make sure you have
included a way of dealing with it – filters clog too quickly to be really useful.

14 Polycarbonate absorbs
Polycarbonate absorbs up to 5% water, which its specs don’t tell you, so any exhibit with polycarbonate tanks will swell and distort over time unless steps are taken to prevent this.

15 Kneel like a child
To get the height right for children, get the fabricator to try it out while kneeling down.

16 Check finger pinches
Thoroughly check any finished exhibit for finger pinching zones before putting it out on the

17 Labels should be obvious
Even though label reading is usually a last resort, labels should be clearly visible. They need to be no more than 0.5m from the exhibit, and ideally should be on the exhibit, and should be in the users line of sight both when they are using the exhibit and when they are approaching it.

18 Maintenance
Remember – somebody has to maintain the exhibits, and it could be you.

19 Be prepared to scrap an exhibit
Be prepared to scrap an exhibit at any time, even once it is on the floor. Keeping a duff
exhibit on the gallery does no one any favours.

20 Anything missing?
What is your “Golden Rule” that is missing on this list? Let me know on twitter @haptick or leave a message here and I will add it to the article!

Written by Ian Simmons. Thanks to Steve Pizzey, Roger Coleman, Ben Gammon, Paul Orselli and Claire Pilsbury for providing information for this article.

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