5 Lessons In UI Design, From A Breakthrough Museum

The reinvented Cleveland Museum of Art is a case study in blending the physical and virtual worlds, thanks to brilliant work by Local Projects.


Museums today compete for attention in a wildly difficult environment: If you’re a youngster, why stare at a Greek urn when you could blow one up in a video game? One institution thinking deeply about the challenge is the Cleveland Museum of Art, which this month unveiled a series of revamped galleries, designed by Local Projects, which feature cutting-edge interactivity. But the technology isn’t the point. “We didn’t want to create a tech ghetto,” says David Franklin, the museum’s director. Adds Local Projects founder Jake Barton, “We wanted to make the tech predicated on the art itself.”


Put another way, the new galleries at CMA tackle the problem plaguing most ambitious UI projects today: How do you let the content shine, and get the tech out of the way? How do you craft an interaction between bytes and spaces that feels fun? In so doing, the project bears a number of lessons that are broadly useful:

1. Getting People To Wiggle And Smile


The first gallery that many new visitors will see, Gallery One, is a signature space, meant to draw in a younger crowd. To that end, the exhibits are about fostering an intuitive understanding of the art. Which sounds like baloney, but the end results are quietly terrific. At the root, the exhibits encourage people to move, fostering a connection to the art that’s literally written on the body:

  • In one display, a computer analyzes the expression on a visitor’s face. Then, they can see work spanning thousands of years that matches their own visage.
  • Gallery One also offers a chance to directly experience the physical decisions behind how masterpieces are made. For example, in front of a Jackson Pollack painting is a virtual easel, loaded with tools that approximate Pollock’s own, so that visitors can pour their own drip painting and compare it to the real thing.
  • Another exhibit invites users to kneed virtual clay on a screen, then walks them through the step-by-step process of making a tribal clay bust.

2. Shaping The Content To The Medium

Creating compelling experiences where the tech wasn’t center-stage meant crafting the content very carefully. To do that, Local Projects–which created the incredibly moving name-arrangement at the 9/11 Memorial–worked hand-in-hand with the curatorial staff. It wouldn’t work just to throw exhaustive wall text on a screen. Local Projects spent months with the curatorial staff to uncover the grand ideas that they wanted to explain–and then thought long and hard about condensing those insights into simple interactions. “This was the crux of the creative process,” Barton says. The point is that even though there has been serious thinking behind the content, the content doesn’t burden you with it’s seriousness. All of it feels light rather than overbearing like a wall text. For example:

3. Finding A Way For Users To Make Narratives

Perhaps the most powerful example of that is a 40-foot interactive timeline that includes every piece of art on display. Upon touching one, an “iris” opens, which allows you to see where it fits into grand themes picked by the curators, such as “Love and Lust” or “Landscape.” Thus, entire volumes of art-history thinking are collapsed into simple, intuitive groupings that help the visitor grasp the collection. Visitors can then drag pieces to iPads arrayed along the wall. Then, visitors simply carry the iPads into the museum, where they can take a custom tour crafted to the objects they picked out on the grand timeline. Or, as Franklin puts it, “The visitor should have control over what they want to know.”


4. Looking Through The Tech, Not At It

Think about sitting at your computer, compared to leaning back and swiping at an iPad. The former feels far more like work, the latter more like play. The point is, subtle changes in your basic body posture can have huge impacts on how fun a technology is to use. Local Projects capitalized on that idea in the museum’s main galleries, where iPads provided to visitors act as windows onto richer information about the art on display.

By holding the iPad up to certain artworks, viewers can see an overlay of information about their crucial details. The point was to make viewers look up and at the object, rather than down and away, as you find with typical interactive museum kiosks. Thus, the art is always the center of focus. The interactions had to support that guiding philosophy.

5. Lightweight Interactions = Fun Interactions

The greatest mistake any interaction designer can make is to presume that the audience is willing to invest time learning some new-fangled bit of tech. Just think of the last time you played with a new smartphone app, played with it for 10 seconds, and never opened it again. Complexity kills; so does simplicity without a nice payoff. Interactions have to be lightweight.


In a museum, that problem is particularly acute. If something isn’t fun immediately, walking away is easy. To solve that, the various games and displays in Gallery One all either pull the viewer closer or provide nearly immediate feedback with content–all with lightweight interactions that require virtually no explanation. Thus, when you start mugging for one camera, you get the artworks that match your facial expression almost immediately. The magic lies in the fact that the artworks change in real time as your own facial expression changes–thus creating a feedback loop that keeps you interacting with the game. In the exhibit asking you to contort your body to the same posture as an artwork on display, the game quickly moves from simple but slightly tricky to actually quite hard.


You’ll notice that many of these subtle points of design philosophy stand in direct contrast to so many “immersive” interaction environments. For example, I recently saw prototypes for a virtual museum archive, created for one of the biggest technology companies in the world. (Hint: its name starts with a “G.”) The exhibits largely consisted of images of scanned documents, looming over the viewer on massive screens. It wasn’t fun, and I could never get a good answer to the most basic question: Why would anyone want to engage with this thing? That frustration should be familiar to anyone who has been to any kind of sprawling, but ultimately boring, interactive smorgasbord.


This speaks to the most basic failing of so many design projects: Even as the designers go wild with the technology, they never stop to consider what anyone who doesn’t care about that technology would stand to gain. It was Barton’s own skepticism about technology that made the technology great. His team didn’t necessarily believe that high-tech flare would add value to the museum experience. So they strove to look past the technology.

In the end, the exhibits that Local Projects have created for the Cleveland Museum of Art work because they’re a kind of Trojan Horse. They’re designed to elicit a certain amount of gee-whiz amazement. But they contain nuggets of real curatorial insight that go down easy simply because they’re fun. As Barton told me, “Nothing ages worse than the newest latest gizmo. The tech experiences that last always tell a deep story or let people tell a story.”

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.