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How the exhibit designer behind the Obama Presidential Center captures the attention of children and adults alike

Aki Carpenter designed exhibits for President Obama, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Freedom Rides Museum

How the exhibit designer behind the Obama Presidential Center captures the attention of children and adults alike
[Photo: Caroll Taveras]

When Greenville, South Carolina, native Aki Carpenter was in fifth grade, she visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. “I remember feeling how physical the narrative felt,” she says. Now, nearly three decades later, she works as a design director and associate for Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), the firm responsible for creating the interior spaces of that groundbreaking museum and dozens of others around the world. Carpenter, who has led 12 award-winning projects, oversaw the creative direction and exhibition design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened in 2016 on the National Mall, and today is playing a similar role for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Here, she shares her playbook for capturing—and holding—people’s attention.

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Channel emotion

Even after working on the NMAAHC for six years, Carpenter still gets emotional when she visits. “I can’t go without crying. It’s extremely meaningful to me, and to this country,” she says. The design for the museum, which starts three levels belowground with exhibits about slavery and transitions into a celebration of African American culture as visitors climb higher, posed a challenge: “How do we navigate this, knowing it’s a pilgrimage for many people?” Carpenter’s answer was to use “dark, deep” colors in the underground galleries, and then embrace rich, bright hues like goldenrod as the galleries build toward present day. By the time visitors enter the section on cultural expressions, she says, they encounter an “explosion of color.” The design team also had to find ways to warn visitors about potentially disturbing exhibits, such as Emmett Till’s casket. “I cannot express the amount of thought and effort that went into how to properly do that,” she says. With input from the curators, they decided to use red borders as a visual warning on certain displays.

Keep it timeless

Museum designs have to last for decades. Trendy fonts and media formats can quickly look dated. As visitors move through the NMAAHC, the colors and fonts reflect the stories and artifacts on display, tying design to the content rather than “pure aesthetics.” The typography, for example, gets bolder and more contemporary as the visitor climbs. “You can’t future forecast, so it’s really coming up with a visual identity that can stand on its own,” Carpenter says of her approach. To keep the museum feeling cohesive while still charting more than 400 years of history, Carpenter selected NMAAHC’s fonts from a single typeface, created by African American designer Joshua Darden. “It may be unseen to the non-design eye, but there’s consistency within that typeface, even though we’re telling different stories,” she says.

Adapt to the setting

To commemorate Nelson Mandela Day in 2009, Carpenter served as a graphic designer for a temporary exhibition in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. There, unlike at a museum, Carpenter and her teammates had to find a way to draw in harried and weary commuters. Taking inspiration from the station’s warmly glowing chandeliers, they created a series of giant, colorful light boxes and positioned them at angles throughout the soaring Vanderbilt Hall. “We wanted to illuminate,” she says. From a distance, the displays showed a series of 8-foot-tall words (act, learn, unite, and lead), which, on closer inspection, were made up of smaller narrative texts about Mandela’s life. Carpenter and her team also invited passersby to interact with the exhibit by writing notes about what they’d do to change the world directly on some of the boxes. The exhibition struck a careful balance: harmoniously echoing the architectural environment while piquing visitors’ curiosity.

Engage your audience

Designers who work on museums often refer to visitors in three categories, depending on the pace at which they move—streakers (people who beeline for just a few highlights), strollers (those who follow the curators’ narrative), and studiers (who scrutinize every last detail). For the Obama Presidential Center, Carpenter has been thinking about another category that’s perhaps the most demanding: children. “[President Obama] is always asking about what the younger audiences are doing,” says Carpenter, “what’s fun for them, what’s cool for them.” In the finished museum, a life-size replica of the Oval Office will invite children to sit behind the former president’s desk and imagine themselves as leaders. The goal of the center’s immersive, hands-on experiences, Carpenter says, will be to inspire visitors of all ages, but particularly kids, to return to their communities and “create positive change.”

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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