Interview: The Anatomy of Space with Trigger

Published:  June 27, 2013
Interview: The Anatomy of Space with Trigger

Gregory Anderson, creative director and principal designer of Trigger speaks here about environmental graphics, exhibition spaces, and the relationship between graphic design and human interaction.

Obviously each project has different requirements, but what are the primary considerations of any exhibition design project?
Creating an interpretive journey that resonates with the visitor lies at the heart of any project. As far as developing the project goes, I would have to say that understanding of the content is paramount. Having a good grasp of the storylines, objects, digital content and the intention of the curator is also critical. Beyond these factors, you have to be able to make an incisive investigation of possibilities within the exhibition space in order for the project to really come to life.

I always respect the fact that the curator is mentally, emotionally and sometimes spiritually entwined with the exhibition content. Often they have contributed years of research, campaigned to have the exhibition created and are usually experts in their fields. Usually an exhibition designer arrives later in the cycle, so a process of gaining the curator’s trust is essential.

Most curators will respond to good ideas that will bring their exhibition to life. Generally they recognise that the design element brings an extremely valuable perspective. I have rarely worked on an exhibition where design did not provoke some major change to exhibition from where the curator originally saw it.

It’s also important to remember that each exhibition space has its particular constraints and opportunities. For a travelling exhibition it’s important to obtain information about the spaces it will inhabit, in order to provide reconfiguration solutions or modularity.

An understanding of deadlines and how much time there is to think, plan, build and deliver an exhibition is another critical factor. Although I tend to be a ‘vision-first-let’s-do-whatever-it-takes’ kind of person, experience has taught me that not everyone else involved may feel this way about a project.

An exhibition is the result of many people’s work and you can’t do it alone. You have to respect the team involved in a project and engineer good working strategies to achieve concrete results. Timetables and achievable work plans, with enough consultation for all teams, are all essential, but I also see my role as inspiring enthusiasm for the project with the exhibition team.

For example, the large scale exhibition, ‘The 80s are Back’ that I designed for the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, involved a huge team. There were architects, interior designers, multiple curators for each of the seven sections, writers, editors, lighting and sound technicians, graphic designers, interactive designers, registrars, paper conservators, fashion conservators, lighting technicians, audio visual designers and
technicians, photographers, videographers and more. All those people needed to believe in the vision and have a sense of ownership for it to be successful.

One of my key strategies is to set up a presentation for the team and take questions prior to the project commencement. This also addresses matters that had not been factored into the original vision.

17th Biennale of Sydney - Print Collateral

17th Biennale of Sydney - Wayfinding & Environmental graphics

For the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, what was the process behind translating Jonathan Barnbrook’s identity design for the variety of uses across the city?
Trigger was the originator of the successful 2008 Biennale of Sydney design identity so we were nervous about working with another designer, but the attraction of working with Jonathan, one graphic design’s leading lights, was too good to pass up. However, we were quite apprehensive about the approval process and how we would work together given that this was an untried and untested relationship.

At the outset it was even more challenging than we anticipated. The style guide for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney was one of the most complex guides we had ever encountered. Layers of patterns, images, multiple typefaces, logotypes and with a regimented grid system meant that there were literally thousands of visual possibilities for any one piece of collateral. It was like learning a new language. It took some time to gain
a good understanding of the whole pattern before we started to produce work that we were happy with. On the up side, the great thing about working with the Style Guide was that it gave us the opportunity to understand how Jonathan thinks and the extraordinary detail involved in his process.

The focus of the Style Guide was promotional graphics and we had to apply it to a mass of different collateral. There was signage for the city and Cockatoo Island, the Education Publication, invitations for all events (Vernissage, Artist party etc), the Guide and the Wrap Up Report, and several other pieces. Translating the Guide whilst maintaining its integrity across so many platforms was a fraught process. The challenge was how to develop ‘strands’ of the design to work for specific purposes. As we progressed through the project, and received positive feedback it become much easier. We had learnt the language and developed our own

The main difficulty of the process was to reduce options and to get it right before sending it out of the studio. However, in terms of approvals the process turned out to be smooth. Fortunately working with Jonathan and Dan at Barnbrook was great, they had a very respectful approach. I think there was only one minor change requested from them across all the material that was designed, which was pretty amazing and unusual.

The 80s Are Back - Exhibition space

The 80s Are Back - Exhibition space

The 80’s Are Back exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum was one where you designed all aspects of project, from the identity, to environmental graphics, to the exhibition space itself. Where do you begin with a project like that, and how do you ensure that all aspects of the project are working in harmony with each other?
This project began as an exhibition design then quickly snowballed into a huge multi-disciplinary project. As all departments of the Museum bought into our vision of the exhibition they understood that we (Trigger in association with Toland Architects) were not just ‘doing a job’ but that we were living and breathing the exhibition. Subsequently we were asked to design and consult on virtually every aspect of the exhibition and its promotion.

At the outset we had already proposed the name for the exhibition and a number of extra interactives, so we showed that we were willing to go the extra mile and undertake a range of other tasks. We demonstrated that we were the creative force behind the visitor experience, not only within the museum but also for those elements that reached outside the museum.

So, where did we start? The first part of this process was to review the storyline and object list documents created by chief curator, Peter Cox. After this stage I had a good understanding of the type of experience Peter intended, the objects and images that would illustrate the journey, the stories to be told, and the level of interactivity proposed.

Another part of the brief was that the museum wanted to reinterpret the way they usually exhibited in the space. As I had worked with the museum before I knew the space well and immediately had ideas of how it could be refreshed. I researched the 1980’s period and the touchstones of the exhibition content to direct the design of the exhibition fixtures. My aim was to develop an appropriate visual language for the exhibition that would support the essential characteristics of the period but not traverse into the area of pastiche or re-creation.

I referenced the technology of the period, the beginning of the computer age, the prevalence of ‘grids’ as an architectural and graphic aesthetic in the exhibition design through the use of a steel mesh material and a spot lit black box environment. The exhibition space, the ‘Switch House’ section of the museum, was pared back to its original industrial aesthetic which reinforced a post- apocalyptic feel, referencing the cold war
political paranoia of the age and aesthetic of many iconic films, music videos and nightclubs. The use of these aspects was also fundamental to the visitor journey through the exhibition.

The mesh walls presented a semi diaphanous membrane through which ghosted vistas of ‘yet to be visited’ sections of the exhibition could be hinted at but only fully revealed when those spaces were entered. I really like the idea of providing a multi-optional pathway for the visitor, where there is a defined journey but not using a maze of opaque walls. I don’t like the idea of the visitor ‘funnelled’ through a space, but rather
navigation through tantalising and intriguing glimpses of what lies ahead.

There were major practical considerations also, especially as most of the objects were paper-based, e.g. posters and invitations. The challenge was to create an immersive environment with a series of flat objects. There were also a huge number of garments. I realised that the exhibition fixtures had to function across a large range of display types including mannequins, display tables and cases.

Chee Lam and his team at Toland were instrumental in taking these conceptual sketches and translating them into a reality, sourcing mesh, designing display cases to appear to float within the mesh membrane and to maintain a vibrant neon luminosity. There were complex mesh sculptural components designed using Rhino software, a lot of rapid prototyping and very little time to do it. The whole project took only 12 weeks to
implement from brief to opening day.

We shot live action video of models wearing garments to create life size projections for the fashion section of the exhibition. This helped to bring the mannequins to life. We combined this shoot with a stills shoot to create marketing images for the campaign. One of the most important aspects of the 1980s was hair. We were fortunate to have Stuart Garske create an extensive range of bespoke wigs for each individual mannequin’s ‘look’, from Chrissie Amphlett to Boy George to Katherine Hamnett.

There was a strong vision from the beginning of this exhibition that was presented to the museum quite fully formed conceptually, and this greatly helped direct smaller details later in the process. I won’t lie and say that there were no fights. There were many robust discussions, as you would expect in a project involving so many people from different disciplines, but I was satisfied that the major narrative and most of the important details stayed true to the original design intention and in many cases surpassed it.

The ‘80’s’ was a perfect project for me because it combined many strands of my experience, education and passions. I am very interested in the era, so I was well advanced in my knowledge of the period. Trigger is adept at handling multi-disciplinary projects and we have a good track record of collaboration. This all helped maintain cohesiveness and harmony across such a huge project.

The type of work that you specialise in is often about experiences as much as aesthetics. How do you go about designing for those very human, spatial, and psychological qualities in mind?
For me the aesthetic derives from the subject of the exhibition, the intended experience, the exhibition space and also the resources available. The most important aspect of any design, whether it is promotional graphics for an arts client, an exhibition, or a signage piece, is that it rings true for the intended audience. The resonance of the work is how it can connect with the people who come to view it. This is closely related to how design can delight, surprise, intrigue and motivate people.

I am have been fortunate to work across a variety of projects for arts based organisations, corporates, city based clients, regional clients, children and even toddlers. The different perspectives that these clients have provided have informed all my projects. Of course there are some commonalities, but there are also many differences that require careful consideration. The spatial awareness of a child and the resulting decisions he or she makes can be remarkably different to an adult, yet sometimes very similar to those of, for example, an arts curator.

I think it’s important to engage the viewer on an emotional level as much as through provoking thought or understanding. I think that providing empathy is one of the best methods with which to connect and educate. We can do that through design, it just requires a high degree of engaging with the subject, the content and to tune into instinct.

Rado House - Wayfinding & Signage

Rado House - Wayfinding & Signage

Where does the personality of a designed space come from?
Imbuing a space with personality comes from passion and contextualisation of objects, images, sound, lighting, text and other sensory elements into a form that rings true and communicates an essential ‘essence’.

One of the simplest examples that demonstrates this in Trigger’s work is from ‘Baitlayers and Babbling Brooks’, an exhibition about shearer’s cooks for Shear Outback Museum in Hay (far south west New South Wales). One section of the exhibition contextualized a portrait of each cook (printed directly to a plywood panel) with a favourite object of hers (such as tub for soothing their feet after a long day cooking or a handwritten recipe book passed down through generations) and words expressing her feelings about the profession.

The textures of the ordinary materials, and the concept of ‘making do’ that imbued the displays, combined with the vernacular language of the text and the image of the cook communicated the personality of each woman in a very simple way. One of the beautiful aspects about this exhibition was that it gave objects that were essentially just ‘junk’ a much greater personal value that helped tell a compelling story.

Personality also comes from the designer. Although my design process is inspired by and built from the particulars of each project, my personal style of designing exhibitions and signage means I create spaces that are playful, and often with effortless or weightless qualities. For example, when Johnson and Johnson Medical commissioned Trigger to provide environmental graphics at their headquarters in Sydney, working in conjunction with interior designers pmdl, we created typographic illustrations that appear to float and fly around the walls. With uncompromising attention to detail this project created a seamless typographic mural ‘hugging’ existing wall mouldings and ceiling cornices.

Similarly, solid steel signage at Trigger’s headquarters playfully swivels about columns that orientate visitors in the labyrinth-like building.

I prefer open display as, for me, this is more intimate and connective. Delighting and surprising the visitor is one of my stocks in trade. For instance in ‘The 80s are Back’ a gigantic cinema screen at the entrance is the doorway to the rest of the exhibition, via a ‘cool room’ door type. In the same exhibition, an interactive glass room called the ‘music cube’, designed as a dance space, appeared solid before activation. Once the program was selected by the visitor, a music track began and a series of moving images projected onto the cube’s interior walls. The visitor inside the cube is visible from the outside and he/she becomes the display, their experience and interaction is part of the exhibition for other visitors looking in from outside.

Most exhibition spaces have an existing personality that can be utilised as an evocative component. I usually choose to work with the fundamental characteristics of the space and build upon it for the exhibition inside. For example, in the exhibitions I design I rarely hide the walls with displays or partitions, but allow them to be free and seen. This is why the vernacular panelled character of the interconnecting cottage room walls for ‘Yanga: People, Lake, Country’ at Yanga National Park, were left as they were. Previous layers of paint from a removed cupboard were also left as a reminder of the various uses the cottage had and was interpreted with text.

In this exhibition, as in all the exhibitions I undertake, I hope to respect the curator’s work, do the space and theme justice and to provide the viewer with an intimate, inspiring experience. For me, this is what design can achieve at its best.

This article was first published in Desktop #294 — Making Places

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