Saturday, March 22, 2008

Green Exhibit Design: An Interview with Tim McNeil

A short while ago, I asked colleagues if they could recommend a good source for information about "green" (that is, eco-friendly) printers and printing materials suitable for museum exhibitions. While many museums are taking the first steps toward green exhibit design, it was clear that additional information in this regard would be helpful.

Happily, several folks referred me to Tim McNeil, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Design, and Director of the Design Museum at the University of California, Davis.

The Design Museum functions as a laboratory for exhibition design, interpretation, and practice. The 2007–08 season of eco-exhibitions at the Design Museum will present a range of work by designers at the forefront of sustainable and green design. McNeil is currently researching green design methods and technological advances that are applicable to exhibition environments. 

Tim was kind enough to answer a few questions for the ExhibiTricks blog as well as providing some resources that should prove useful to anyone interested in exploring the possibilities inherent in green design.

ExhibiTricks: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to the UC Davis Design Museum?

Tim McNeil: I’ve been working in the museum profession principally as an exhibition designer for nearly 20 years. A good part of that time was as a senior designer at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where I designed exhibits and gallery spaces for the Getty Center and Getty Villa. The experience at the Getty afforded me the opportunity to participate in the planning and design of two new museums and work with some of the best museum professionals, objects, resources, and interpretive environments in the world. I was also fortunate enough to be at the Getty at the right time. When I arrived in 1992 there was a desperate need for an exhibition design department to help facilitate in-house design solutions with Richard Meier and Partners, architects for the Getty Center. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new design department from scratch for a museum with resources and major ambitions for the future.

What made the new exhibition design department at the Getty unique was the goal to hire designers who could traverse multiple design disciplines. We weren’t interested in the conventional museum model that pitched design teams working in three dimensions (exhibit designers) with those who work in two dimensions (graphic designers). The Getty’s exhibition design department employs 10 designers with backgrounds in architecture, industrial, interior, and graphic design. Each designer is expected to work on every aspect of an exhibition, from spatial design and display furniture to the exhibit interpretive elements and text, to the printed ephemera and promotional environmental graphics. This approach yields very cohesive design solutions when the conditions are right, relying heavily on cooperation and lack of design ego.

This “multi-disciplinary” studio model is now far more typical of design studio practice. Include engineers, computer scientists, and behavioral psychologists and you have the IDEO of the design community. I still consider the Getty’s exhibition design department groundbreaking within the museum community. Finding good designers who can traverse multiple areas was never easy and continues to be challenging. The design curriculum I teach at UC Davis was developed from this experience, I am preparing designers who can move fluidly between the design disciplines.

Towards the end of my tenure at the Getty, I was increasingly involved in exhibit design projects for other organizations and museums. These projects allowed me to tackle a range of different exhibition environments that were less object-based and more about ideas and interaction. I was looking for a new path, one that would provide me with the opportunity to explore the proverbial question “What is design?” together with finding answers to “What is exhibition design?”. There is very little academic research about the exhibition design process, it is a topic badly in need of further definition and exposure. Coupled with my commitment to teaching the exhibition designers of the future, the joint Design Museum Director and Professorial appointment at UC Davis was far too opportunistic to pass up.

ET: What has prompted your interest in "green " design and materials?

TM: I can cite three major factors:

1) A lifelong exposure to nature and the outdoors and a belief that we all have a social obligation to clean up after ourselves.

2) The beginning and end of a products life rests squarely with the designer. They are the conduit between idea and reality and therefore perfectly positioned to influence change.

3) My work for the environmental action center at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, CA. In 2003, the project held the distinction for being one of the first “green” interpretive centers in the nation's “greenest” LEED platinum certified building:

ET: Can you discuss the scope and goals of the "Year of Eco-Exhibitions" at the Design Museum?

TM: The season of exhibitions highlights the work of designers at the forefront of sustainable and green design. The exhibitions balance conceptual design ideas with practical applications and are intended to provoke questions. The sustainable design movement is full of contradictions, there aren’t necessarily any right or wrong answers, but there are some incredibly ingenious and innovative ideas out there. The exhibitions are accompanied by a series of lectures and a symposium. These have allowed the UC Davis Design Museum to invite some of the most engaged speakers on green design to participate with the regional and university community. The upcoming Fashion Conscious exhibition and symposium (May 18, 2008) is one of the first in the country to tackle the rapidly expanding and controversial world of sustainable fashion and textiles.

Each of the exhibitions closely aligns itself with the three main emphasis areas in the UC Davis Design Program; visual communication, interior architecture, fashion, and textiles. They also educate design students about the future of their chosen profession and complement the program’s courses on sustainable design. Design education is going through another revolution and sustainability is at the heart, it’s amazing how motivated most students are about the issues, and how quickly education is having to adapt.

A primary goal of the exhibition series is to introduce the green exhibition design initiatives I had been incubating over the past several years. This had been my objective since becoming director of the museum in Fall 2005. The strength of the UC Davis Design Museum lies in its ability to experiment with objects and content and how this material is communicated within an exhibition environment. This is the complete antithesis of my work at the Getty Museum where perfection was the ultimate goal. Not to mention that the budget resources are vastly different. I wanted to demonstrate to the museum community that an exhibition can be designed and built using entirely recycled, rapidly renewable, and non-toxic materials, and that the design quality of the space, furniture and graphics do not have to be compromised. The subject of energy efficiency was also broached since this is a significant issue for museums with complex lighting and HVAC systems.
Critical to the success of the exhibitions and our efforts to promote sustainable behavior were the inclusion of accessibly written interpretive elements about the green initiatives we had taken. A series of eco-signs describe and draw attention to the green features using bold graphics. These signs have been evaluated and simplified as the year progresses to help determine the best way to connect visitors to potentially complex and unfamiliar topics.

The long-term goal is the successful continuation of this process at the Design Museum and it’s influence on others. I’m using several forums to communicate the results and findings from the green design wiki to talks and presentations at conferences and at museums. My continued design work for other museums and exhibition spaces serves as a venue for exploring these initiatives in a larger and more visible way. I anticipate publishing the work as well in the future.

ET: What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about eco-friendly design or materials?

Online: (Good stories on the environment)

My students and colleagues at UC Davis.

ET: What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing more eco-friendly exhibitions?

TM: Taylor Wise-Harthorn, a graduate student at San Francisco State University has done some initial surveys with museum exhibition design professionals to help determine what is preventing them from adopting green practices. Cost and lack of information scored high, but the most cited reason was policy. Convincing museum directors and senior staff to go green is challenging because it necessitates change and often an upfront cost. However, the upside is that once the initial steps to go green have been taken, it is often very difficult to backtrack.

I have a top ten list of ways to green an exhibition environment, that are simple and applicable to museums of all sizes and can be implemented with little effort:

1. Improve the energy efficiency of exhibition lighting by installing timers and sensors to manage usage. Install CFLs when appropriate.
2. Adjust exhibition climate control settings where possible. Do the objects or exhibits need to be that cool or warm?
3. Design modular exhibition components/furniture that can be easily recycled or reused.
4. Practice the 4Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reinvest). Do more with less.
5. Use low-VOC paints.
6. Avoid vinyl-based signage products.
7. Print on 100% post-consumer paper using non-petroleum-based inks.
8. Use Agri-fiber products such as wheat straw rather than wood-based particle boards.
9. Use screws instead of glues.
10. Inform staff, vendors, and most importantly visitors about your efforts.

ET: Can you tell us more about the Green Design Wiki?

TM: It is very much a collaborative effort between myself and former design student Alan Wells. Alan had chosen to focus specifically on green design for his undergraduate degree. He has now graduated but remains involved with the site's development and maintenance. I suspect you will hear about Alan and his work in this area in the future. Above and beyond the Design Museum website and exhibitions, the wiki is the most practical resource we can provide to the museum community. It is intended to provide a basic grounding in sustainable design concepts and initiate an ongoing dialogue about greening the exhibition design field. The array of materials and products is rapidly evolving, a wiki-based platform is the best model for having others contribute and for keeping it current.

ET: Have you come across any obvious examples of overselling or "greenwashing" in any particular areas of exhibition design or materials?

TM: Lighting manufacturers are guilty of over-hyping the quality of their energy-efficiency lamps and fixtures. CFL and LED alternatives to MR-16 halogen lighting lack the lumens, color rendering and temperature for track systems in exhibition environments. They do offer advantages (no UV, low heat) for localized case lighting where the intensity of light required is less, but I think the color temperature is not there yet, especially for lighting art objects.

Plastic lumber. Beware of the claims by certain manufacturers regarding their products' recycled content. Some contain little or no recycled plastic and even use PVC, the common belief is that all plastic lumber is made from post-consumer waste plastics and sawdust.

Signage products for banners is probably the most contentious. The profits to be made in this industry are huge, and printers and substrate manufacturers are all grappling for an angle on how green they are, or want to be. The Design Museum uses a biodegradable PVC alternative for traditional vinyl banners-- while certainly a step in the right direction, it still has to be manufactured using raw materials and lots of energy. Ultimately it still has to be thrown away in landfill, where under the right composting conditions it will decompose more quickly. The green exhibit design industry is in its infancy and we are going to see a lot of conflicting messages. Lee Knight from Exhibitor magazine says:

“Today, nobody knows what Green really means — no common standards exist. Each client and supplier provides its own definition to its own satisfaction. To date, the number of reported exhibit-related Greenwashing incidents is almost nonexistent, but this could quickly change as the pressure from management to find Green exhibit solutions continues to grow.”

ET: I'm particularly interested in green aspects of printing and graphics for exhibitions. Any pointers you could offer in that area?

TM: The offset lithography printing industry has been using recycled paper and vegetable-based inks for some time and there really is no reason not to specify these products. The quality is comparable to traditional printing and with the advent of online printing services such as, it is cost-effective and really easy. The signage and large-format graphics industry has some way to go before it can boast its green credentials. The main challenge facing the large format environmental graphics industry is the small quantities and custom-based design solutions (demand isn't driving change...yet!). Chemical-based processes and finishes are currently the only option given the longevity of a signage product, particularly for outdoor interpretive signage which has to withstand the elements, and depending on the location, indoor signage which needs to hold up to touch.

At the UC Davis Design Museum, we have been using a low-solvent-based ink on recycled paper, with no lamination or glues (they are stapled or clipped onto Homasote (recycled board) for all interior exhibition graphics. We've also printed on easily to recycle fabrics and are currently experimenting with Ecospun (recycled plastic bottles) and some of the natural organic cottons. The past exhibition (GreenStop) was printed on BioFlex (a biodegradable PVC banner alternative) using eco-solvent inks.

There are no alternatives to direct application vinyl lettering that I have found (vinyl not being an environmentally friendly product). We used a stencil (using vinyl and a vinyl cutter) on a wall and then rolled non-VOC paint over it and removed the stencil. It works well for titles and large headings and although you are still using vinyl for the stencil at least the product is removed from the exhibition environment.

Smaller graphics can be printed on colored papers using a laser printer. As long as you avoid foam core and spray mount, and use recycled paper boards and non-toxic glues this is a good economical and green way to produce graphics. Reusable clear acrylic covers rather than Polycarbonate laminates provide the protective covering.

The silkscreen process uses solvent-based inks and other chemicals (although the screens are reused). Exterior graphic/signage panels that use embedded graphics under laminates are very energy intensive and chemical-dependent. The commercial exhibit industry is poised to green itself in a big way (bigger business) and that, I predict will act as the catalyst that the large format graphics/ signage industry needs. Museums will then reap the benefits. 

Thanks once again to Professor Tim McNeil for taking the time to share his views and expertise on green exhibition design! To learn more about Tim and his work at UC Davis you can follow this link.

Let us know your own approaches to green exhibition design, or share some of your own favorite resources in the Comments Section.