design books or design blogs?

The shelf just next to my desk ... mainly reference books that are kept to hand but the odd new book that found a space and all a bit as it came out of the boxes when I moved in 9 months ago


With the recent exhibitions at the Danish Architecture Centre and at Designmuseum Danmark I have been thinking a lot about how complex information and particularly how ideas about design and architecture can be best set out in museums and in books and on line.

After graduating I did a university diploma course in museum studies and we discussed the presentation of information quite a lot. It is clear that visitors to museums and galleries look at collections and exhibitions in different ways and the design team have to think about that very carefully. Some visitors walk through quickly even if that is simply because they are aiming for another part of the museum collection. At most, if their eye is caught by something, they want a brief label giving artist or object use or period or country of origin but even then they may want more.

In a focused exhibition many visitors have come specifically to see that show and they may have quite a lot of knowledge about the subject so a second level of more detailed information is necessary but even that can swamp the display visually or deter the less dedicated visitor and you still have to cater for the person who is interested but doesn’t know much so still needs the basics. 

Leaflets or information on a board or bat in each area can be useful but how much information is enough or too much? And if you watch next time you are in a gallery with information sheets very few people pick them up. 

Audio tapes are one possibility and links picked up by the visitor’s own phone can be useful but again how much information is enough or too much? The visitor can feel as if they are being herded through and then of course, as with data on line and with blog sites, the authors have to do a lot of work to produce a lot of information that people will either never ever look at or will listen to or look at and say “so what” … tell me more. There are amazing statistics about how many tracks on Spotify have never ever been listened to … by anyone … anywhere.

Information on audio tracks, phones or - much more common recently in exhibition - on dedicated touch screens overlaps closely with web sites in terms of how people look for information and want it presented. Arbejdermuseet (The Worker’s Museum) in Copenhagen has large flat screen - literally flat as they are laid down as table-top displays - with short tableau-like commentaries on labour movements, political background and so on with old photos and news film and it is presented in English as well as Danish. An amazing amount of data well presented. The exhibition about fur at the Natonalmuseet (National Museum) in Copenhagen had very large displays of costumes that were in controlled light conditions and there labels where almost impossible so carefully placed touch screens again gave a huge amount of information. 

But then if it all gets too much like a web site you get to a point where maybe the visitor feels they could have just stayed at home and downloaded the data.

In neither the Worker’s Museum nor the National Gallery was there any real overlap with books and, in any case, far more people will interact with a screen in front of the display than would ever spend money on an expensive catalogue from the exhibition … although there are, as always, exceptions. The recent Wegner show at Designmuseum had a really good hard-back book published to coincide with the opening of the exhibition and it was carefully balanced to attract both the general and the more specialist visitor and the success of this can be seen in the number of book shops that have stocked and sold that book. I am sure the more expensive and more specialised catalogue for the Kaare Klint exhibition will not sell in such large quantities. Unlike the internet, there is that odd paradox that the more you print, the lower the unit price and the more buyers or conversely if you are cautious and worry about having to pulp or remainder unsold catalogues it becomes a more expensive print run and inevitably you sell less because the cost is higher.

That brings me back to the initial question of the heading of this post. With this blog I am struggling to get right the amount of information I post and how I create levels of information so that readers can do that initial saunter through the gallery/scroll through the basic data or stop and dig down for more. 

I am on line the whole time I am writing to check facts and so on but curiously I still find books a quicker and easier way to get to information. For instance the web is still not good if you cannot remember a spelling … I’m not good at remembering names but often remember an initial letter or an odd combination of letters in a name and can find it very quickly in a traditional printed index.

Searching images through Google is getting better and better … for instance if you have an image of an item but no data then an image search can often find a useful site but until recognition technology improves that works better with downloaded images already on line than my own jpegs.

Computers and the internet win hands down for presenting huge quantities of high-quality images that would be impossible in even the most expensive book and of course it is incredibly useful to be able to post details or high quality images where the user can zoom in to see something. Links to other web sites for more images or more information, when properly set out, beat the comparable bibliography in a printed book and can take readers who want more information directly to the best sites.

Some web sites … particularly museum, gallery and library sites … have more and more information available on line and they are disciplined enough and professional enough to update and correct the material they have on their sites. Wikipedia obviously does the same.

But one problem I find more and more is that with so many blogs and sites about design out there, and that number increasing daily, then simple single-word searches are no longer enough to reduce the number of links or give any real sense of potential quality or real accuracy for the information. 

There was  an article in the Independent on-line news yesterday with the alarming headline “Britain may be forced to ration the internet, expert warns, as web use could consume 100% of nation’s power supply by 2035”

Clearly it’s not just the amount of information but ‘headlines’ that can get bloated way beyond anything that would be acceptable on printed paper.