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The Design-Driven Museum

This Q&A originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue

In 2014, Jon Carfagno emerged from KCAD with a Certificate in Design and Innovation Management—a program of the College of Business at Ferris State University offered on the KCAD campus— on a mission to transform the way museums interact with the public by using human-centered design. Now, as the executive director of the Hickory Museum of Art in Hickory, N.C., Carfagno is using design-driven leadership to reframe museums as creative catalysts—spaces that actively foster making, community engagement, and an open exchange of ideas. 

Man sitting on a display pedestal as he smiles into the cameraJon Carfago (credit: Debbie Reed)

Q: Museums are often seen as stuffy places offering rigid, authoritative experiences. How can design thinking change that?
A: Museums have a responsibility to create value for the communities they serve. That work is so much more meaningful and impactful if we frame it as trying to make our communities stronger, more vibrant, and more connected. Design thinking compels us to understand the true need of our customer or audience. It exhorts us to always begin by being empathic and observant to identify opportunities to make a true impact. When you begin with that context, you truly understand your vision and can then create the structure to realize it.

Q: How has the Certificate in Design and Innovation Management shaped your leadership of the Hickory Art Museum?
A: It empowered me to believe I could do this job and that I had differentiating value, and it showed me that museums can be designed to bring people together. Internally, we’re building a culture where design thinking is the engine of the organization. There’s more shared understanding, more collaboration, more transparency, and more collective engagement in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is connecting people through the power of creativity.

Q: How has this internal culture shift changed the way you serve your audience?
A: We’ve undergone a strategic planning process that included conducting interviews with regional stakeholders from all walks of life. It was an opportunity to ask, ‘Where can we add value? How can we connect people and help them critically engage with new ideas and new ways of thinking?’

When we’re designing exhibitions, we’re thinking not just about what we want people to learn but also how we want them to learn. We’re asking what interventions we can make within the learning environment so that people engage with others, either through real-time conversation or by leaving behind a public record of their experience.

Q: What does that social impact piece look like to you?
A: It’s individuals and groups of people coming into our space and having a conversation they normally wouldn’t have. Each conversation makes the community a little stronger. Our design thinking approach comes at a time when the world needs new ideas and new methodologies for answering increasingly complex questions. Our museum has a unique opportunity to teach skills and provide experiences that are critical right now.

Q: Give us an example of how the museum does that.
A: One of our recent exhibitions explored the work and creative process of a cartoonist for The New Yorker. The cartoons themselves are so clever, but the exhibition also demonstrates that the cartoonist doesn’t just wake up with a light bulb over his head; he actually uses mind-mapping exercises.

To get people to interact more deeply with that idea, we displayed some cartoons without captions and invited [visitors] to create their own captions using those same exercises. They got to go broad with their ideas and use critical thinking, collaboration, and iteration to extract the strongest concepts. 

Q: What about any specific changes to the design of the museum itself?
A: When we observed audiences in our space, we realized they were getting turned around a lot. So we created a big map that’s the first thing you see when you come in. Images give visitors a sense of what’s on view in the surrounding spaces, and they’re attached with Velcro so we can continually customize the map without breaking the bank—a true design thinking approach. Again, we were thinking from an empathic standpoint. Museums can be intimidating for first-time visitors, so we’re promoting a more welcoming and engaging experience.

Q: What’s next for the Hickory Museum of Art?
A: My experiences at KCAD also taught me how fundamental sustainability and business model canvasing are to the success of any organization, museums in particular. We’re already tracking our programming with a variety of performance indicators so that we can increase efficiency as we go, which is new stuff for the museum world. In the future, I’d love to become the world’s first triple bottom line museum, driven by day-to-day thinking that people and the planet are just as important as financial profit.