October 10, 2017

The Aesthetic of Nimble

makeshift capo

Michael Burns

Today, when people in museums ask us to design a “permanent” gallery our response is different than it once was. “Permanence” is a term people use to indicate resilience, or longevity, but permanence, in an age of rapid change is no longer a matter of simply building sturdy, fixed structures, or robust modes of content delivery.

Technology is upgraded, content is refreshed, and new discoveries stream in like nothing we’ve ever seen. We expect our sources of information to be updated every time we see them, always something new to see and do. Today when people ask for something (like an exhibition) to be permanent what they usually mean is for it to withstand accelerated change, both formally and functionally. The term I’m going to use to describe this kind of resilience is nimble.

Nimble implies a lite, quick, dynamic force, malleable enough to withstand the effects of change. Nimble may be more aligned with what museums need in order to absorb technical change, accommodate curatorial and programming flexibility, and meet the experiential expectations of contemporary visitors. But nimble strategies and tactics sometimes mean reassessing the material, functional, and financial aspects of a project. What things are made of, how they are built, how they are funded may be very different than traditional, permanent projects. Ultimately this has an effect on how things may appear, a “look” that may be best equated with the prototype.

Google Cardboard is a great example of what I’d call nimble design. There was a kind of giddiness people felt from the way Google subverted the costly hardware we expected with VR gear, yet Cardboard functioned well, was sturdy enough, and easily replaced if necessary. It was beautifully simple. It was also made of cardboard, and this is where some folks will get hung up.

I believe aesthetics is one of the stumbling blocks for many (not just museums) when it comes to accepting nimble design solutions. What may look like a prototype doesn’t communicate the polished, materially robust (read expensive) qualities usually associated with permanence. This is a big problem. It makes me wonder how many perfectly good solutions are out there that would make people’s lives better, yet remain waiting for funding tied to aesthetic norms.

Could cultivating a deeper appreciation for the qualities of prototypes, improvisations, and mock-ups, unleash a wave of creative problem solving currently being held in limbo?

Nimble design may not look polished, but that’s part of the point. That doesn’t exclude being well designed and well crafted. Functionally it can achieve anything less nimble approaches can achieve, and perhaps exceed them in remaining resilient in an ever-changing world.

October 10, 2017