Masters of Design: Volume Inc.
Western Gallery at Western Washington University
Masters of Design: Volume Inc.
An inventive and effective use of banner sheets to create space. We love the simplicity of the gesture and how it accomplishes so much. – Yen Ha & Michi Yanagishita
An ingenious way to make an intimate architectural space out of the exhibition content itself, suspending what would normally be wall-text as a colorful and playfully immersive canopy for gallery visitors. – Geoff Manaugh
Masters of Design: Volume Inc.
In spring of 2013, the Western Gallery at Western Washington University in Bellingham hosted a retrospective exhibition of Volume's work. This show was the latest in the gallery’s ongoing Masters of Design series that has honored other contemporary design luminaries including Michael Vanderbyl and Art Chantry.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you? Who is the at-risk population, and what behavior do you seek to change in this population?
We were tasked with creating a retrospective of our work that filled the Western Gallery space, presented in a way that both did the work justice and engaged visitors to the gallery, design-savvy or otherwise.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
From the original exhibit statement:
Our work shouldn’t be here. Not meticulously framed and preserved under glass with descriptive captions, anyway. Design isn’t “design” unless it’s out in the world performing its assigned task, throwing elbows out on the playground court of everyday life, jockeying for position amidst all the other distractions outside this rarefied space. Design without context is a concert without an audience, the proverbial falling of a tree that no one hears.
We’ve always struggled with calling ourselves “graphic designers.” Partially because our work extends into three- and four-dimensional space, but more that the word “graphic” implies that the visual is paramount over all else. Here, greater “volume” speaks to creating work that does more than thrill the eyeballs and provoke an appreciation of craft. A design’s purpose, how it’s made, feels, sounds, and functions; who it affects; and what it facilitates—whether emotion, knowledge, community, or even direct action—are all on equal footing with the aesthetic.
Of course, this exhibition is graphic, but also tactile, kinetic, and participatory. It should give you a sense of our design work, not only in its final form, but also of how we approach and develop it. Of who we are as people, not just “designers.” Finally, this exhibition offers the opportunity to shape a part of it yourself, to affect and change it during its run, inside this space and outside in the world.
Often the most challenging design projects are the ones done for or about yourself. Turning the design process back on ourselves was initially difficult, both in terms of identifying the key essence of Volume, circa 2013; and then how that essence’s manifestation would fill a 5,000 square foot space.
Design presented in a context-free gallery space is, to a degree, inherently disingenuous. Design is meant to be touched, read, used, experienced. Not frozen behind glass. Much of our work goes beyond just two-dimensional static visuals, too. How do we capture its experiential nature? Lastly, the Western Gallery is situated in the middle of a university, so how could we engage college students (many of them not designers) with our work, with our process, with us?
Our process for this project was very collaborative. Everyone in the office was involved, and most of the broad design strokes were hashed out as a group around our conference table. The early consensus was that the exhibit would be: 1) Tactile and experiential. “Design in not (just) graphic.” 2) In terms of voice, as approachable and authentic as possible. No pretentious, elitist art preening. And 3) Interactive in a way that encouraged dialogue and audience participation.
Every facet of the exhibit illustrated at least one of these foundational goals. The main gallery space, with its 20’ high ceilings, was activated by a 8’ by 137’ long Volume “press sheet / timeline” banner that created canopies above the tables, physically immersing visitors in the work. The artifacts were placed, uncovered, on square tables made of raw, recycled plywood and we encouraged to leave through the books, touch things, etc. The “wailing poster wall” was a mixture of quotes, correspondence, and even haikus about our work from both us and outside voices, such as clients or competition judges. Near the back were two iMacs that featured our motion and interactive work, capped off by a neon sign on the back wall that flashed, “Huh? Wow!”—our brief, unofficial guide to spotting good design.
The auxiliary gallery was where much of the interactive participatory elements were situated. We set up a Volume “lounge” where people could sit down and/or put on a record to create a personalized soundtrack for their gallery visit. Three rolls of stickers—each sticker with an interactive prompt—and accompanying pens were attached to the main column. Visitors were encouraged to fill out the stickers and then stick them to the column, contributing their own piece to exhibition. Lastly, we projected a live Skype connection with our office in San Francisco that allowed visitors to speak with us directly about what they thought of the show or whatever else they wanted to talk about.
The banner was later recycled into tote and messenger bags that we are selling and giving away to clients, family and friends. The plywood boxes were either used as furniture and work surfaces by the design department at WWU or recycled by the gallery for future shows.
Our hope is that beyond the appreciation of the effort and artistry we put into our work, visitors see the expansive potential of how design can engage, provoke, and enrich their world.