Show sidebar

Don’t scream; eat fruit

Categories: Inspiration, Nice stuff, Useful/interesting

It's mid-1930s in the USA; the Great Depression has taken a huge toll over the last few years, leaving 25% of people out of work. What's a government to do?

The Works Progress Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) was established in 1935 to give unemployed people paid work in the public sector. The WPA's initial budget allocation was $4.9bn and over its lifetime it spent $13.4bn on bridges, public buildings – and various types of public art.

One of the most prolific areas of output resulted from the Federal Art Project which, along with paintings, murals and sculptures, turned out a huge number of public service announcement-style posters throughout its eight year history.

More than 900 of these posters are available to browse on the Library of Congress website.

The subject matter of the posters varies massively – almost laughably so; from promoting pet shows to highlighting the dangers of syphilis, that pesky 'menace to industry'.

I especially like the pre-war 'places' posters, which are not only beautiful but clearly designed to both foster a sense of pride during the low morale of an economic slump, and encourage folks to holiday closer to home. (Sound familiar?)

The style of these posters is clearly appealing and remains an influence to this day – just look at the work of Dorothy for a prime example.

Other recreational activities such as visits to the zoo, exhibitions, expos and concerts also got the artistic treatment; along with career and personal healthcare advice. I told you it was varied.

Taking care of books seemed to be a major concern if the number of reading-related posters is anything to go by.

I don't remember modern history lessons mentioning our cousins across the pond being particularly careless with books, so I guess this must have been related to the dwindling of resources and the need to take care of things, first during the depression, then throughout the war. It's similar in tone to the UK's Make do and mend mantra.

It's fascinating to browse through the posters in chronological order and see the increasing emphasis on wartime messaging; and the subsequent rapid change in these from friendly prompts to preserve resources, to much harsher, more blunt directives. Even including strongly worded appeals to lend equipment.

The WPA was liquidated in June 1943 as a result of low unemployment due to World War II.

Among those who'd been part of the Federal Art Project: Arthur Getz (who subsequently had a half-century career as cover illustrator for The New Yorker magazine), and artists Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.

AMA keynote notes: David Carlin, RMIT

Categories: Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

All the way from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Associate Professor at the School of Media and Communication, David Carlin talked to us about a collaborative project between the university and Circus Oz – the Living Archive.

Arts organisations are, to a growing extent, becoming digital media producers so there's a growing need to have somewhere to store – and indeed show-off – past work. It's fairly simple to guess from the name that the Living Archive is a place for Circus Oz to house their videos, photos and memories (the public can add comments which the site labels 'stories', which is a nice touch) of past performances.

It's a great idea – though I'm not convinced by some of the execution. The user interface and navigation seem clunky, and the site's not responsive, making it very awkward to use on a mobile, which is a shame. (I can't help but think like a designer!)

I'm also unsure if the videos being hosted on the site itself, rather than somewhere a bit more public like YouTube or Vimeo, is ideal. This surely restricts the number of people who'll randomly and happily stumble-upon the films?

Still; the fact this stuff is publicly available at all, rather than sat in storage getting dusty and forgotten, is a good thing.

What I actually found more interesting/useful than the project itself, however, were the prompts about the project process on David's slides:

Let yourself ask "What if …?"
I guess this involves allowing a bit of time within a project to be playful and think creatively. Don't start with barriers; those will invariably come later!

Build the team to make, and to think
As a collaboration between a university and an arts organisation, the project team was comprised of people with a great breadth of skills; from information design to cultural heritage, performance studies to computer science. Everyone in the team had a clearly defined role, which is important – when folks lose sight of their purpose, there's a very real danger of a project stalling, over-running and/or being watered-down.

It's a process, not a product
Yes! The Living Archive is by its nature a work-in-progress. It's ever-growing and changing. It's not set-in-stone. 'Process not product' is something I think people are starting to their heads around when it comes to online stuff; the ability to continuously – almost seamlessly – develop something is a great strength and a major opportunity.

Build buy-in from the inside out
Another reference to the importance of internal communication, which is often thought of as secondary … if it's thought about at all. It's vital that an organisation's people are considered and consulted, and that they understand what a project – or indeed an organisation – is all about. (As mentioned in the final paragraph of my other circus-related AMA Conference post.)

The Living Archive has been built to be easy for Circus Oz to add-to, and also easy to alter the look of – they're currently working on a 'vanilla' version to license-out to other organisations.

It remains to be seen whether it will work for others – my feeling is it'd certainly need some user interface design work, and be made mobile-friendly, before it's an appealing enough product – but, for Circus Oz at least, its Living Archive is a big asset … which just keeps getting bigger!

AMA notes: Kim Mitchell, MoMA

Categories: Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Fair warning: this post probably needs a subtitle "The longest post I've ever written". Here we go …

This was one of the seminars I instantly ticked as a must-go-to; hearing the Chief Communications Officer at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York talk about 'Remarkable Campaigns'? Yes, please!

The closer it got to the conference, the more I steeled myself that this may well be a bit of a cold, dry, oft-repeated, soulless speech. Someone from such a mega institution is likely to be a bit … corporate, aren't they?

Wrong! Kim talked to us about the stories MoMA tells to its audiences, and how they play around with their visual identity to keep it fresh; she's an engaging speaker, clearly incredibly interested in and knowledgeable about her subject, as well as being proud of the successful campaigns her team have created – but also proud of their learning from failure (more on which later).

First; a bit of background …

MoMA's mission is not-altogether-surprising: to "encourage an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art by local, national, and international audiences"; they're about education, and conserving artworks for future generations. But did you know that the place runs entirely on donations, and ticket and merchandise sales? They receive no government funding. I found that quite a surprise.

But not as surprising as the fact that their design and advertising is done almost entirely in-house (save for some clever techy stuff which gets outsourced). I'm not sure I can think of another such high-profile arts organisation who turn out such sophisticated, 'agency-quality' campaigns in-house. They even have a dedicated website: (Thanks to Abby from DanceXchange for finding and sending me the link.)

If ever I decide to not work for myself, and to live in New York, the MoMA design studio'll be first on my Want To Work For list.

I digress. Massively. Where was I?

Oh yes; stories. Pretty-much the focus of all MoMA campaigns – telling the stories behind the art; allowing people to think things through themselves, rather than just serving-up what people'll see anyway when they visit.


Using the Inventing Abstraction exhibition as an example, Kim explained how they tested two variations of print advertising; one conventional ad featuring an image of an artwork (Kandinsky's Farbstudie — Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen) which is nice enough, and it was a well-designed ad but quite honestly, nothing special. (And, in testing, it didn't work particularly well).

The second ad was more inventive, and indeed turned out to be much more effective.

Here's a variation of the ad, in brochure cover form – concisely telling the tale of how the abstract art movement was born. Clever. Simple. Ace.

Graphic design-wise, the Bauhaus design style perfectly suits the timeframe in question, and the content is intriguing; thought-provoking. In allowing/expecting people to think for themselves, the campaign has become participatory.


"When something's hard to understand, see it as an opportunity."

To illustrate this, Kim talked about German artist Dieter Roth's Wait, Later This will be nothing: Editions – including a series of sculptures made of perishables such as cheese, meat, banana and chocolate.

As I mentioned before, part of MoMA's job is to conserve artworks. It's quite a challenge for a conservator to do their job when artworks are made of degradable materials, and actually designed to perish. Ah-ha! There's the story!

In place of a traditional ad campaign the team created an incredibly entertaining animated film, narrated by MoMA staff talking about the challenges involved with this particular exhibition. The film was a big success despite only being shared across social media; there were no supporting print ads.


MoMA's most successful and long-running (it's still going) campaign began from something people were already saying online; something simple, which is now completely owned by MoMA and is, in my opinion, a perfect campaign: "I went to MoMA and …"

I won't drone on about it, partly because it's self-explanatory – you can read the design team's blog posts about the campaign on the Inside/Out blog. You can also see all of the cards submitted (bar those which were too light to scan properly) on the campaign website.

Some extra stuff that Kim mentioned:

The campaign translated really well into print ads – newspaper and outdoor.

They decided in advance to only remove cards if they included hate speech; anything else, including criticism of the museum, would remain public. They had *no* hate speech. (Though there is a 'flag' mechanism on the website allowing people to report cards.)

The campaign was popular internally too – even people's leaving cards now read "I worked at MoMA and …", and include personal stories from colleagues. Nice!

(It was also the inspiration behind my initial AMA blog post title.)


So, I promised to divulge a MoMA marketing team failure.

The [MoMA] Starts Here campaign seems a decent enough concept on paper: give people a taste of the diversity of stuff they can experience at MoMA.

There were 16 themes with related imagery; [Summer] Starts Here, for example, included seasonal events at the museum, sun, dance, music, an ice cream (available at the museum cafe!), a collapsible water bottle design. Summery things.

Other themes included music, film, New York and design.

But the campaign was a flop. It didn't bring in anything like the numbers expected, and was pulled early – there were no associated PR or social media campaigns. (And the website has been taken down, though you can see the campaign in pictures on the design team's site.)

This failure needed to be explained to the museum's management. Which meant the team first needed to deduce what went wrong. Having been through the details, they reached the conclusion that it was the lack of any 'participatory' element which resulted in the campaign's downfall.

I'd add that there it was also probably just a bit much – too much "What do we want to tell people?" (i.e. broadcasting) as opposed to "What will interest people?", and also trying to be everything to everyone. The sheer amount of content to take-in is overwhelming!

Kim feels it's important to be open, and to discuss and learn from things that don't work though. In this case, they learnt to keep things playful, entertaining and participatory; always with the audience – rather than the museum – at the forefront of their minds when developing campaigns.

(I think that's incredibly useful to remember.)


I'm actually going to stop myself here or I'm in danger of just repeating the entire talk nigh-on verbatim. I will, however, leave you with a few final snippets:

"Jump into uncertainty"

Inspired by the intuitive interface of the iPad, MoMA created the AB EX NY app, which ended up being used in an Apple advertising campaign. The thing to remember here – if you sense an opportunity, go for it. Quickly (or someone else'll get there first).

"Recognise and amplify your storytellers"

Allow, nay encourage, your advocates to talk about you; in their own voice. MoMA's Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, was on The Colbert Report (which I've linked to despite it being unavailable to view in the UK. You may find a way of bypassing this …) discussing the design exhibition which was on at the time. Paola definitely took away any impression that a museum has to be stuffy; she talks warmly and enthusiastically about design.

MoMA's Director, Glenn D. Lowry, wants the risk-taking nature of modern art to be reflected in the museum's marketing. Wow! Great! This shows strong leadership from Lowry, and demonstrates a high level of trust in his colleagues – accepting that people know how to do their jobs, and simply letting them get on with it. I suppose this is also reflected in the "I went to MoMA and …" campaign, where this time it was the public who were given the freedom to be creative. (That last word is really important.)

And finally, an interesting fact: MoMA's three most popular exhibitions so far have been about the work of Matisse, Picasso … and Tim Burton. Ha!


UPDATE: I just discovered this interesting video of Julia Hoffmann (until recently Creative Director of MoMA's Design and Advertising Dept.) discussing the museum's identity: Julia Hoffmann – Disclosing MoMA's Identity

AMA keynote notes: Andy Jasper, Eden Project

Categories: Events, Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

The importance of continuous experimentation was the theme from Head of Evaluation & Research at the Eden Project, Andy Jasper.

In basic terms, this seems to follow something of a cycle:

Stage 1: Flex your product to meet your customer/audience's needs.
Stage 2: Evaluate the changes you made.
Stage 3: Make changes based on evaluation findings.
Stage 4: Do not rest! Go back to Stage 1.

By means of example, Andy discussed Eden's collaboration with NoFit State, a contemporary circus company, during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

The thinking behind the collaboration being that Eden would be an amazing backdrop for NoFit State to create and then show a brand new production, expanding Eden's audience and giving previous visitors (including locals) a reason to come back to experience something new.

That was Stage 1: Flex your product. On to Stage 2: Evaluation. And the findings were … interesting.

In 2011 NoFit State performances of Labyrinth were a sell-out; despite happening on week nights rather than weekends. There was a whopping 35% increase in new visitors while the circus was in town – and annual visits were up 7% that year. So they did it again the following year.

Where the Bianco company lived in Eden – by Emily Morgan (Producer, NoFit State)

In 2012, during the Bianco show, having the circus there actually resulted in a loss of revenue for the venue. There were several reasons for this, none of which are related to the quality or popularity of the show itself …

a. As a contrast to the previous year, 2012's performances happened on Friday nights and weekends – because more people go out at the weekend, right? In this case; wrong.

Tourist's changeover days are more-often-than-not on a weekend therefore, more-often-than-not, people holidaying in the area – the mainstay of Eden's income – choose to visit attractions during the week (perhaps also mistakenly assuming it'll be quieter then). Likewise, the locals assume the place will be chock-full of tourists at the weekend so're more likely to attend during the week.

b. The second thing that Andy suggested was a major factor in the drop in visitors/revenue was that Bianco tickets were sold separately from regular Eden Project tickets; meaning that anyone buying tickets for the show couldn't explore the gardens without paying extra, and vice-versa. The result was more people buying tickets for the show … to the detriment of regular ticket sales.

c. With this drop-off in regular day ticket sales, related sales such as food, drink and merchandise also decreased dramatically. (After an evening of circus, it seems people don't want to buy plants or a sandwich.)

So with the evaluation complete, time for Stage 3: Make change. The biggest thing Andy feels they've learnt from this is to allow people to buy a single ticket for entrance to Eden and 'Event XYZ'. (Adding just a few pounds to the price of tickets would cover costs for shows such as Labyrinth or Bianco.)

Another nod towards keeping it simple: a single ticket is easier for everyone – and should ultimately be more profitable. WIN!

The Eden Project is clearly adaptable to change, willing to take risks, and right from its inception the place has had, as Andy puts it, a spirit of experimentation.


As an aside – completely unrelated to the 'continuously experiment' theme – it was fantastic to hear what an enormous impact the NoFit State residency (literally, as they lived on-site) had on Eden Project staff. Andy was so enthusiastic talking about the strong bonds formed between NoFit State and Eden's staff. It's clear he genuinely cares very much about this. And a place which values its staff, and truly cares about their experience just as much as that of customers/audience? That's a place to admire.