The museum of things


Today I visited the Design Museum in its new Kensington home. Primarily going to see the Design of the Year 2016 show with students, being a big fan of the museum, I was also keen to see how the relocation from Shad Thames had been managed.

There is much in the move to the former Commonwealth Institute building that is impressive. It is an incredible site and there is real drama as you enter the huge atrium and look up at the stunning roof. This drama only expands as you move on up through the floors.


As I expected, the Design of the Year show is excellent,  with some truly inspirational work on display. The exhibition benefits from the larger space with a better flow around the exhibits giving more time to linger and read each project’s background. Equally, it was good to see the collection on display under the title: Designer Maker User. I was particularly impressed with the 3 screen film that critically questioned design’s role in climate change while putting forward different views on what is to do about this dilemma. This, I felt, was the museum taking seriously criticisms that can be levelled against many sectors of design.


It is also refreshing to see protest graphics given space and the importance of typography getting recognition.


But, and this is a big but, I left with many niggles. One of the oft heard maxims you will hear when good design is discussed is ‘attention to detail’. And I’m afraid, there was a lot of this missing in Kensington.

Firstly, one of the displays in Design of the Year had a Mac that wasn’t logged in, displaying a ‘password required’ window instead. Sloppy!

Then I noted how the plug sockets powering other electrical displays were cabled—both trip hazard and ugly.


On the upper floor in the Designer Maker User exhibition I felt the initial area was cramped and even with a modicum of people looking around, felt compromised for space. This opens up later, as the exhibition moves on, but the initial impression isn’t good. It is almost as if the museum hadn’t anticipated it might ever get popular and thus didn’t think about what space was needed for more than a couple of people.

Worse still though, in one area there was a hardboard ramp for wheelchair users; I saw at least one person trip over this.


As if capacity considerations weren’t bad enough, there were what some may consider unforgivable design mistakes. Lindon Leader’s FedEx logo was so poorly kerned as it hung from the ceiling in a display of logos that the concept of the hidden arrow was completely lost. This is tantamount to graphic design vandalism. And then there were some interactive exhibits with ‘out of order’ A4 signs hung over them. These made the show look like it was tired and had been subjected to years of heavy wear and tear.


Back on ground level: the cafe has too many tables for the space it has been given, but not enough for the crowds that wanted to eat there. And. the shop had displays of design objects and books ridiculously high on wall shelves—you have to ask someone to get them down for you!

I have long been a fan of the Design Museum, and I think it is a really important cultural asset to this country. I want it to do really well in Kensington, and be a shining light for the world of design. I am looking forward to it opening up this world to people who haven’t previously considered it to be an important subject. In particular I’m looking forward to taking students to what I hope will be a return of some excellent graphic design exhibitions in the future, (much like the Alan Fletcher, Jonathan Barnbrook, Javier Mariscal, and Wim Cromwell ones at Shad Thames—although shows featuring female graphic designers would be welcome and long overdue). Currently the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill holds the title of best graphic design exhibitor in my opinion, but that’s too far for a day trip from Ipswich.

But considering the museum had only opened 8 days in its new location before my visit today, these oversights, mistakes and bizarre layout choices, for what should be a grand unveiling, are a concern. Shoddy is not a word that should be associated with design, and any association would be a fundamental flaw for a Design Museum, because design is its business, its expertise, and its reason for being.

I hope I can trust the Design Museum to sort out these glitches, because it could have a great future ahead of it. These are niggles, and things that I might forgive any other museum that wasn’t about design. But because I care about the Design Museum, these things matter to me.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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