Summer Fun by Design
Behind the Scenes at The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium
You may recall from past posts or seeing our adventures on social media that every year the entire team at NeigerDesign meets up for a strategic planning event we call Summer Fun Day. We know what you're thinking, "Strategic planning...fun?" With the way we strategize at NeigerDesign, fun is only the beginning. This year there were themed t-shirts, donut holes en plein air, virtual reality headsets, a planetarium show, a guided tour of a new exhibit, and a jazzin' happy hour—and those aren't even the best parts.
This year the NeigerDesign team expanded our horizons and dove deep into archives, ventured far into the remote areas of our solar system, and got aquatic alongside Lake Michigan, which is to say that we met with the design and marketing teams of the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium and got to see a bit of what happens behind the scenes while learning about their unique processes. First of all, if you are a Chicagoan and have not visited all of these places, go out and get to them ASAP—they are truly great cultural attractions to visit to learn and explore for the day and are among the nation’s best for very good reason.
The Field Museum
Our first behind-the-scenes adventure started at the Field Museum of Natural History where we met with Alvaro Amat, Design Director at the Field Museum. Although we didn’t get to lose ourselves in the massive research collection of 30 million species, we did see a whole lot of really fascinating things—from dropping in on the mount shop to happening upon a young researcher preparing a presentation on bird and egg specimens and even seeing inside the studio of the museum’s talented artist-in-residence Peggy MacNamara.
Several of Alvaro’s staff courteously shared some time out of their busy day with us to discuss a few of the unique challenges faced by a historic institution that serves not only a huge number of visitors each year but also science itself. The primary mission of the Field Museum is scientific discovery, creating exciting exhibits is secondary. Yet the museum still needs to delight and inspire visitors, and with all of the design elements necessary in the museum, from wayfinding signage to the oversized banners hung between the building’s Greco-Roman marble columns and the exhibit layout and appearance itself, the Field Museum team has to find the perfect balance between aesthetics, clarity, and accuracy while complementing the science and history of the specimens and artifacts. Theirs is no small task, and our team was inspired by the scope and scale of their work.
From the airy half-acre hall of the history museum we ventured to the dark corridors of the cosmos and a decidedly digital future at Adler Planetarium. We met with Sarah Cole, Vice President of Visitor Experience, and Elizabeth Gordon, Director of Special Events and Initiatives at the Adler Planetarium and discovered that their unique needs as a planetarium are just as complex but still distinct from those of the museum. For their design projects, the Adler team must also find the balance between aesthetics, clarity, and accuracy, but as a planetarium their exhibits strive to be highly interactive and need to be able to change—and quickly—when new information and discoveries become available. This blend of entertainment and real-time factuality is especially apparent with their sky shows. We met with visualization engineer Patrick McPike and saw the mini-dome where new shows are created and tested using the latest in both technology and scientific information.
The newest sky show at Adler epitomized much of the challenges and goals of their team; “Planet Nine” is about the Kuiper Belt, the celestial objects that unseated Pluto as a planet, and why all signs are pointing to an as-of-yet undiscovered ninth planet in the outer solar system. Because the show uses real data, the New Horizons flyby of Pluto supplied invaluable scientific insights, but also required speedy revisions as new images were released. Additionally, the planetarium needed the show to be available while it was still timely following the flyby. NeigerDesign joined the audience for a screening and we were able to see firsthand how their hard work paid off, but with scientists actively searching for more evidence of the ninth planet, the possibility of real-time updating remains. Challenging though it may be, it all adds to the excitement of the planetarium experience and we’re excited to see how sky shows continue to evolve.
For our final stop of the day we first had to overcome some office envy—part of the office area in Shedd Aquarium overlooks the Abbott Oceanarium, which we imagine makes for great coffee breaks—and then we met with Elizabeth Nelson, Senior Director of Communication Design, and her design team. Seeing as the work day was winding down, we were able to sit down with most of the designers and have a roundtable discussion of sorts comparing our own design processes and experiences with theirs. It was both interesting and insightful, and even has us wanting to find out more about agile management.
We also learned a bit of what goes into launching a special exhibit, as Shedd had just opened “Amphibians” in late spring. One of the unique challenges that their team faces is that their exhibits, in contrast to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, are also homes to living organisms. From the living coral to the giant Japanese salamander to the beluga whales, the needs and wellbeing of the Shedd residents are an understandably primary concern for all projects. Those residents may not also be the most photogenic, which adds another interesting challenge. Although we thought the giant Japanese salamander had a lot of winning personality, it’s easy to see how it might not be the poster model for the new exhibit when there are also plenty of colorful frogs. Consider the popular “Jellies” exhibit, which had a memorably vibrant and colorful visual campaign that was so effective that some visitors were surprised to see that many of the jellyfish were not technicolored themselves.
To complete our amazing day on Museum Campus we relaxed in the sun with the incredible view of Lake Michigan and a live jazz performance for entertainment at Shedd’s weekly summertime event, Jazzin’ at the Shedd.
Overall we had a truly fantastic Summer Fun Day and cannot thank everyone at the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium enough for making it possible. It was a pleasure and an honor to get a view into a whole other world of design.