Jona Piehl | Central Saint Martins, London, UK

Graphic design and its interpretive potential in exhibitions

While the importance of design is acknowledged in the collaborative practice of exhibition making  and increasingly part of the museological discourse , there is as yet little research or analysis of the effects of graphic design in exhibitions beyond its purpose of organisation and formatting of content . This paper proposes an investigation of the roles of graphic design in thematic exhibitions with regards to its capacity to express, differentiate or enhance the range of voices present in exhibitions. These might include the voice of the individual curator or the experts narrating the content, the institution and its policies, the sponsors, the visitors and the design in itself.

The basis of this paper is an analysis of case study research of contemporary thematic exhibitions. For this study, exhibitions are defined as multimodal, cross-media narratives . Further, drawing on a core concept of narrative theory – the differentiation between story and narrative discourse, the ‘telling of the story’ – allows for the exploration of textual and visual layers of storytelling as related, contingent constituents of the narrative discourse. If graphic design is part of the telling of a story, then all choices on the levels of format, typography, imagery, or, the ‘staging of the text’ , impact on the story, on the way the voices of the exhibition are expressed and understood and on the degree of engagement (and identification) they can afford the visitor.

The paper describes the navigational function of graphic design in making content physically accessible through signposting hierarchies and sequences of text panels but also through enabling different modes of reading in the way the texts themselves are presented. It also investigates how graphic elements can be mapped in terms of metaphors, modes of address and narrative voices, revealing another range of functions that, as this paper argues, provide emotional and intellectual access to the exhibition content. Here, the potential of graphic design is particularly evident in the correlation with the written text and the spatial design, for example when disjunctions, juxtapositions or overlaps between the elements become apparent.

The presentation of multiple voices within an exhibition has so far mostly been discussed in relation to curatorial practice. The inclusion of graphic design in this discussion for its interpretive contributions rather than as a translation of curatorial content opens new levels of analysis of exhibitions and in turn provides the potential for a more informed, integrated approach to the communication of content in exhibition making.