Dan Howarth

April 27, 2021

Designing for Children and Families

Our Business Development Manager, Dan Howarth, comes from a background in design. He talks to us about his experiences designing for younger audiences and some similar projects we have worked on.

Having started my career at the Science Museum designing and building hands-on exhibits, I have always really enjoyed the challenge of creating spaces and exhibits for a family audience. I enjoy the challenge of getting into the mindset of a child, and trying to create a space that will fire the imagination and encourage creative play, to make a space that is just as fun as it is educational. But importantly, creating a space that is fun, doesn’t mean shying away from proper content, just presenting it in a way that makes it as accessible as it is engaging. 

The part of the process I enjoy most, is often the really early stage of a project, where you  start to get really stuck into the content and work with the curatorial team to develop a storyline. Even in spaces for young children, developing a good knowledge of the subject matter is really key, and if you want to tell a good story, you have to really immerse yourself in the content.

Interactive at Ahoy! at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

As a result, one of the real joys of this stage is that it can often start with touring the museum stores and raking through parts of the collection that many will never get to see. This could mean looking  for those unusual or quirky items that have a great story attached to them, or items that could be used in creating an immersive set, something that can inspire and ignite the imagination of both the designer, and the target audience. Although in spaces aimed at children, the actual objects might not make it into the final gallery, that does not mean that they are any less rich in terms of historical content, just that the means of engagement will come from a physical hands-on experience, rather than a passive interaction with a historic object.

When I started designing Sorted! the under 7’s gallery at the Postal Museum for example, we soon found ourselves touring the museum stores in Debden, looking for choice items that might influence the design. Many of the objects we saw that day were instrumental in shaping the final design of the gallery, inspiring ideas for hands-on play activities, and steering the overall aesthetic approach of the space. 

An early sketch idea for the interactive Sorting Office, Dan Howarth

A set of teak and brass Victorian shelving for example, became the backdrop to the mini post office and inspired the sorting game that became the common theme that runs through all of the gallery activities. Looking through the vast collection of posters and advertising materials, many done originally as woodcuts, set the tone for the graphic design and illustration of the gallery.  Finding quirky items such as a blue airmail post box, created a link to items on display in the main museum, as well as creating a chance to engage children by prompting questions. Why is it blue? What is airmail anyway?

The mini post office in Sorted! with the shelving design taken from an original set in the collection, Dan Howarth

In a similar vein, Ahoy! at the National Maritime Museum, which was built by Factory Settings, is another of my children’s gallery designs that is firmly grounded in the museum’s collection. Right from the word go we used elements of the collection to influence the design, and to create links to real objects that were on display elsewhere in the museum. The steam liner Rawalpindi, which greets visitors as they approach Ahoy! can also be found in model form elsewhere in the museum, in a case dedicated to telling it’s story. The Age of Sail ship that forms the centrepiece of the gallery, was designed based on the original hand drawn plans which were unearthed in the museum’s archive in Woolwich.

The original sketch for the boat that greets visitors to Ahoy! - the final version drawn from the collection is based on the Rawalpindi, Dan Howarth

It is important to me when designing for children that the exhibition does not patronise them, or take any shortcuts in terms of historic detail. Delivering accurate and engaging content is just as important whether it be delivered through a play activity, or a text panel. The beauty of delivering content through play however, is that the learning is almost subliminal. So when you pretend to cook up stew in an age of sail ships kitchen, through your interaction with the props, you are also learning that on a ship of that era, cooking was still being done in a simple iron cauldron over an open fire on a brick hearth. 

Once the content has been sorted, the other part of designing for children that I really enjoy is developing the individual activities and exhibits. But getting this right can be a lot more tricky than it appears. For an exhibit to work well it needs to have two qualities above all else, to be simple enough to use without any real explanation, and to be robust enough to stand up to the rigours of being used and abused on a daily basis. When people approach an exhibit, it has been shown that if they do not get it to work straight away, without the need to read any instructions, they will often simply assume it is broken. And when an exhibit is broken, it is often the ‘exhibit not in use’ sign that forms the lasting memory of the gallery. 

Interactive at Ahoy! at The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

As such an important part of the design of any exhibit lies in the testing and prototyping that needs to be carried out throughout the development process. This was hammered home to me when I was first working at the Science Museum where the design of exhibits often started with testing simple cardboard mockups with visitors and went right through to building test rigs in the workshop to ensure components specified for the build would be able to cope with the rigours of life on gallery. By using this process we did our best to ensure that all the exhibits we produced, would not only be clear and easy to use, ensuring the visitor is able to extract the maximum in terms of content, but also easy to maintain, requiring very little servicing to keep them working and avoiding the dreaded out of order signs.  

Beyond the content research and exhibit development, the other aspect of designing galleries for families that I have really enjoyed is in making places that offer something very different to the digital world that makes up so much of our lives these days. For me, making a gallery where the experience is based on physical immersion in a unique environment, with a great story that fires the imagination through play and physical engagement is really rewarding. As a parent I have also been privileged in being able to involve my own children in creating these galleries. Using them as sounding boards, asking their advice and occasionally even sharing their sketches with the client! I’ve also been able to see for myself just how valuable these experiences can be, seeing the joy on my own children's faces as they explore, play and learn in a space designed with them at the forefront of the designer's mind. 

In a world where we are constantly competing with digital media for our children’s attention I really do get a thrill from seeing families getting real enjoyment from engaging in a well researched, content rich, interactive gallery, rooted in the museum's collection and where they can discover and explore together through whole family hands-on creative play. 

The rear of the Fly in Ahoy! the design of which was taken from the original draughtsman's sketches held in the National Maritime Museum archives

Dan Howarth

Business Development Manager
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