The Journey to JourneyMaker

Michael Neault
Jan 10, 2017 · 6 min read

This is a case study about the creative process within a museum environment, bridging digital and physical environments, and thinking about experience through the eyes of our youngest visitors. We detail how we went from white-boarding to storyboarding, and how you can apply similar techniques for your next design project!

Project Overview

JourneyMaker is a hybrid digital-physical experience in which families create their own themed path through the galleries.

Starting out in the Ryan Learning Center, visitors use an interactive touchscreen to select a story line such as superheroes or time travelers.

These stories guide the creation of a custom tour culminating in a personalized, printed guide with activities, a museum map, and wayfinding directions to find the artworks selected for the tour.

With their custom Journey Guide in hand, families set off on an activity-filled, imagination-sparking adventure through the museum.

The Teaser

The visitor experience starts digitally with a roll of a 12-sided die, and a friendly, one-eyed, furry blue monster, and continues with a printed, origami-style folding guide that magically knows your name. Hardly the standard fare for a digital-borne concept, the process and inspiration for this project was rooted in the world of analog media, tangible creativity, and a museum full of original artwork. For a project that would later become known as JourneyMaker, we started out our process like any good icebreaker — with games and without a clear sense of where our own journey would lead.

Over the course of 18 months, a collaborative group at the Art Institute of Chicago set out to tackle a few big challenges faced by the museum. With our partners in Museum Education, led by Robin Schnur, my team in the Digital Experience department, and our design partners, Belle & Wissel out of Seattle, we formed an interdisciplinary group to solve an interdisciplinary problem.

Creative Problems Are the Best Problems

A challenge that many fine art museums face is one that comes from a preconception of the objects that hang on their walls. Museums—art museums in particular—have a reputation for being dense and inaccessible and by extension, not family friendly. One of our central (and ambitious) goals was to see if we could change the very perception of what an art museum could offer. The path to solving the issue involved a working hypothesis: Could we use imaginative storytelling and participatory activities to connect families with fine art? Could we use these devices to sneak in learning about context, culture, and creativity? And finally, could it (gasp) actually be fun?

Form Follows Function

Before our core team started in earnest, the project had acquired the name of the “family app.” However, we found that it was misleading to label the project with a technical solution before arriving at a concept. Rather than assume the form factor of an app, we renamed the project and worked to define the goals that would later inform the interactive. Newly minted with the working title of “family-focused digital engagement” (FFDE), the project moved into production. (Yes, FFDE is a yawn-inducing title, but it better explained the backbone of the idea, rather than focus on the technology.)

The Kit

Our process was a homegrown hybrid of human-centered design, experience design, and museum pedagogy. Rather than diving immediately into production, we first moved through a rapid discovery period. After coming up with three main concepts, the group broke up into separate teams to independently develop ideas. During this time, we created low-fidelity prototypes using simple tools like Keynote.

Documentation of our early, discovery phase.

At the end of this phase, we reconvened and pitched ideas back to the group. The winning idea, it was agreed, was the one that most successfully brought visitors into the galleries. The discovery period also helped us define some of the requisite structure, like scope and schedule, that would keep our project on the rails during production.

The Concept — Visualized

During the early phases of the project, we stained our fingers with prismacolor markers and sustained the minor wounds associated with the excessive use of post-it notes. With an experience that would bridge the physical and the virtual, it was critical that we map out the idea before ever moving into the (expensive) world of development.

One of the crucial visuals that we created was a simple set of storyboards. In parallel, we had created a sequence of wireframes, but — as much as I love boxes and arrows — black-and-white schematics aren’t great at communicating a spatially oriented idea. Storyboards helped the team imagine the step-by-step interaction as people moved from the learning center to the galleries and then back to headquarters. Wireframes are useful tools, but storyboards kept the entire team focused on the visitor experience.

Examples of the storyboards we created to illustrate the visitor journey.

The Story Comes into Relief

There are many entry points into a work of art. Considering our audience, we followed a narrative path that would appeal to young people. Rather than using chronology, geographical context, or movement (common organizing concepts in museums), we used fictional storylines to propel the narrative. With options like superheroes, overnight adventures, monsters, and time travel, JourneyMaker offers a variety of themes that young people can immediately recognize. These themes help organize the overall museum visit, prompting visitors to choose artworks based on five fun questions. There are literally thousands and thousands of possible combinations that visitors can make for their journey around the museum — 262,000 to be exact.

These are animated representations of the storylines that visitors choose while building their tour.

Telling the Story of JourneyMaker

With the final jog of the process, we faced the challenge of describing an experience that has few precedents. Unlike a movie or an app, there is no single word that describes JourneyMaker. It is a hybrid digital-physical experience that bridges the virtual with physical. However, that particular description doesn’t work in an elevator pitch. Static images and words don’t do the experience justice, so we decided to tell the story with a short video. As a time-based sequence, JourneyMaker requires time-based media to illustrate the idea. We partnered with Chicago-based creative agency Leviathan, who were able to animate our rolling die and bring our one-eyed monster to life.

Conclusion: Journey within a Journey

When I think about our process of reframing a “digital experience,” it reminds me of the innovative chef Grant Achatz. At his experimental Alinea restaurant in Chicago, Achatz felt constrained by the traditional food delivery method: the plate. So, he had an unusual idea — take away the plates and use the entire table as a canvas. The same principle applies to digital; there is no reason an experience has to be bound by the confines of a browser or the walled garden of an app. A digital layer can be a facilitator, a guide, a springboard; it doesn’t have to be the experience in and of itself. The virtual world is sometimes more revolutionary in its ability to bring you back to reality.

So go ahead — spin the die; invent your own canvas.

Michael Neault

Written by

Executive Creative Director, Experience Design. Covering design + digital @artinstitutechi. On twitter @michael_neault.

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