How Museums Shape Design

Letting yourself get lost in abstract shape and time can push and pull your work in ways you may not have thought about consciously.

Michael Ernst
The Startup
Published in
9 min readMar 26, 2020


Julie Mehretu at LACMA

When I first moved to California at 23 years old, I was young, broke and living off beans & rice, but one indulgence I allowed myself was a membership to the SFMOMA. I could barely make rent and was struggling to find work, so my roommate called into question my $75 membership, but seeing the Chagall exhibit five times made it all worthwhile. I have always fantasized being included in the pantheon of fine artists with my own work hanging on the walls of these revered institutions, so being in proximity to these iconic pieces was the next best thing. I knew intuitively that the firsthand examination of influential artwork shaped me in unique ways, and I should do whatever I could to spend as much time there.

Twenty years later I live in Los Angeles with a membership to the LACMA, and recently was floored by the immense abstract works of Julie Mehretu. Her massive and meticulous exhibition reminded me how much of a profound effect the art world has on shaping how I design. I could never really put into words why I loved museum experience and what effect it had on my own artistic taste when I was an impressionable young designer, but I can now. If you are a designer of any kind, I think it’s important to take time to immerse yourself in fine art, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least familiarize yourself with various narratives around some of the more contemporary movements. There are so many unique ways that a trip to the gallery can shape your idea of fundamental art concepts that really have no shortcut or substitute.

Helps us Elevate

The most famous works of art you know today have a ubiquity to them — you’ve seen them on posters and postcards, used in ads or even as satire, so their meaning will inevitably become muddied in our minds. Even a quick scan of the writeup on the gallery wall or a cursory flip to Wikipedia can give you the context of work you may recognize, but not understand its importance outside of a meme on your timeline. Because at one point in their existence these artworks were new and revolutionary and achieved a type of transcendence…