By the People exhibition at Cooper Hewitt Museum. Photo courtesy of Moorhead & Moorhead/Mikiko Kikuyama

Exhibition Design and Other Explorations

An Interview with Hitesh Singhal, Art Director of Tsang Seymour Design

What would it be like to design an exhibition for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in NYC? How is being a designer in India different from the U.S.? What’s it like to practice design unfettered by the constraints of medium? Hitesh Singhal answers these questions and much more.

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Stacey Sundar: Hello Hitesh! Welcome to TypeThursday!

Hitesh Singhal: Hi Stacey, thanks for having me.

SS: It’s a pleasure to have you here with us. Can you tell us about yourself and your path to becoming a designer?

Hitesh’s Journey to Becoming A Designer

HS: I come from a family of professionals and businessmen with hardly anyone remotely connected to anything creative. I developed my interest in graphic design while I was part of my school art club. The interest grew and I went to art school in New Delhi to study Communication Design. While at school, I tried to supplement my academics with internships in the industry. I worked at an ad agency (Ogilvy & Mather), an English daily newspaper (Times of India) and even a industrial design studio (Foley Design). Each experience taught me a different aspect of being a designer. I finally set my heart on a small multi-disciplinary studio in New Delhi called Fisheye Design, where I worked with my mentor Anjila Puri. We designed brand identities, interactive experiences and exhibition design for various clients from Sushumna Yoga to World Bank.

The biggest takeaway I got from grad school was to have a bigger sense of what design thinking means, unrestricted of the medium we use.

After working for 4 years in the industry, I had a yearning to learn more. Tools and medium for creative expression have been changing so rapidly in our industry. I wanted to understand these new tools and what lay ahead in the future. That brought me to pursue my MFA at Maryland Institute College of Arts, under the virtuoso, Ellen Lupton. The biggest takeaway I got from grad school was to have a bigger sense of what design thinking means, unrestricted of the medium we use. And, with that pool of knowledge, I brought my skills to Tsang Seymour Design as Art Director.

This has been my journey so far.

Ellen Lupton views Hitesh’s Senior Project at MICA

SS: Thank you for sharing your design story with us. It sounds like not only did you challenge yourself in your role as a designer both professionally and academically, but you also tested your mettle by being an international designer, first in India and now the US. Can you give us some insight as to the biggest differences you’ve observed in design between the two countries aesthetically, technically, or in terms of thought?

I have to say the design industry is very similar, yet very different in the two countries.

Design in India Versus the U.S.

HS: I have to say the design industry is very similar, yet very different in the two countries. Academically, I found a lot of similarities in design teaching as both the schools I went to have modeled their teachings around the Bauhaus school of thoughts. But I do have to say, the focus in U.S. teaching is to push for the unfamiliar, unexpected and experimental work. I found that to be refreshing, liberating and challenging at the same time. I also like the readings and theory that is taught here. From Roland Barthes’ philosophy to David Joselit’s After Art. These recommended readings have been a revelation and something we were not encouraged to read.

In India, the user demographic is vast and there are different cultures, languages and environments within the same country. We have to adapt, diversify and cater to our user and they change dramatically.

Professionally, the two environments are very different. In India, the user demographic is vast and there are different cultures, languages and environments within the same country. We have to adapt, diversify and cater to our user and they change dramatically. When we were designing the new spatial graphics for World Bank’s new office in Delhi, we not only had to appeal to the modern, well-traveled, urban staff at the office but also the numerous grass root non-profits from all over the country that visit the World Bank office daily for collaborative projects. The biggest design challenge was how to marry the two different voices. Most projects I worked on in India posed similar problems.

The U.S., especially New York, is more design literate and more accepting to bold, experimental and new ideas.

The U.S., especially New York, is more design literate and more accepting to bold, experimental and new ideas. The clients was not afraid to try something new (but within budgets, obviously) and, there is access to great number of talented people for collaboration. In the case of exhibition design, I have found great teams for production, that have exquisite skills in fabricating objects.

Yeah, these are the major differences I have seen so far.

SS: It sounds like you are a designer who is energized by a good challenge and collaboration. Can you tell me about your role in Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition By the People: Designing A Better America?

The whole idea behind the exhibition was to celebrate grassroots design, social design and sustainability. We came up with idea to ingrain this message on every design gesture we make in the space.

Hitesh’s Role as Exhibition Designer

HS: By the People was a massive project that we worked in a team of 3 designers and numerous interns. We worked with Robert and Granger Moorehead from the architectural firm, Moorehead & Moorehead to design the show. The whole idea behind the exhibition was to celebrate grassroots design, social design and sustainability. We came up with idea to ingrain this message on every design gesture we make in the space.

Together with Patrick (my boss and head of Tsang Seymour), Robert and Granger, we came up with concept for the show. It is a traveling show that recycles itself. We created a kit of parts using custom made stencil lettering for infographics and photographs printed on fabric-like material. All these units were assembled on recyclable home-sole (compressed paper board) walls. After the show, these assets would be taken down and passed on to the next venue without any damage. The custom furniture created by M&M followed the same concept.

It is one thing moving your mouse around in a screen, but aligning elements in huge gallery spaces is another ball game altogether.

I was responsible for creating all the visual assets along with my team. And, my biggest role was in getting all these assets produced and installed correctly across the spaces. It is one thing moving your mouse around in a screen, but aligning elements in huge gallery spaces is another ball game altogether. We spent multiple nights at the museum, trying to get the vision executed to the “T” with our production team.

SS: This really illustrates to us your talents as a designer and craftsman. In addition to these undertakings, you also mentioned ingraining the theme of a grassroots message, social design, and sustainability in the exhibition. How did this influence your typographic decisions?

Our bigger concern was how to apply the typography throughout the space. The text in the show varies from 3 foot big giant lettering for the title wall to 36 pt text boxes for the infographics.

Type and Exhibition Design

HS: Typography was the key to tie all the various projects getting showcased in the exhibition. We worked with the signature Cooper Hewitt typeface created by Chester Jenkins. We wanted a neutral typeface but with a strong presence, and the Chester’s typeface fit perfectly well. Our bigger concern was how to apply the typography throughout the space. The text in the show varies from 3 foot big giant lettering for the title wall to 36 pt text boxes for the infographics.Vinyl lettering or direct printing on wallpaper/banners would have used a lot of resources and created a lot waste. Hence we came up with idea of creating stencils that can be re-used as the show moves.

The application of typography dictated our choice finally and we commissioned a stencil version of the Cooper Hewitt typeface. We had an amazing typographer in our team who made the stencil cut for the “Bold” face of the Cooper Hewitt type family. This typeface has been applied throughout the show as stencil-lettering.

SS: In my mind, the letters were cut from the stencils and then adhered to the exhibition. Is this correct? Was it difficult to gauge tracking and kerning, once the letters were applied?

HS: Yes, we got CNC milled stencils made in flexible acrylic sheets. Tracking and kerning was a big issue. We actually did a bit a lot of cheating and last-minute fixes while applying the stencils on the walls. For instance, the title wall lettering looked great in our elevation sketches. But when, we were transferring the stencils on the wall, we noticed huge kerning issues in the words. We manually moved the stencils after painting every letter to correct the spacing.

SS: I see a lot of thought, talent, and painstaking care went into the design of this exhibition. Can you tell us what successful exhibition design means to you?

I remember our professor at MICA said something that I still stick by. He said always have 3 levels of depth in your exhibition design. One for the quick passerby, a 2nd level for the casual reader and a 3rd level for the user who want to bite more teeth into the content.

What is Good Exhibition Design?
HS
: Good exhibition design is serving the content the best way possible. My biggest aim as exhibition designer is to allow the user to experience the content and assimilate information in an enjoyable and unique way. And to also provide something for every kind of visitor. I remember our professor at MICA said something that I still stick by. He said always have 3 levels of depth in your exhibition design. One for the quick passerby, a 2nd level for the casual reader and a 3rd level for the user who want to bite more teeth into the content.

Hitesh preparing his exhibit on tea at MICA

SS: Hitesh, this has been a truly fascinating conversation. Is By the People: Designing A Better America on exhibition at Cooper Hewitt through February 26th?

HS: Yes, it is. Everyone should go see it. It’s a very positive and uplifting show and it will allow one to escape, for a little bit, from what is happening in Washington and in politics.

SS: Thank you again from TypeThursday! I will be sure to check it out.

HS: Thanks so much Stacey. It’s a pleasure talking to you.


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