Digital Reading: The Infinite Variety of Experience

Infinite Variety Quilt ShowIn an earlier column listing UX bookshelf titles, I said that inspiration sometimes comes from surprising sources.  Last month’s surprise was the outstanding but short-lived show from the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan: “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” that ran from March 25-30. You probably missed it.

The show was a birthday present for and from Joanna Rose, of the Rose family of real estate developers; it displayed her entire collection of 651 red-and-white, antique, and vintage quilts. It was free to the public at the immense Park Avenue Armory, but open for only five days. The exhibit was designed by the innovative firm Thinc Design. It was mind-blowing.

If you are wondering what a quilt show is doing in a column on digital reader experience, reread the first couple of sentences. The show was filled with quilters and quilt enthusiasts (including me), but also with art lovers, architects, and design fans, and they were all talking to one another about what they were seeing. The show offered something for everyone and demonstrates the many ways UX can interact with design to create something unexpectedly great.

Most quilt shows are designed pretty much the same way, with quilts displayed in rows and ranks for two-dimensional, straight-on viewing. But for this one Thinc Design created circular pavilions of double-sided walls of quilts, spiraling upward in a “tornado of quilts” toward the Armory’s 45-foot high ceiling. Unconstrained by chronology or other scholarly system, they created a display that imagined the various ways the visitor might want to experience the show and then delivered them all. As Thinc Design’s founder Tom Hennes said in an online interview,

We wanted to be able to offer people the ability to both take in the exhibition at once and to always be able to orient themselves so having spaces between the quilts where you could see through and being able to see around and among the different structures that are formed was one aspect of it. [Another aspect was] to behold the entire collection as a thing…. In creating the cylindrical structures we also wanted to be able to create a sense of intimacy with the quilts, so that either walking around outside or being inside one you could get up close and personal with a selection of the quilts.

Most art exhibitions are years in the planning, and the accompanying catalogue is prepared and published to coincide with the exhibit. Because “Infinite Variety” was prepared in a relatively short 15 months, there was no catalog available for the show.  That left an opening for a creative approach to incorporating technology: an iPad/iPhone app that offered clarity, extra interpretation, and was also free. And not only free, but also supported; a table at the entrance to the show offered assistance downloading and installing the apps. The app allowed users to walk the show, listen to recorded descriptions of selected quilts, navigate to and view close-up photos of the quilts, and always orient themselves within the exhibit.  The app itself is a souvenir of the brief life of the show and not at all competitive with the catalog to come.

An advertising and promotion blitz brought sustained crowds to the show—a full-page ad in The New York Times coincided with pieces on local radio, print and news outlets. The museum’s website employed social media to engage and involve visitors, calling for photos, comments, and more. The show was thoroughly reviewed by the press, including the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

According to curator Elizabeth Warren, the catalog will take another couple of years to write and publish. By then, the show will be a distant memory. If the Museum is on its game it will update the app, connect it to the catalog, add multimedia, and present a fine new digital product to an appreciative audience.

Why can’t digital publishing create a product that, like “Infinite Variety,” thinks about what the user wants, then presents content in various ways; relinquishes the standard, traditional format and layout, imagining something new while remaining appropriate to the subject; connects with interactive technology to enhance the product and experience; and invites user involvement in the product? I think we can.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

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