Can you explain a little bit about the type of work you do?
I was hired by the museum to initiate and shepherd a digital transformation of the institution during this critical renovation and rebuilding moment. Therefore much of my time is spent helping embed digital into the design, decision making, strategy and all the operations of the museum – from community building to the exhibitions and experiences planned for the new galleries, from collecting and preserving born-digital objects as part of the collection, to the new production workflows and processes required to make this a reality. If I had to describe what I do to a room of designers I'd say it is equal parts service design and user experience design – and the application of those disciplines to everything that a contemporary museum needs to deliver.
Right now, there's a fair bit of day-to-day management of my team who handle design research, production work – AV, websites and mobile – and publishing – catalogues, ebooks, object labels – too. Along with constant dialogue with our exhibit architects, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and interactive media designers, Local Projects, there are many many balls in the air and every day tempting new opportunities and technologies to seize. It is my job to keep everyone focussed on the long term transformational work that has to be done whilst also engendering a new spirit of experimentation within the organisation.
I also do a lot of public speaking and help communicate the important transformations that Cooper-Hewitt is undergoing to the rest of the museum and non-profit sector around the globe. We're leading the field in several digital areas at the moment and it is vitally important for our leadership to help raise everyone in the field – not least of all because we are a publicly funded Smithsonian museum.
If you asked anyone in my team they'd probably say "he talks a lot and stares at his oversized screen a lot". I'd probably say the same of them.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love the day-to-day work with my team – they're all very talented and diverse individuals – and we have a very light-hearted office culture but with many deep intellectual discussions on a daily basis. It is such a privilege to work with people that you would probably choose to hang out with in any case. Despite the cheery aspirational positivism communicated through the media, the education system, and middle class parenting, 'pleasurable work' is a real luxury in this world confined to a minority.
I'm especially proud of the way my team have all, individually, seized the challenge of the transformation we're undergoing. The sheer volume of ideas and, importantly, working prototypes to test those ideas that they are generating is amazing.
More broadly I enjoy the challenge of making a real 21st century attempt to build a new type of public museum in the tradition of public libraries and public media instead of a not-for-profit sanctuary for a knowing few. This is the vision that gives the day-to-day a sense of greater meaning and purpose.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Change in museums is hard – and when it is accelerated by the renovation of the museum it is even harder. It is a balancing act requiring careful shepherding and keeping a focus on the long term. The Curatorial departments, who I often find are the most-resistant to change in other cultural institutions, have been incredibly generous in their openness to the very significant changes to their work practices that have been coming at quite a pace as a direct result of this digital moment.
What is your favorite Cooper-Hewitt exhibition to date? Why?
Although I arrived in New York after Cooper-Hewitt had already closed its main campus I had previously visited the museum as both a speaker and a tourist and had good memories of past exhibitions. For me, from the distance of Australia, it was the innovative educational outreach programmes that most carried the 'brand' and identity of the institution. The more I see of the collection and its many quirks, the more opportunities I see for new types of exhibition in the future.
What was the most memorable moment for you at Cooper-Hewitt?
Actually, there have been two moments both involving the Smithsonian's Office of General Counsel who provide legal advice for the constituent institutions that make up the Smithsonian.
The first was shortly after I joined and we were able to release the museum's collection metadata (the descriptive text about the objects we have) under a Creative Commons Zero license. This was the first time that any Smithsonian had done such a thing and used this license which is effectively a globally applicable public domain dedication.
The second was around the legal status of the acquisition of our first object acquired purely as code – Planetary (which you can read about at http://www.cooperhewitt.org/planetary). We had quite a time talking around the challenge of a museum acquiring an 'object' only to immediately 'give it away' by releasing the code for download and re-use.
These were both significant institutional milestones that will likely soon be forgotten. However they mark that break between the museum practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, and those that we are still developing to cope with the needs and demands of the 21st century.
How has the renovation either opened new doors or posed new challenges for you?
I certainly hadn't expected to be so broadly involved in the minutiae of so many of the museum's operations when I left Australia but it has been a very good challenge to have to work across so much of the organisation. The sense that we are 'building something that hasn't been built before' brings out that inherent tension between risk and innovation. It has been rewarding to work with our Board and funders who really understand that a bold vision is one worth supporting – especially when it stands to create significant long term public value as well.
Looking forward, what are you most excited about once the museum reopens?
I'm excited about seeing the reactions of the first uninvited visitors to the new museum. Will they understand what we've done? How visceral will their reactions be? How memorable will they find the experience? Will it – and this is really important – make them want to come back more than once or twice a year?
After that comes the remedial work that every good designer, architect, engineer – irrespective of the medium of choice – has to do. Working with interactive media for so many years I've come to really enjoy the remedial and iterative phases after a product launch – it is when your creations really come to life and start to have meaning for the people who are using them. If we're lucky the ones who end up using them will overlap with the ones that we had 'designed them for'.
What is good design? Bad design?
For me, 'good design' solves human problems in an intentional and elegant way. I'd distinguish 'good design' from 'effective design' which I'd apply to designs that solve problems inelegantly and at the expense of others. The design of the systems used by the NSA for their mass surveillance of the internet is certainly effective but it is arguably not an example of 'good' design. Similarly, Comic Sans is a very effective example of typography for readers with reading difficulties, but as it wasn't intended as such, it is rather inelegant and accidental. On the other hand, everyone's favourite 'interface for bureaucracy' at the moment is the award winning Gov.uk online portal which shows that elegant, people-centric, solutions can be found for very inelegant things.
What is the future of design?
Right now the future of design is human-centred, programmable, systems-oriented, and biological. How we as the 'nation's design museum' is poised to 'collect, interpret, exhibit, and preserve' the best examples of those is one of the biggest challenges facing the museum. It is a big step to move from the skills and tools needed to collect and preserve furniture, textiles and sketches on paper, to doing the same for genetically engineered organisms, interactive software, interfaces and systems of control and finance. As I've ruminated in recent public talks – how does a museum 'collect the interfaces of Facebook', or the 'algorithms that drive the financial markets' (and thus directly impact upon workers lives)? As a Smithsonian museum – albeit one of the smallest – we have a public responsibility to figure that out. And fast.
Finally, if you could redesign anything, what would it be?
Health, education, economic systems – just the small things. But right now, I'd settle for redesigning bureaucracy.