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Whose line is it anyway?

Katherine Skellon wants to reinvent the role of exhibition designer and has used her industry experience to co-design a new creative practice course focusing on cooperation

Exhibition designers - you know what they do, don't you? They're the ones who plonk loads of plasma screens in tight corridors so that kids gather round and block everyone else's way; they are the ones who somehow get their hands on inordinate amounts of money to spend on gadgets that will break as soon as you look at them in the wrong way; and they are the ones that seem to prefer making computer-generated animations instead of displaying best physical objects.

Unfortunately, exhibition designers, perhaps more than most design professionals, are blighted by bad press and by our own frustrated demands. How many times have you been let down by the 'fun experience' of a pop museum in Sheffield, or a pie museum in Wigan, say? How many times have you sought refuge in a dingy hall crammed full of contentless interactive displays on a rainy Sunday afternoon, desperately trying to kill more than half an hour with the kids while spending less than 25 quid?

But looked at dispassionately, exhibition design is actually as much about how not to fill a space as it is how to fill a space well. Exhibition designers, pilloried since the Lotteryfunded mayhem at the turn of the century, are a much-maligned profession, with plenty to offer architects - and not just those architects designing a ubiquitous museum or gallery.

Katherine Skellon is so aware of the bad label attached to exhibition design that she prefers to call herself an 'interpretative designer'.

Having been lead exhibition designer on Falmouth's much-praised National Maritime Museum Cornwall, she has developed a reputation as someone who knows what to leave out as much as what to put into a space, and is keen that architects learn from the train of thought that she employs on a given scheme. Her intervention might aid architects to plan better for the time when the building is in occupation - and raise architects out of their everyday considerations solely about the structure and the voids.

Skellon's expertise is in knowing how people use spaces, and early consultation with someone like her could provide architects and clients with a far more integrated understanding of how the building works. This is more than just a way-finding model.

Interior d'accord Trained in interior design at Kingston University, Skellon decided that she did not want to work on dwellings but set her aspirations a little higher. The course was very architecturally led but she was 'much more interested in how you use space than in becoming an architect. Exhibition design and museum design, ' she says, 'is working with real design and real design stories, ' and it is this dynamic mode of design expression that she aimed for.

A chance meeting with Peter Higgins at the end of her course (at the time that he was setting up his new venture Land Design Studio);

a cheeky letter asking for work, and she had landed herself a new career.

By the end of the 1990s, she had become an associate. The intervening years' experience made her realise the 'immense benefits of working with architects'.

Skellon enjoys the paradoxical freedom to design a solution within the constraints of a given space, whereas the architect, she says, is traditionally faced with a blank canvas upon which to create that space. That said, she does not see any merit in protecting, or making precious, certain professional roles. Her job is getting the balance of inputs right so that the architect does not have to redesign to take account of flows - what she calls 'the functionality of the space'. Very often design tweaks have to be made to take account of the straightforward positioning of equipment, furniture and fittings that the architect should have known about, or at least have been made aware of.

She enjoys the interdisciplinary arguments, the creative tensions, and the compromises that all come from working closely with other disciplines. She is never without a sketchpad, doodling solutions and scribbling new ideas (apparently she has 31 black-bound A4 sketchbooks that 'sum up' her life's work).

When the boat comes in 'Working with Long & Kentish Architects on Falmouth was the sort of lesson that started on day one and lasted until we opened, ' she says (and undoubtedly it accounts for a couple of sketchbooks). 'Quite often the problems start with the client, who just doesn't know what we do.' In fact Skellon, like most professionals prompted by Egan, argues that, in some cases, clients would do as well to appoint an interpretative designer as early as at feasibility stage.

'At Falmouth, the client had given the architect a brief to design a museum with several functions and we (Land Design Studio) were given a brief to house a lot of boats in this same building. It was impossible not to try to resolve these briefs together.' It also seems incredible that the client wouldn't have considered a single brief as the best way to cohere the various packages so that none were overshadowed and that no one was late inputting into the design process.

Skellon's job had been to develop a narrative - a storyline - for the museum. As the scheme developed, the storyline caused the architect to adjust its designs and design concepts (and vice versa, the architect's design development introduced constraints and compromises on Skellon).

After the Millennium Dome debacle, when the exhibition design market took a bit of a recessionary hit, Skellon went freelance. She maintains the link with Land Design Studio, but is also lecturing at Central St Martins College of Art and Design in central London. Here, in a course of her codesign, she is trying to implement many of the cooperational goals that she has striven towards in her role as an interpretative designer.

Creative choices The two-year master's in Creative Practice for Narrative Environments is only in its second year, and, says Skellon, 'came about as a result of the frustrations in the design world that, especially in Lottery-funded projects, the right team had not been appointed early enough? and it seemed that education was needed'. This course set itself the ambitious task of teaching across disciplines. In other words, whereas most universities have subject headings like architecture, interior design, engineering, product design, etc, in which students start and finish, never having met their opposite numbers, this course is the only one that deals with all the people and professions involved in design.

At present there is a healthy mix (which has to be decided and created as part of the admissions policy) of architects, curators, writers, product designers, etc. There are very few young students on the course - instead, most are more mature and have all given up their employment to take up this full-time course.

The course seeks to challenge the participants to think about new ways of working, of thinking about problems and potential solutions.

All coursework is done in teams, and the students work through research, theory, concept design, schematics, and model-making, etc. At the end of the first year, the students take up nine-week placements in a variety of participating professional practices (which generally give lectures at the university). Skellon says she aims to graduate students who are 'more clued up? more well-rounded and with a much wider body of design experience than any others competing for work'.

How does Skellon answer the charge that this course is a little bit patronising, in that it is instructing people in how to cooperate? A course that tries to teach cooperation is a little bit like the seminars that say that they will train people to be entrepreneurs - it is not something that you can teach, since by teaching it you undermine it somewhat. Secondly, how does she answer the charge that cooperation tends to be determined on a case-by-case basis, in real circumstances, rather than being decided by role-playing in academia?

Is this course trying to give students 'condensed experience'; an experience that they might as easily find for themselves in the real world?

No, says Skellon. At the very least, graduates will turn out better placed to understand the languages of others - to be able to explain themselves and thus to brief one another with less scope for misunderstanding. At best, she will have produced fully rounded experienced designers with a clear market lead, in employment terms, over other, more traditionally educated, professionals.

Skellon certainly has the experience and ambition to make this course a leader in cross-sectoral understanding. We will follow the progress of its first graduates with interest.

For further information contact Katherine Skellon at katherine@skellon. net, or visit www. narrative-environments.

com for information on the Central St Martins master's course

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