Don’t miss your chances when times get tougher

Despite reports of a manufacturing downturn and the effects of foot and mouth disease still taking their toll on the national economy, it is not all gloom out there for design. Even some interiors groups – one of the sectors hardest hit by a slowdown in retail and leisure – are reporting a slight upturn.

But when times are tight you have to take advantage of every opportunity. For this reason we expect to be inundated with calls following our snippet about a £19.3m cash injection to boost the Duxford air museum, near Cambridge. Visitor attractions invariably involve design. At Duxford we might expect a handful of projects from exhibition design to signs, possibly branding and even the odd café.

But Duxford isn’t the only project where museum design groups could score. If Science Museum design head Tim Molloy is right, there is scope for them to cross over into retail to bring show business back to the high street.

Molloy has experience of retail design, having crossed over from there to exhibitions, and it is an area that another museum design stalwart, Brian Griggs, who was longtime design head at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is backing through his Brighton-based consultancy BMG, set up earlier this year. Griggs is attracting interest in the idea from across the world.

By the same token, there is undoubtedly a role for retail designers to work within museums, not just designing museum shops, but contributing in other ways that exploit their expertise in fulfilling consumer expectations, as well as their design skills.

Before I am slated by specialist exhibition designers who maintain that only they can service museums, I acknowledge that it isn’t easy to cross over into new camps. Manoeuvring your way through the politics of the museums community on the one hand, and the highly commercial demands of retail clients on the other, are skills that need to be honed over time. Having highly specialist suppliers on your books is an advantage in both instances, to make the best of both timescale and budget, though there is probably little overlap there.

But these are not insurmountable hurdles. If you take a great idea tempered with experience as your start point there’s much to be gained from a fresh approach. Look at Din Associates’ award-winning foray into visitor centres with the Diana, Princess of Wales project a couple of years ago.

One of the worst things that can happen is for design to become so specialised that there is no movement between market sectors. We don’t want Lisa Hastings’ experience with advertising to be repeated within design.

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