Profile – Outside Studios

Outside Studios is rapidly carving out a niche for itself, specialising in the field of interpretation design. Anna Richardson talks to the duo that met creating London Zoo’s Gorilla Kingdom about their winning formula

For all its aptness, the term ’interpretation design’ doesn’t quite do Outside Studios’ work justice. Its two founders Dug Mackie and Catherine Halcrow’s past portfolios include animal enclosures, educational interactions and outdoor trails – for museums, galleries and visitor centres. They have created mechanical interactive installations, worked in tropical climates, evoked the memories of Holocaust survivors and measured the weight of gorilla dung.

’Interpretation is hard to describe,’ they concede. ’The client comes to us with a challenge – a gallery or an animal enclosure, something quite ephemeral or just an idea,’ ventures Mackie. The challenge is to turn it into something tangible, whether that’s a graphic panel, an audio-visual presentation, a book or a piece of play equipment. ’That’s the beauty of it,’ says Mackie.

The duo met in 2005 working on Gorilla Kingdom, the new great ape enclosure at London Zoo. Halcrow was on the client side, as head of interpretation at the zoo, while Mackie was the senior project director at Bremner & Orr Design Consultants.

The professional attraction was instant. Mackie was a designer without an ego, while Halcrow was a client who understood the design process and ’gave good brief’.

They first started talking about setting up a consultancy ’when we were drunk in a bar in Gabon, waiting to set off into the bush to film gorillas’, says Halcrow.

The partnership was made official at the end of 2008. Outside Studios’ current work includes Heartlands, a project designed in collaboration with Stephen Feber representing the sustainable development of a disused tin mine in Cambourne, Cornwall and a science garden for the Think Tank Trust in Birmingham, and they have just won a contract to create a visitor centre for the Forestry Commission. The relationship works ’because we share a sense of humour and we have common terms of reference’, says Mackie.

This process of creativity is very much a partnership, with both parties sharing brainstorming and concept development. When it comes to the facilitation of those ideas, Mackie typically does the drawings and visuals, while Halcrow writes content and liaises with the client. The combination of client-side and designer experience is a winning formula. ’Clients are often nervous about the process,’ says Mackie. ’As soon as they realise we are on their side, have client experience, and the designer is listening and not dictating, there’s a palpable sense of relief in the room.’

Another strength is their backgrounds. Halcrow describes herself as ’over-educated, much more bookish’, with numerous degrees. But she doesn’t don a science-geek mantle. Before setting up an interpretation team at London Zoo, Halcrow spent eight years working at London’s Science Museum, where her roles ranged from interpretation development on gallery projects to developing a strategic review. ’I always enjoyed the creative side of it to a much greater extent than the job allowed,’ she adds, and the Science Museum, especially, encouraged all staff to engage in the creative process.

Mackie, meanwhile, did a degree in interior architecture, before qualifying as a carpenter and building green oak-framed houses using young timber. What pulled him back to design was the Explore project at Bristol science centre At Bristol. What started as a six-week freelance contract ended as two years designing interactions. ’It was like finding the reason for design,’ says Mackie. ’I remember thinking “I’m really into this”.’

Both have the same approach to interpretation, valuing a democratic mindset and recognising that the latest technology is not always the best solution. Audio-visual technology can be powerful, especially in creating an emotional response. ’But I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet that that should be the last resort,’ says Halcrow.

One of the most effective devices for the Bull Ring Gallery in Birmingham was a snakes and ladders game about the history of the city, while Gorilla Kingdom includes giant models of gorilla dung, as well as thought-provoking portraits of orphaned gorillas by photographer James Mollison.

Outside Studios has plenty of work to see it through the economic doldrums, and setting up just before the recession was probably a good thing, says Halcrow. ’We’re hungry for more work. We’ve both worked in well-established environments, and we’re trying to build a name where there wasn’t one before.’

One niche they want to carve with their experience is outdoor interpretations, and in the future anything might be possible – maybe even retail. But for now, Outside Studios is just enjoying the ride. ’There’s an excitement about what we’re trying to achieve. It feels like it’s ours,’ says Mackie, and is echoed by Halcrow/ ’It’s fun working together, and long may it continue.’

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  • Tara Patterson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I worked with Catherine at the Zoo and she transformed their understanding of public engagement. All the more recent new exhibits have Catherine’s hallmarks – well-planned, well-executed and highly engaging.

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