Word pictures

When the Wellcome Collection wanted to develop the potential of its website, a group of interactive designers suggested running a competition that exploited the gallery’s ‘word achieve’ to generate ideas. Adrian Shaughnessy looks at the results

The Wellcome Collection is dedicated to ‘exploring the history and wider meaning of medicine’. When the £30m London gallery opened in 2007, it was widely regarded as a triumph of good design. Writer and critic Rick Poynor wrote, ‘At a stroke, Wellcome’s permanent galleries establish themselves as one of London’s essential museum stops, a clever, immaculately curated, endlessly stimulating fusion of science, art, public education and responsive design’.

With its publicly stated intention to ‘bring to life Sir Henry Wellcome’s vision of a place where people could learn more about the development of medicine through the ages and across cultures’, the Wellcome Collection deserves credit for its bold patronage of architects, exhibition designers, graphic designers, lighting designers and sound designers.

Now, the collection is emerging as a patron of interactive design. Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the collection, sees a need to extend the gallery’s reach by using the interactive and social networking capabilities of the Web. ‘Our website gets almost the same number of visitors as the gallery does,’ says Arnold. ‘It seems as if everyone who visits the gallery then goes on-line, so we’re keen that the website isn’t just a translation of the gallery. We want to show that you can exhibit imaginatively on-line, and we want to do things on the site that we can’t do in the gallery.’

Wellcome asked Ico Design, the gallery’s Web and interactive design consultancy, to investigate ways of extending the website’s capabilities. Ico introduced Wellcome to BD4D – a network of interactive designers – which proposed running a competition open to people in interactive media: ‘people we couldn’t reach on our own,’ explains Arnold.

The competition invited designers to create interactive works based on Wellcome’s ‘wordsoup’ – an archive of mainly science-related words used as brand guidelines. ‘We’re very clear about who and what we are,’ says Arnold, ‘but we’re keen to allow other people to tell us where we are going. We wanted people to use the audacity of their imaginations.’

The winning entries will be featured on a dedicated section on the Wellcome website. A series of short animated interactive sequences will offer on-line content that differs from, but connects to, the Wellcome Collection. Among the shortlisted entries that stood out, Kelvin Luck asks us to look at images plucked from Flickr and choose from the wordsoup which one was used to tag the picture. It is harder than you think: what word could describe a masked woman in a spangly bikini who is wielding a chainsaw? Clue: it is not what you might think.

Eric Jordan encourages participants to sign up to a fictitious (we hope) corporation called Life Preservation Inc, which invites candidates to ‘upload their mind’ and join ‘millions of others’ who have chosen to be turned into ‘digital entities’.

James Bates offers animated skulls, pills, specimen bottles, diagrams and elegant typography to provide a thoughtful meditation on medical imagery. A second entry by Bates uses chic line drawing to tell us about the ‘wisdom of teeth’ – it looks as if it might have been done by Jean-Michel Basquiat.


The winning interactive exhibits will be shown at a launch on 6 February, then exhibited on the Wellcome Collection website, www.wellcomecollection.org

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