In September of 2019, an opportunity presented itself to again pioneer a new design domain at the Art Institute: environmental design. The Ryan Learning Center (RLC) is an educational and art-making wing of the museum that is free to the public and accessible to all and any visitor to the museum. The learning and public engagement team had engaged local architecture firm Wheeler Kearns to refresh the space to be more physically open, welcoming, and accessible to visitors of all abilities and backgrounds.

In harmony with the interior architecture, I was tasked with defining the identity of the RLC—first in the physical space through wayfinding and placemaking, and then later expanding this brand into print and marketing materials as a sub-brand of the museum. The main points of the design concept I had to consider were how to tie the RLC to the rest of the museum and how to make the space feel inviting, inspiring, and accessible to any and every visitor.

To tie the space to the museum, we leaned in on the concept of patterns as a building block of creative exploration, and built a custom pattern library inspired by works in the museum collection that spanned different time periods and geographies. These patterns were built into the environmental graphics and also were used in several of the interactive spaces such as in the Touch Gallery where visitors can make rubbings layering patterns on top of one another.

The wayfinding of the space embeds Universal Design principles such as iconography and color-coding into the signage, helping to organize and distinguish spaces from one another. These values were merged with the guidelines for ADA compliance, and the team did several rigorous rounds of in-person tests using paper prototypes with visitors of all abilities to ensure the space was navigable to them. This included visitors of different physical and cognitive abilities, as well as non-english speakers and visitors we’ve identified as not typically seeing museums as spaces that are catering especially to them (such as teens).

All aspects of the service model of the RLC were also considered in this design project, including regulatory and invitational signage, digital signage, flexible paper templates for temporary signage, privacy barriers for staff, and interactive activities found in several areas of the space.

As of writing this, the space is in under construction. I look forward to sharing final documentation once the project is complete.