If you stand in the offices of the MoMA digital team, you can look out floor-to-ceiling windows north over West 54th Street in Manhattan. Several stories below lies a rooftop garden designed by landscape architect Ken Smith and a giant skylight that looks into the sixth floor gallery. It is a great view in a city that doesn’t hand them out to just anyone. Paul McCartney has a townhouse across the street. He can’t see the garden.
On Tuesdays in winter, the museum is closed. The MoMA staff can, if they like, wander through the open, naturally-lit space in a way rarely experienced by paying visitors. Quietly. By themselves. They can lie on the flat, queen-sized couches, studying this or that masterpiece. They can puzzle over the ironies, ponder the methodologies, sympathize with the artists, or simply drink it all in.
This leisurely approach lies in stark contrast to the medium in which they work. The Web today is governed by a crushing drive to convey information at breakneck speed. Most sites are built according to mandates derived from exacting, unemotional disciplines: UX, user testing, SEO, information architecture and social media marketing. Digital designers are taught to think in bullet points. They lay out paths and funnels that drive people to the outcomes they desire. Purchase, share, tweet. In industry lingo, it’s all about conversion ratios and success metrics.
The MoMA team takes a different approach. Call it get-out-of-the-way-ism. Or slow-it-all-down-ism. Let the art shine through first, and put everything else in the background. Their sites are the last thing from frenetic. They don’t drive visitors down paths; instead they open labyrinths that encourage them to get lost. While they organize content well, the designs are rarely remarkable except for their sparseness. Many are the closest thing to an empty museum (which is the best kind of museum) you’ll find online.
“Our most common approach is to make the design and the interaction as invisible as possible,” says senior media developer Shannon Darrough. “We make things that are extremely minimal. They seem very simple, which usually means the technology behind them is complicated.”
In person, they are a mellow and cohesive bunch. They are led by Allegra Burnette, an intense, but pleasant, creative director. They sit in cubes topped with an extensive collection of action figures, found art and other knickknacks. They use the garden for meetings. They work hard but speak softly and seem more like a family than a design and development group.
Burnette has built up this team, from three to nine, over the last nine years. They now cover all the major digital disciplines: video, design and programming. Some team members, like Shannon Darrough, have gaudy agency backgrounds (Deep End, Firstborn). Others, like media producer David Hart, are interns plucked from school. There is one unofficial rule: Everyone who comes stays. Only one of Burnette’s hires has left during her tenure—and he still works with them freelance.
Together they oversee a complex array of digital projects, fully integrated with the museum’s curatorial, marketing and graphics team. Their core responsibility is what they call the “mother ship,” MoMA.org, a cleanly-designed site composed of calendars, announcements and a 30,000-plus piece catalog of art. They also produce educational sites (MoMA has a strong educational focus), but in the world of high-end design, they’re best known for their microsites dedicated to exhibitions at the museum.
Most other museum staffs farm these creative projects out to elite design firms. While MoMA does hire its share of Hello Designs and Second Stories (they even snagged the elusive Yugo Nakamura for a project), typically the team gets first choice of every project.
"We have the skills in-house," says senior producer Maggie Lederer. "So depending on the budget, the schedule and the project, we'll decide which way to go. Sometimes we do a hybrid, designed externally and built in-house, sometimes the reverse."
Surprisingly enough, in their own work, they often go well beyond what their better-known hires are willing to do. It's not to say that Hello Design's site for the Bauhaus isn't a great example of content well designed and a story engagingly told. Or that Second Story's site for Henri Cartier-Bresson isn't impeccably presented. You'd expect nothing less from either studio.
But when it comes to sheer audacity, the in-house projects often stand out. A site for a Francis Alÿs exhibition, for example, was so de-designed that its core interface element was a single drop-down menu on a white background. If you make a selection, the works of the artist fly in wickedly fast. The technology is impressive, but at a quick glance the site almost (but not quite) looks like it was created by a first-year engineering student. It puts the focus on the art—and nothing but the art.
A site for Olafur Eliasson extends the concept a little more. Eliasson's works are extremely experiential and difficult to present using static imagery. And so, the MoMA team conceived of the idea of hanging cell phones around the necks of visitors. The phones were hacked to take pictures at random intervals. So as people walked through the exhibit, they would automatically take unposed, candid shots of the experience. These photos ended up on a site that allows the Web user to take a pathway through the exhibition, experiencing the work much as a physical visitor might.
"They understand the power of the story and the content," says David Lai, of Hello Design. "And they care very much about the end product."
Their restraint also has another purpose: MoMA's projects are—technology permitting—built to last. "We're cautious of doing something as a one-off project," says Burnette. "A lot of those we end up having to fold back into this larger entity. We have to be strategic about every project that gets added, because nothing gets taken off."
Another reason may be the MoMA itself, with its once revolutionary "white box" identity that idealizes art in a decontextualized environment. From their mother ship Web site to the informational kiosks inside the museum, the team tends to use lots of negative space—not as a usability statement, but as an extension of the MoMA identity.
You can see this moving forward, as the group extends the content into newer media. The MoMA's Webby-winning iPad application for the museum's Ab Ex exhibit (designed and produced by Deep Focus) was a close approximation of how the museum has traditionally presented the works of Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries. The art often appears bounded by nothing more than a white border. Of course, the application deftly weaves in informational text and videos, but it still urges the viewer to concentrate on the work.
In the coming years, the team plans on redesigning the museum's kiosks and continuing to support all the various exhibits and missions. They'll do so, likely, with the same sense of self-control and respect that's made them successful so far.
"From a practical perspective," says Darrough, "we get to cheat a little. The content we get, the imagery and video are inherently interesting—and a lot of time it's gorgeous. When we put something on a page, it automatically looks good."
You can't argue with him, but it would be easy to give into the dictates of the modern Web and ruin it all in the name of best practices. Which they never do. ca