Superhero Academy was a ~1300 sq ft. interactive museum exhibit exploring how superhero comics have reflected and influenced current events in the United States since their creation in 1938. It was open to the public for a total of 6 weeks in 2018.
The exhibit was separated into 11 areas focused on key US eras, each looking at how hero comics and films explored current events of the time. We also provided a variety of ways for guests to discover their superpower, their tragic backstory, and try out their new powers for themselves.
Our aim for the project was to create a fun, interactive experience where guests would learn without realizing they were doing so. We also wanted to educate guests on a bit of U.S. history and a bit of pop culture and how the two intersect.
We pursued this project because we wanted to learn more about designing in physical spaces and all that goes into experiential design. This project served as a platform to make wonderful connections within the design community in Seattle and we now have a much deeper understanding of all that goes into experiential and exhibit design.
Superhero Academy opened as a 1,300 sq. ft. interactive exhibit from May 3-13, 2018 and moved into a new space for the 2018 Portshowlio on June 13th & 14th.
It is a space that takes into consideration a variety of users from those that want to only try out the interactive elements and skim a few headlines to those that want to spend an hour doing a deep dive into the history of comics.
(Click on the above photo to load a 3D model of the exhibit. Due to the size, it may take a moment to load. Use the orbit, pan and zoom tools on the right size to move around the model – just click and drag.)
In an effort to learn about designing for environments and physical spaces we decided to create a museum exhibit on school grounds.
We began by reaching out to a number of exhibit and environmental designers in Seattle to ask for advice. We went on a several office tours and gained a lot of helpful knowledge from the professional designers we talked with about best practices and what to consider when designing for a wide range of people in physical space. Several designers shared their process for designing exhibits that helped us understand where to start and how to project manage this massive undertaking.
We also went to MoPop as a group to study their exhibits. We were inspired by how immersive and interactive their exhibits are and wanted to study what and how they achieved this. The photos we took there were referenced heavily throughout the process especially when working on organizing and explaining written content.
We then focused on how to organize the exhibit, we brainstormed interactive elements and how to create them on our limited budget, we looked into simple magic tricks and group participation activities and tried to find ways to allow people to feel like they had specific superpowers themselves. We ultimately landed on a collection of interactive elements that were within our ability to fabricate and would be exciting and interesting to visitors. Some focused on engaging with the written content, some with experiencing superpowers, and others with discovering more about yourself or expressing your opinion.
After exploring our options we ultimately decided to host our exhibit in the front entrance of our floor. We chose that space because it is highly visible, large enough to accommodate all elements of the exhibit, and we could reserve the space for long enough. One challenge to this location was how to attract people to the fifth floor location which is detailed below under Marketing. The unique layout of the space inspired our exhibit space and a few additional creative elements. We measured the space, creating a blueprint of the layout, and began working on a floor plan of our content.
Once we found a location, we had a number of challenges to consider including: low lighting with bright tall windows, limited security, no ability to hang from the ceiling, limited power outlets, window ledges, a pillar, 3 different wall surfaces, and no ability to damage or drill into the walls in any way.
We then worked on a mood board and style guide for the exhibit and did several type tests to figure out the best type size for our viewing distance.
Following this, the three of us did some preliminary research to decide how to focus our content and discovered that comic book history can be broken up into several eras, some of which coincide with big shifts in U.S. culture. We then split them up between the three of us – I took on WWII, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and 9/11 and the early 2000’s. Cole and Mara took on a pre-U.S. history context, the Red Scare, the Cold War, feminism in the 70’s, the late Cold War, the 90’s, and current trends.
To help us decide how long each panel should be, I did an analysis of MoPop’s copywriting – I looked at a variety of content in several of their exhibits paying particular attention to word count and writing style. I noticed that the majority of their content was under 100 words and used complex compound sentences, with simple vocabulary. I deduced that this writing style was done to both make it easy to read and to keep you reading. A comma pulls you forward while a period allows you to stop and move on to something else.
We utilized this information to ensure that our content was engaging and kept your attention. We were very focused on our word count, cutting things out or breaking things up into multiple smaller sections to prevent the exhibit from becoming overwhelming. This was difficult for us as we became so interested in the content we wanted to share all of it with our visitors but we also knew that if we didn’t simplify no one would read any of it. We landed on a successful solution – the exhibit is content-heavy but our visitors have said it was the right amount and easy to skim when they felt like it.
We used chronology to help us organize the content but also aimed to make the exhibit work for visitors to experience the content in any order they chose.
We created several levels of participation:
Once copywriting was finalized we each took on specific roles in production – Cole focused on illustrations, Mara worked on the screen-based quizzes and beginning fabrication while I did the content layout and wall design.
In the weeks leading up to the opening we were all focused on production and fabrication. Cole mounted and cut almost everything, Mara focused on the rock wall and weights – a huge undertaking – while I finished designs and laser cutting acrylic elements. My linocut printing experience came in handy as I cut out several 7-foot tall heroes by hand.
At the last minute we decided to scrap a long infographic wall in favor of another interactive element – a felt board of costume pieces so visitors could design their own superheroes. This was an idea I had come up with early on but was deprioritized since it didn’t directly tie into any particular historical era. With a few weeks to go we realized we needed another interactive element and that this would take less time to produce than the infographic we had planned. We ordered felt, edited some of Cole’s illustrations and laser cut a plethora of costume elements (and some evil cats). This has turned out to be one of our most popular sections and MoPop has asked to borrow it to include in their Marvel exhibit.
Our marketing primarily focused on the student body of Seattle Central and those close contacts to our program.
Cole created a series of posters that we put up around campus. We were strategic in our placement and posters were always put up in sets of threes so the repetition would help to catch peoples’ eye.
We also brought in Spider-Man and Kitty Pryde to sit at a table on the main floor during a College day to promote the Superhero Academy, giving autographs and telling passersby about the exhibit. This created a lot of buzz and smiles and was a great photo opportunity.
To reach the program’s audience outside of the school, we scheduled the exhibit opening to be during an open house night for our program and promoted it through the program’s social media accounts.
The Superhero Academy exhibit was open for 10 days. Over that time the exhibit received the following publicity and feedback:
We also watched people as they spent time in the space and made some changes after seeing how people interacted with various components of the exhibit in order to increase accessibility and remove barriers to engaging with the full exhibit.