Category Archives: Brisbane

Designing Museums & Cities

How does an urban designer end up running a dinosaur exhibition?!

This was definitely a question I had asked myself while working on the Lost Creatures exhibition. I started my career in urban design and was recently working at the Queensland Museum in experience design.

While it might seem like a strange career path, the world of museums and urban spaces are not as different as they might first appear. There are valuable lessons and untapped collaborations tha­t could be shared in both worlds. Museums could play a bigger role in shaping cities and urban designers could help museums improve their strategies.



Each year, the Trends Watch report by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) shows emerging global issues and trends that are impacting the business of museums. In the 2013 report, AAM highlighted that increasing urban density and changing demographics in cities should be seriously considered by museums. It suggested responses in terms of public transport accessibility, cultural infrastructure redevelopment and museums as more meaningful public spaces.

What if an urban designer was the CEO of a museum?

Here are 3 lessons museums should probably learn from urban place-makers:

1) Create change through tactical urbanism and design prototyping.

In the context of museums, big exhibition projects are a bit like big architectural projects in cities. These can be slow, costly, and are often weighed down by politics and funding.

To create change, urban neighborhoods are now responding with models of “tactical urbanism”, based on quicker, cheaper approaches using prototypes and design testing pop-ups. Using this similar approach in museums could have huge benefits.   It might mean less effort on mega-exhibitions, and more interesting investment in programming activity, more flexible gallery spaces, and more use of outdoor spaces.


Parklets in car parking spaces

2) Be multi-tasking community spaces.

Museums are great places to look and wander, but these days cities demand that public spaces are more dynamic and multi-purpose. Working with Cobb & Co Museum, I most enjoyed hearing how local residents also used it as “the place to have coffee”. How wonderful for a museum to be so engrained in daily life and loved by its neighbourhood in that way.

This approach is also in line with the Project for Public Spaces’ notion of “The Power of 10” which notes that the best public space having a minimum of 10 uses. Using this idea, museums need to envision themselves as so much more, for both community and commercial value. A gallery, a cafe, a retail shop, a classroom, a movie theatre, a wedding venue, a garden, a market place, a co-working space, and why not a hotel too?


Cobb & Co Venue Space

3) Make greater partnerships & community collaborations

Cities will often work in collaborative partnerships across developers, government levels, and community to make big projects happen. It is often observed that to sustain great neighbourhood ideas, actions need to be both “bottom up” (grassroots community) and “top down” (business or government support).

On the other hand, museums are historically grounded with scientists and curators where expert knowledge rules and it creates a somewhat “top down” relationship with audiences. Taking a lead from city making, might mean museums open up to embrace more creative partnerships (in funding, corporate, and research partners) and to facilitate greater grassroots participation from their audiences.


“What do you collect” (Queensland Musuem, 2013): A great community and collaborative project model


The 2013 AAM TrendsWatch report, also gave examples where museums became more involved in urban planning processes. This mostly happens when a new museum or site redevelopment occurs, but the report also gave examples of when museums created exhibitions and programs about cities and architecture. There are some great examples of this worldwide, such as the BMW Guggenheim Lab, Skyscraper Museum, Canadian Centre for Architecture and festival formats like Venice Architectural Biennale and Public Design Festival Milan.

What if museums played a more active role in urban planning policy and processes?

Here are 3 lessons urban place-makers should probably learn from museums:

1) Better communication and experience design

Urban planning can be communicated in terribly boring ways, through very technical policy and confusing plans. Museums on the other hand, have a greater ability to engage wide public audiences across all ages. They show through exhibitions, websites and public programs that people are far more engaged in visual formats, interactive events and different story-telling modes. Urban place-makers could learn a lot in how to capture the public imagination to excite, inspire, and engage about important urban policy issues.


100% Brisbane (Museum of Brisbane, 2016) an excellent exploration of city and people in exhibition and digital design


2) Have a clearer brand strategy

Part of my museum role was to plan 5 years ahead in the Exhibition and Experience Plans. This was greatly helped by guiding all decision-making to achieve the museum’s central branding ideas. Cities on the other hand, can often have confusing branding position or it’s often confused as just city tourism or graphic logos. However applying more brand strategies to precincts and places, might help easier decision making and help cities be more competitive, by also being clearer in their distinct “brand personality”


City of Gold Coast rebrand values (2013)

3) Target smaller audiences

The design of museum exhibitions and learning programs is generally based on very targeted audiences (i.e, a kids program is distinctly different to an adults program). Reaching multiple audiences means having lots of choices and/or flexible systems to easily personalise experiences.

In contrast, some urban public spaces are often not as targeted, and this can create somewhat generic designs. Learning from museums, could result in cities having multiple, more targeted public space offerings, and being more clear and distinct in the target markets. This could also relieve the pressure on a single idea or a building project having to resolve everything for everyone in a given neighbourhood.


Superkilen Park in Copenhagen (BIG Architects, 2010) had a strong design ethos towards the local migrants groups


Designing meaningful experiences in museums and urban spaces are neither perfect nor easy models, as they both have their own complex systems of politics, land, space and budgets to grapple with. However, there are many lessons to be shared from both areas of expertise.

The commonality between a museum or an urban space comes down to experience design. Both aspire to creating meaningful and memorable experiences, and this requires great design thinking with a key focus on the people who are the end users. Museums happen to call them “audience”, and urban designers call them “community”, but in the end, both need to be well considered to create any enjoyable and vibrant place.


Lost Creatures Exhibition (Queensland Museum, 2013)




BNE Parks: End of the Rd Cafe, New Farm

It must be a couple of few years old now, but I sure am a fan of the “End of the Road” Cafe at New Farm Park.  I’m not judging it as a world class food or coffee experience as such, but more I just like it exists.  I like that in the upgrades of these public buildings someone had the smarts to put in the infrastructure.   I think commercialism in public spaces is fine when it helps activity and amenity.

Having looked into starting a food businesses, I’m a bit curious in the leasing/business model and I think it might potentially be tough locations for certain offerings (without high passing street traffic, limited operating hours etc)  But, you see the cafe-model also in other parks like at Roma St Parklands, the cottage in Botanic Gardens.  It’d be curious to see how park businesses changes over the years with things like food trucks etc too.

West End Markets: pop ups

Containers, caravans, and yep a refurbed QRail train carriage!

The activation of this West End site and Boundary St Markets has evolved over the years, and I think they have got the current pop-ups pretty right.  It is definitely marked for mixed-use and res development, but it seems the current uses are already taking a “tactical urbanism’ approach to test retail uses, food anchors and ideas for plazas.   (I really do hope the train carriage stays!)

Place Branding (thoughts from Sex, Drugs + Helvetica BNE)


Sex, Drugs + Helvetica had been on my design conference list for a few years and finally got to one.
Each speaker talked about one project, and shared insight on teams, approach, process and all gave a refreshing honest take on the design journey (the good + the bad).

My highlights of the day was Ben Miles of Interbrand talking about Sky NZ and Zoe Polliet of Eskimo talking about Eastland, probably because both of these had physical urban place-making outcomes.  With Sky it was giving personality to their industrial warehouse campus and Eastland was a shopping centre redevelopment.

I’m about to commence some graphic design study, but I think it actually the brand strategy side of communication design is what I am really interested it.   The urban design side of me is also most interested in how branding strategy intersects with physical/spatial places and experiences.

I really enjoyed hearing the great staff and client engagement tools that branding agencies use.  It seems like great tools for placemakers, including –

  1. “Chemistry meetings” before pitches.  In the branding context it was meetings with client, but in place-making I would say it’s why site visits are important too.
  2. Personalised pitches adding surprise, delight and a bit of prototype (eg Interbrand prototype for airbnb, POIs sake ritual for a japanese restaurant)
  3. Immersive research and user interviews to give early insight for ideas and strategy.  Actually this step is not a new one in place-making, but always a good one to reinforce and continue to be creative about.
  4. Branding videos and motion graphics.    The use of visual and motions were all powerful mood/intent/emotional setters that felt super effective. It is also probably my URBNE Films side, that also makes me wonder why this isn’t used more in community and place projects? Films I have seen at project ends often feel a bit too “cheesy”/ shameless property selling, but how about more ones upfront in the design, branding and community process?
  5. Tools to empowering clients, staff and brand managers.  (brand as culture) There were many examples of a wider branding toolkit which could include presentations, video, design books, handbooks, guidelines, training, digital platforms all to help successful ongoing implementation.  The examples given to Sky NZ and Airbnb staff were great user and staff strategies.  It helps inspire people of the change, to understand it and thus also champion its roll-out.  It made me seriously wonder where is this “back-end” in placemaking/urban design? I feel I have mostly seen contracts/scope that let consultants present strategy/action plans without real consideration of the governance, culture and systems actually needed for clients to implement.

During my time at QM, I only caught the very end of the”rebranding” process.  I’m not sure what was driving it originally, though I could see/feel a difference in the brand identity internally vs externally, which felt the same in the Airbnb example.  Reflecting on that and seeing no/poor branding generally in government, policy and urban space area, I mostly put it down to organisational culture.  There also seems “little”/different commercial push for brand thinking in public sectors and spaces. …. which feels a shame or a missed opportunity, since actually it would do a world of good for any organisation to be more entrepreneurial and brand savvy, surely?

Park(ing) Day 2015: BCC endorsed

When I started Brisbane PARK(ing) Day conversations in 2007, I had always wanted it to be BCC endorsed, but I never had much political luck on that…
But wishes do come true and I’m super excited to finally see BCC Urban Design team making it happen this year!!.
Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 9.09.05 pm
We haven’t pushed it much from our end since 2012, so its resurgence is a rather pleasant surprise!
It is also a wonderful sign that placemaking is now more “mainstream” and accepted in policy thinking.   It also demonstrates that urban action is two-fold.  It is both bottom up (community driven), but it has to be supported top down too (government driven).
A sincere thanks to all the past Brisbane PARKers who over the years were inspired creative leaders who supported in the early days, and demonstrated its possibilities
I can’t want to see this year’s event!