DiMe4Heritage: Design Research for Museum Digital Media

Marco Mason, USA


This paper presents a research project that investigates the theory and practice of digital media design in the museum context. The project aims to deliver conceptual frameworks and design methodologies. The aim of this paper is to introduce the phenomenon under investigation – namely, design practice of digital media for museums – and motivate its significance for both the scientific community and museum practitioners. The Design Research methodology and expected results are also presented.

Keywords: Design Research, Visitor Experience, Digital Media, Design Methodology

1. The Context of the Research Project

Museums are no longer just places that store and preserve objects of significance and value, but are increasingly becoming places where visitors can have an aesthetic, intellectual, learning, even fun experience. Digital technology for cultural heritage enables conveying, creating and sharing information amongst a wider public that is involved actively and dynamically in the processes of creating, interpreting, sharing and appropriating heritage knowledge. Museums are called to improve upon and find new ways to present content in order to convey knowledge and engage visitors.

Visitors bring to the museum their preferred learning styles, visiting modes, social groups, and different cultural backgrounds. They make meaning in different ways, have different types and levels of cultural literacy, and bring different experiences and levels of subject knowledge (Parry 2007). They have different expectations for their visit on that specific day to that specific site, and they have different skills and attitudes towards different types of interpretive media.

Digital technologies are becoming increasingly complex and at the same time more affordable. Arguably, they are having an increasingly prominent role in the communication and interpretation of heritage. But can technical innovation alone yield new communicational and interpretive qualities? Does a well-designed, useful and usable piece of technology guarantee a good visitor experience in and of itself?

We argue that, in the museum context, the design of effective and innovative digital media and technology stretches across the disciplinary borders of museology, visitor studies, and design. The success of digital innovation depends on how well these domains are integrated to deliver an enriched visitor experience. Design-driven innovation lies in their ‘intersection’ and it will become more effective the more we can elaborate design practices that allow museum practitioners, designers, and other stakeholders to better understand and deal with the complexity of that intersection.

This paper presents a Design Research project that is located in that intersection between the museum, the visitors, and the digital technology. Our focus is on the development of theory and practice for the design of communicative and interpretive digital media for museums, exploiting new and emerging technologies that 21st century museums might adopt to achieve their missions and respond to their visitors’ needs and expectations.

At a practical level, by taking a Design Research approach the project aims to identify and/or establish models of design practice that will allow design teams to draw on formalized knowledge in order to enable innovation in museum communication and interpretation, coherence in museum mission, and relevance for visitors.

As the project is at a very early stage, this paper is not reporting results or findings; instead, the paper aims to introduce the phenomenon under investigation – namely, design practice of digital media for museums – and motivate its significance for both the scientific community and museum practitioners. The Design Research methodology and expected results are also presented.

2. The Reason for Design Research in Digital Media Design for Museums

Tim Brown (2009) underlines the fundamental contribution that design is making to 21st century society, organizations, products, and services. Its contribution consists of the innovation that comes from collaboration through design methods and practices that match people’s needs with organizations’ objectives. Many studies in various fields have been conducted to observe, describe, explain and reflect upon their design practices (cfr. Design Studies Journal for Design Research in Engineering, Architecture, Products and Systems).

Despite the universal recognition of the importance of Design Research, in the digital heritage sector there is a scarcity of specific and systematic design studies that explore digital design practice in order to understand whether and how actors (designers and museum practitioners) design problems, museum contexts, and design processes, and how they can contribute to the design of new digital media-enabled museum experiences. We are not implying that museums pay insufficient attention to effective design practices to realize digital media. On the contrary, digital projects presented at international conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network are demonstrations of how museums can create and adopt valuable digital media.
 Instead, we report a lack of design studies that aim to create formalized knowledge through systematic investigation of the successful design practices that museums adopt. The objective of our Design Research project is to investigate the phenomenon of digital media design in the museum context by analyzing and interpreting existing design practices. This will set the basis for a museum digital design theory that comprises both a conceptual framework and design methodologies.

3. Design Research for Investigating Digital Media for Museums

The designing of museum digital media is a collaborative and multidisciplinary practice that often involves a large network of actors including directors, curators, educators, specialists of all sorts, and so on. It employs a range of different methods and techniques throughout the design phases, from the initial design team set up to concept generation, to prototyping and testing, through to the final digital product. Design has to carefully consider and integrate various aspects of the context, including usability, intellectual accessibility of the digital content, the value of the learning experience, the interpretive goals, the social interactions with other visitors, and so on. These factors have to be considered and integrated into the design activity that leads toward the realization of the final digital artifact.
For example, the strategic plan of a museum may aim to satisfy specific needs of a target audience through the realization of a new mobile app. The mobile app requires authoring a particular type of digital content. The design of the digital content opens a series of design problems, for instance, related to aspects such as interpretational and technological support. Connected to these design issues is the information architecture, which determines the structure of the content. In turn, this affects the decision that the designer has to take to implement effective and efficient interaction between the visitor, the “information space,” and the digital device within the surrounding environment. This in turn influences the graphic interface design.
 The research presented in this paper consists of systematic and inter-disciplinary approaches for identifying and integrating such factors within a design framework and methodology, and for understanding their interrelationships.

Design Research allows researchers to investigate the complexity of the factors involved in the design of an artifact, and to understand their groupings and dependencies. Design Research uses theoretical and methodological approaches to generate useful conceptual frameworks by which we can integrate visitor needs and expectations, museum goals, content, environments, and digital systems together. In doing so, we can specify effective design practices. 
Our research will survey, inquire, analyse, and interpret digital media design practices within museums through contextual review, field research, observations, interviews, and so on. At the same time, we will conduct three design exercises in the form of case studies which will consider significant trends in digital media (digital exhibit, mobile, and web) for a better understanding of the problem domain and for generating knowledge “by doing.” Therefore, our methodology is tuned to theory building while it combines analytical conceptual research with empirical case studies.

4. Conclusion: the Significance and Expected Results

Design has become the new learning, opening a pathway to the disciplines that we need if we have to connect and integrate knowledge from many specializations into productive results (Buchanan, 2001 and 2007). Design Research can be a driving factor by which to generate innovation for museums in order to enhance their digital communication strategies. The attention on design is becoming necessary as digital devices become parts of increasingly complex systems within and outside museums. Successful design practices have to focus on the socio-technical system of the museum rather than digital technology alone. Twenty-first century museums should focus on designing rich, emotional, visceral experiences rather than focus on designing technology alone. 
Informing design decisions by design theory and methodology that encompass the three related disciplines (museology, visitor studies and design) can improve practice and outcomes. This design practice would bring together what visitor want with what is technologically feasible and within the museum strategic objectives.

The main results of the research include the construction of a design theory and the development of design methodology. The former consists in delineating the role that design theory does / can play in the development of museum digital media and understand how it can foster a museum design practice that is informed by museology and visitor studies. In doing so, we will be developing a conceptual framework by which to articulate how each and all of the three disciplines (design, museology and visitor studies) contribute to a common design-oriented frame of reference that has the museum visitor experience at its center.
 The latter focuses in developing design methodology as a body of knowledge encompassing the design principles, guidelines, best practices, methods, and processes that museum practitioners, designers, and other stakeholders can refer to in their specific projects in order to find the best solutions to their own design problems.

There are several potential contributions the research intends to make to the state-of-the-art. For example, there are many cases where a digital media design project requires careful attention to the orchestration of a number of design factors (e.g. visitor needs, interpretation issues, interactions, digital content design, information architecture, human-computer interface, and so on) to achieve an appropriate visitor experience: the proposed research can make an important contribution by generating a framework for this orchestration.
 The research may also enable museum practitioners and designers to better deal with design issues related to digital media. They will have at their disposal a conceptual framework that, for instance, allows them to be more aware of design issues and problems when they embark on new (complex) digital projects. Informing design decision in this holistic way can enhance the final digital artifact, shifting design from the technology to the visitor experience. Finally, the research can be helpful for design education in universities where design activities are increasingly permeated by a “design thinking” approach.

The research proposed has the potential to formalize a practice of digital media design for better experiences of museum visitors. The technology is already there and is continuously improving; visitor studies already exist; the twenty-first century museum mission has been re-interpreted and clearly articulated; there are numerous examples of successful digital media projects. The heritage world, in general, is ready. It is now up to Design Research to formalize that practice.


This three year project (started October 2012) is funded by the European Union – Marie Curie Actions International Outgoing Fellowships for Career Development (IOFs). The outgoing stage of the fellowship (2013-14) takes place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology supervised by Prof. John Durant from the Science, Technology and Society Program; (2013-14) and the return stage (2015) will take place at the University of Leicester supervised by Dr. Giasemi Vavoula from the School of Museum Studies. The MIT Museum Studio supports the three design exercises in the form of case studies. Allan Doyle and Seth Riskin are the MIT Museum Studio Co-directors. Marco Mason is the Marie Curie Fellow.


Brown, T. (2009), Change by Design: How Design Thinking Can Transform Organizations and Inspire Innovation, Collins Business.

Buchanan, R. (2001). Design Research and the New Learning. Design Issues, 17, 3 – 23.

Buchanan, R. (2007). Strategies of Design Research: Productive Science and Rhetorical Inquiry. In R. Michel (Ed.), Design Research Now: Essays and Selected Projects (pp. 55 – 66). Birkhäuser Architecture.

Parry, R. (2007). Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change. Routledge.

Cite as:
M. Mason, DiMe4Heritage: Design Research for Museum Digital Media. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 9, 2013. Consulted .

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