The Public as Producer

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Pen, with nine of twenty-eight objects in the collection found by searching for navy in the museum’s color-coded database. Left to right: binder bin, 1994; mouse trap, date unknown; Dutch covered dish, ca. 1920s; button, date unknown; match safe, date unknown; card index, 1994; lamp, 1962; Iranian vase, 17th–18th century; flashlight, ca. 1980s.


Beyond exhibiting design objects, the Cooper Hewitt seeks to transform museumgoers into designers, a tech-driven approach that is creating a new role for cultural institutions.

FROM BEHIND the sleek thermoformed desk that curves through the wood-paneled lobby of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, an attendant waved at me, hoping to grab my attention as I walked toward the galleries on a recent visit. She had already handed me a ticket, but I was missing something of equal importance: the Pen. This black tube about the thickness of a whiteboard marker with a stylus on one end and a fragmented plus sign on the other is the key to the Cooper Hewitt’s visitor experience and the focal point of one of the most ambitious efforts by any museum to integrate digital technology into its galleries.

The Pen, which allows users to create digital collections and activate displays in the galleries, has been a hit. Visitors have lauded it on Yelp, and museum professionals have analyzed it at conferences. The professional designers’ association AIGA celebrated the device, calling it a “design solution that successfully demonstrates the value of design.” 1  At press time, 185,649 people had used the Pen to interact with the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibitions since the device debuted in early 2015, shortly after the museum reopened following a three-year, $91-million renovation of its Upper East Side home, the former residence of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. A total of thirteen architecture and design firms were enlisted for the overhaul, including New York’s Local Projects, which conceived the Pen. The museum expanded its galleries and refurbished its landmarked building. More important, perhaps, the Cooper Hewitt took the opportunity to rethink its identity, its collecting policies, and even its mission. The Pen is a tangible outcome of these broad efforts. The device embodies a contemporary, process-oriented definition of design, one that the museum champions, business leaders praise, and many cultural institutions are increasingly adopting.     

The first thing I noticed on my recent visit was that everyone had a Pen in their hands, and most people were using it. One woman, head cocked to the side, studied a Nigerian textile in shades of yellow, green, and blue. After some contemplation, she gingerly stepped forward, matching the plus sign on her Pen to the one on the wall label. Three circles on the barrel lit up in quick succession, indicating she had stowed the object in her “collection.” Using the large touch-screen tables scattered throughout the building, visitors can download the digital contents from their Pen on the screen and subsequently explore other objects by the same creator, from the same time period, or simply in the same color. Hunched over the tabletop, a man sorted through hundreds of collection images that appeared to float and collide. A young girl across from him used the stylus on her device to quickly sketch a chair.

Unlike most technologies found in museum galleries, which are often viewed as supplementary to the visitor experience, the Pen is intended to be a central part of the Cooper Hewitt. As director Caroline Baumann told me in a recent interview, the goal is a 100 percent pick-up rate. 2  The[pq]The Pen is intended to be a central part of the Cooper Hewitt visitor experience. The goal is a 100 percent pick-up rate.[/pq] museum’s galleries have been conceived as sites of interactive engagement rather than passive observation. With the Pen, design becomes a verb, something you do in the museum, and not just something you look at. The Pen not only facilitates the act of design but encourages viewers to assume the mind-set of a designer, a specific approach to thinking and problem-solving. The Cooper Hewitt has become a model for other museums and cultural institutions because it makes this creative mind-set—known as design thinking—accessible to its broad and diverse audiences.

At the 2016 Museums and the Web conference in Los Angeles—arguably the country’s largest professional museum-technology confab—numerous speakers advocated design thinking. The conference offered workshops on “Design Sprints for Awesome Teams,” and words of wisdom on “Design Thinking for Museums,” and “Co-Designing the Future of Museum Digital Literacy.” Institutions around the county are enacting programs informed by these perspectives. In 2014, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, opened their Maker Lounge, a space that’s meant to introduce museum visitors to the design process and that periodically hosts designers for short residencies. 

Museums of all kinds are eager to embrace the language of design for many of the same reasons that top business schools offer courses in design thinking, and corporate consultants teach the method to their clients. Framing cultural production in terms of design underscores the former’s links to technology and emphasizes its economic value. In this sense, while we tend to think of museums as stewards of the past, they are also mirrors of the trends and politics of their time.


THE CONTEMPORARY NOTION of design promoted by the Cooper Hewitt developed over the course of the institution’s history. The museum was built on the legacy of Peter Cooper (1791–1883), an industrialist who created the first steam locomotive in the United States. Cooper was an ardent supporter of public education, and in 1859 he opened the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a New York college that remained tuition-free until recent years. His dream of founding a decorative arts museum was realized posthumously by his three granddaughters: Sarah, Eleanor, and Amy Hewitt. 

The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration opened in 1897 on the fourth floor of the college. Donations from New York’s industrial and financial leaders made up most of the collection. Early acquisitions included drawings of Italian architecture and decorative motifs and eighteenth-century French furniture. John Pierpont Morgan, a banker, gave an assortment of European textiles. Such exemplary objects, reflecting elite taste, contributed to what has been called a visual library, meant to inspire professionals and students in the fields of art and engineering. In keeping with Cooper’s concern for public education, the Hewitts emphasized access, offering free entry. (Baumann characterized the sisters’ visual library concept as prescient, calling it a “user-centered” approach to cultivating design thinking.)  

The institution was forced to reinvent itself in the 1960s. In response to a budget crisis, the trustees transferred control of the museum to the Smithsonian in 1967. The following year, the Carnegie Corporation offered a new home for the institution, a mansion built by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the twentieth century. The structure was exceptional in its time; Carnegie eschewed the excessive ornamentation popular with his peers and instead loaded his building with the latest gadgetry, including climate control, electric lighting, and an Otis passenger elevator.

This new setting underscored a more fundamental change in the museum’s approach. Its previous focus on ornament and unique craftsmanship, maintained through the 1950s, was giving way to a broader understanding of design as distinct from the decorative arts. The rival design department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art had, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, advocated “good design” in industrial manufacturing, celebrating functional and efficient products for everyday use. When the renamed Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design, opened its doors in 1976, its inaugural exhibition suggested an even more radical interpretation of this democratizing impulse. Organized by architect Hans Hollein, “MAN transFORMS” was indicative of a shift in rhetoric, signaling an all-encompassing definition of design. As Hollein wrote in the exhibition catalogue:

Everything man touches he alters to suit his esthetic as well as his physical needs. The altering of things and places is the process of design . . . whether it is dough for bread, cloth for a ball gown, wood for a chair, metal for a tool, or the contours of the earth for a city. 3

If the decorative arts were linked to elite tastes, the version of design heralded by the Cooper-Hewitt appeared to be by and for everyone. 

Still, the downside to claiming such an expansive purview is that it waters down the meaning of design. How could one discipline cover everything from bread dough to the contours of the earth? Postmodern theorists in the early 1970s were already sounding the alarm about the homogenizing effects of an ever-expanding category of design. Jean Baudrillard argued that the overbroad understanding of design emerging in the ’70s risked subsuming and neutralizing creative production of all kinds: “Objects, forms, and materials that until then spoke their own group dialect, which only emerged from a dialectical practice or an original style, now begin to be thought of and written out in the same tongue, the rational esperanto of design.” 4  Art historian Hal Foster extended this critique, noting that the umbrella term “design” allows capitalist logic to infiltrate all aspects of material culture. 5

Design, it seems, could no longer be defined with purely aesthetic qualities (beautiful ornaments), or even specific categories of objects (furniture, textiles). Other thinkers in the ’70s began emphasizing the thought process of the designer. In 1972, designer and writer Victor Papanek proclaimed: “All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity.” 6  He went on to list pursuits as wide-ranging as mural painting, poetry, and dentistry as falling within this purview. Yet Papanek’s purpose in defining the field in such broad terms was different from Baudrillard’s. For Papanek, a concern for human needs was fundamental to design, and his approach—what we’d now call “human-centered” or “user-centered” design—emphasized a process of testing and evaluating, with the goal of creating humane, useful objects for every setting. Papanek advocated a design process that would balance technical mastery and experimental rigor with empathy and creativity.

The Pen reflects the continued relevance of this ideal. At the 2015 Museums and the Web conference in Chicago, Sebastian Chan, then director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, spoke to a hushed audience about the Pen. As an organization focused on design, he began, the Cooper Hewitt had a unique luxury: “We get to focus on process over objects.” 7

Chan emphasized how a version of Papanek’s process-oriented, human-centered approach is at the heart of the Cooper Hewitt’s visitor experience. It’s evident in the Process Lab, a hands-on space where visitors can craft a lampshade of cellophane and chicken wire and watch how the materials shape the light, or sketch cartoon characters that embody emotions. In the Immersion Room visitors can draw their own wallpaper patterns and project digital versions onto the room’s surfaces. Visitors also engage with the museum’s collection in dynamic ways. Exhibitions can be eclectic, with digital creations displayed alongside traditional ornamentation. Baumann explained that the Cooper Hewitt collapses and remixes the history of decorative arts and design. “We happily present both, together and separately, on a global scale and along a historic continuum.” 

Armed with the Pen, visitors can examine hundreds of collection items that appear on the tabletop screens. The effect of seamlessly moving through a vast collection is made possible by a sophisticated application programming interface, or API, that is as fundamental to the museum’s revamp as any architectural intervention. The API allows data to flow from various sources, whether a collections database, a ticketing system, or a customer relationship management tool, into websites and applications. Visitors can interact with these programs on-site via the Pen, but the Cooper Hewitt has also opened its system to the public. 

Independent developers can tap into the Cooper Hewitt API for their own creations: the technologist Kyle Greenberg created a virtual aquarium populated by fish-related objects from the collection, and data visualization designer Rubén Abad printed a poster with all of the colors in the collection sorted by decade. This unfettered access to cultural data elicits anxiety in many museum professionals who are wary of releasing any inaccurate information. Such fears can stall museum projects for years. It’s impressive that the Cooper Hewitt, part of the government-run Smithsonian Institution, has been able to expedite wide access. As director of digital media Micah Walter explained to me, he perceives a strong obligation to the public trust, viewing “metadata as public domain.” 8

Of course, the museum’s data system isn’t a one-way flow of information from the collection to the world; the Cooper Hewitt’s API also captures data. The Pen can track visitors’ interactions with the exhibitions. The museum knows how long the average person spends on the Cooper Hewitt campus (110.63 minutes), how many visitors saved designs they created (122,655 in the first year), what percentage of people didn’t use the Pen to “collect” (23.8 percent), and which works are the most collected. As Walter remarked, “The big question now is, what do we do with all of the data.”

The Cooper Hewitt [pq]“The big question now is, what do we do with all of the data.”[/pq]is not the first museum to engage in data collection practices. The Dallas Museum of art’s DMA Friends program, for example, is a loyalty program that asks visitors to check in to exhibitions and activities with their mobile devices in exchange for membership rewards such as free parking and special exhibition tickets. The trade-off can seem reasonable: visitors partake in an enriched museum experience, while the museum gets a more precise understanding of visitor behavior which can then be applied to developing future exhibitions. This feedback loop allows museum administrators to apply a human-centered design philosophy on an institutional level. 

There is, of course, a dark side to data mining. Today’s technologies—from the GPS tracker on your phone to Facebook’s mapping of social ties—have brought upon a rise in and normalization of mass surveillance. This cultural climate makes it essential for museums engaging in visitor data collection to ask themselves how they might be complicit in such systems. As institutions devoted to serving the public, the responsibility in building ethical data-based experiences becomes all the more important for museums. 


FOR MANY IN the design field, melding a humanistic approach to design with quantifiable metrics holds enormous potential to achieve social and economic progress. One figure key to defining the Cooper Hewitt’s current mission was Bill Moggridge, who became director in 2010. Born in the UK, Moggridge was a founder of the design consultancy IDEO and is best known for his role in building the first laptop computer, in 1979. Despite his short tenure at the Cooper Hewitt, which ended tragically when he succumbed to cancer in September 2012, Moggridge left a mark. “Bill infiltrated the Cooper Hewitt with asking questions all the time,” Baumann explained, “looking at everything and saying, ‘How might we do it differently?’” Those three words—“how might we?”—suggest the inquisitiveness at the heart of IDEO’s particular strain of design thinking, a rigorous methodology the company provides to clients including Fortune 500 companies and major cultural institutions. More important than any physical product, the company offers on-demand creativity, a mind-set that can be taught and reproduced. According to IDEO’s mission statement, its brand of design thinking “brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” Importantly, this thought process can be made accessible to all (or at least those who can afford the consulting fee), allowing “people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.” 

For Baumann, the design thinking modeled at the Cooper Hewitt is fundamentally about finding solutions on different scales. The museum, in her view, encourages visitors to apply the creative skills they’ve honed in the galleries to real-world scenarios. Design thinking, she told me, is “about solving problems—whether its K–12 students resolving a challenge posed to them in our Design in the Classroom program or inspiring people to solve a universal problem, like poverty, on a global scale.” This fall, the Cooper Hewitt opened a new exhibition whose title seems to echo this optimism: “By the People: Designing a Better America,” organized by the museum’s curator of socially responsible design, Cynthia E. Smith. We seem to have come a long way from the Hewitt sisters’ vision of the museum as a place to study “beautiful specimens of art applied to industry.” The aesthetic imperative of decorative arts has been replaced with a moral and economic one. 

The progressive gloss that’s been put on contemporary design has also been widely adopted in the for-profit sector. Uber advertises product designer roles as “the rare opportunity to change the world.” User interface startup InVision gives away T-shirts that proclaim, design makes everything possible. And, indeed, designers who work for these companies, backed by billions in investment, have changed the world to a significant extent (even if the beneficiaries from that change are not always clear). 

But when social issues are reduced to a design problem, we ignore the very real political and economic landscapes surrounding them. That’s what writer Megan Erickson argued in a Jacobin article last March when she examined design and technology initiatives that purport to solve the crisis in education worldwide. As Erickson argued, designing new educational software won’t change the fact that many children from working-class backgrounds still come to school without having had breakfast. “‘Innovation’ is almost always invoked by elites to ignore class conflict,” she wrote. 9  In a talk at a Creative Mornings convention in San Francisco in November 2015, New York Times editor and designer Jennifer Daniel similarly derided designers for using the shield of design-for-good to assuage their guilt about serving corporate interests. 10  By touting design as saving the world, Daniel claimed, designers are really just selling more design. And there’s nothing wrong with selling design, she says; let’s just not pretend it’s anything else.

There’s nothing wrong with the Pen either. The device enriches the museum experience, making it more informative and engaging. But the real achievements and commendable aspirations that the Pen embodies shouldn’t be confused with the inflated rhetoric sometimes used to extol the potential of design to solve social problems. Design thinking, though highly desirable in certain circumstances, may offer a limited tool kit for addressing needs that don’t have clear-cut solutions reachable through testing and research. A democratic culture, for instance, can’t be designed. While the Pen and its associated interactive experiences garner much attention, it may be the developments behind the scenes that are most revolutionary in this regard, pushing toward such a culture. The Cooper Hewitt’s open data systems (and the organizational workflows required to administer them) are a major advance, helping to assure broad access to the historical objects that comprise what Papanek called a “human ecology.”


“By the People: Designing a Better America,” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, through Feb. 26, 2017.

Desi Gonzalez is manager of digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.