Opposites Attract - Collaboration between Science and the Arts at the world's premier Magnetic Research Laboratory

Presented by: First Author: Anthony Purvis; Second Author: Steven Webber

In the fall 2014 semester, interior design student teams engaged in a four-day design charrette with the task of re-designing the user experience at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (NHMFL), the world’s premier theoretical and experimental laboratory.  It hosts not only research scientists and engineers, but also provides outreach and tours to students, teachers, and the general public.  The decades-old design of the facility no longer meets the functional needs of its daily users or the thousands of annual visitors.  The following excerpt is from the design scenario given to the interior design student teams:

“The ultimate goal of the charrette is the creation of a coordinated, innovative, modern and updated space to house hands-on science exhibits and reinforce the scientific and technological reputation of the NHMFL, the premiere magnet lab in the world. The goal is to create a series of hands-on interactive experiences for our guests that transcend the limits of our traditional science museum exhibits while capitalizing on the unique resources and contributions of the NHMFL in the areas of materials, energy and life. Specific design goals are to create conceptual design iterations for the main Lobby and all public visitor areas/tour stops of the NHMFL that conveys to a wide variety of visitors the caliber of cutting-edge, innovative research performed at this world-class laboratory. The diverse lobby space must serve a number of purposes including check-in space for conferences and visitors, waiting space for guests, exhibit space and food service space that builds community and offers collaborative opportunities for interdisciplinary staff and visiting scientists.” 

Student projects were required to accommodate four stakeholder groups and their myriad, sometimes competing, needs:  scientists/engineers, public affairs, science education/outreach and facilities/operations.  Also, teams had to propose two interactive exhibits to explain the MagLab’s research and mission to visitors.

Beginning with a kick-off event, the faculty required students to address a variety of user-experience issues:  (1) accommodation of daily public tours with self-explanatory interactive exhibits for a range of guest ages and abilities; (2) learning environments for student and teacher visitor groups; (3) collaborative space for scientists and engineers;  (4)food service; (5) hosting international academic conferences; and (6) continued/improved functionality for daily operations (e.g. transportation of liquid helium).  Guest speakers included the original architect of the facility as well as a Walt Disney Imagineer who is an expert in experience design.  Representatives from the four stakeholder groups provided lectures, tours and interviews to the students via a break-out session process.  External experts were important to this effort not only for accreditation purposes, but also because the author and fellow faculty value preparing students to practice interior design as collaborators – professionals who must one day work seamlessly with experts in allied disciplines and clients whose needs may be highly complex.  Each student team was organized vertically to span the cross-section of the design curriculum.

The students approached the design with interest and dedication to produce some very engaging design solutions.  The student work was pinned up in a public space for two weeks with no opportunity for verbal presentation – the visuals had to carry the presentation in its entirety.  Faculty and NHMFL stakeholders judged the work and awards were given.  Winning entries addressed all of the programmatic requirements of the project in very creative ways.  The Pecha Kucha presentation will describe the design scenario, the faculties’ strategic intent behind the charrette, the unveiling of the design scenario to the students through a kick-off event, and show the student work.

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