Just as great art can make you see the world in a new way, great graphic design can make you see art or an artist in a whole different light. A beautifully designed or unexpected approach to an exhibition’s design—be it spatially, graphically, through a print campaign, or even as part of an institution’s signage—can not only achieve their primary function of propelling you towards that exhibition sharpish, but also engender new ways of viewing that artist, movement, or theme.

Take the posters for the Barbican’s all-too-brief presentation of performance work by the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, designed by Thread Design and the Barbican’s in-house team. No matter how weather-worn or tattered they became as they gradually peeled from London’s billboards, they remained utterly arresting: somehow through a brown and black palette, the Barbican’s signature Futura SH type faded as if it had survived a hundred Xeroxes. Contemporary dance is a discipline far less accessible to the public than even fine art, yet they communicated with enough punch to make it seem both beguiling and democratic.

Apfel, graphics for The Barbican’s Bauhaus exhibition

One agency that consistently manages to push exhibition graphics into the territory of immersive pieces in their own right is A Practice for Everyday Life (Apfel), whose projects have included the wildly vibrant graphics for the V&A’s bombastic Postmodernism exhibition, the Barbican’s Bauhaus show, artist Jeremy Deller’s Hayward Touring show All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, and a Wellcome Trust exhibition devoted to dirt.

The key to successful exhibition graphics, according to Apfel co-founder Emma Thomas, is to think of them as a vital part of the visitor experience, all the while remaining mindful of the content and context of the works being presented.

“It’s about understanding how far we can go—we don’t want to take over the ideas of the artist, and you have to be sensitive to that.” 

Apfel, graphics for the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition

Apfel is currently working on the graphics for a forthcoming Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican, and Thomas says the project is about “really embracing the ideas of the artist and seeing how we can use these to communicate the work without it becoming a pastiche.”

The agency’s approach to each show is to see its role not simply as that of a graphic designer, but part of a wider scheme that creates a holistic experience for the visitor. This isn’t just about type and color—it’s about conveying a mood, a time, or a place. “With the Postmodernism show it was really fun to embrace the era and come up with designs that communicate those ideas,” says Thomas. It made for a brilliantly bold and immersive show: huge neon perspex interventions and vast moving-image screens made for a delicious juxtaposition to the other V&A galleries traversed by visitors before entering the exhibition.

Fellow London agency OK-RM, which has worked on shows at institutions including the Design Museum in London and Moscow’s Strelka Institute, is anxious to underscore this idea of graphics as one small part of a far larger whole. In fact, it’s keen to eschew the term “exhibition graphics” altogether. Rory McGrath, OK-RM co-founder, says: “It’s not ever really about just graphics—it’s much more about ideas which might lead to unique graphic elements, but also a materials focus, or digital, or whatever other aspect of designed work. It’s not healthy to separate these things out.”

OK-RM recently created designs for Fear and Love, the inaugural exhibition at the Design Museum’s new home in Kensington, west London. Working closely with architecture and design practice Sam Jacob Studio, OK-RM’s scope was to collaborate across the spatial, 2D, and 3D elements of the project. The show presents a series of individual pieces by different architects and designers that explore utopian ideas of design’s capabilities for change, questioning the built environment around us. The design teams’ answer was to create a tactile space that engages the user at every turn, while managing to guide them easily through the show in a comprehensible, agile way.

Each part of the exhibition design enforced these broader concepts—fear, love, and our relationship with the world. Ideas were wrestled out through initial discussions with the show curator Justin McGuirk, who had written an essay and created a mood board outlining concepts. “We started to build an idea of a mood for the show, which is more or less about fear and love, and the optimism and fears in design as a way of looking at the world. Once we got that mood it felt natural designing across the exhibition, book, and campaign,” says McGrath.

“We didn’t really work in a traditional way: from the beginning we were thinking about how to work with materials that we see every day, but are almost invisible—things like insulation materials, pole protectorsonce you start noticing them they’re everywhere. We got really into pole protectors.

“The concrete footings are curb stones from the US; everything is from something else, and usually from a completely different function. Sam Jacob Studio was doing something similar with the larger structures, so we worked together on that shared goal. Curtains became fire retardant felt or latex to create a weird, slightly abstract, almost industrial atmosphere.”

With such complex and conceptual underpinnings for the physical aspects of the show, the graphics were pared back to their utmost simplicity: all the typographic elements used system Helvetica so as not to muddy the mood.

SFMOMA graphics for Alexander Calder: Motion Lab

These sort of all-encompassing, installation-heavy approaches may be perfect for such a knottily-themed design show, but design considerations can be vastly different in other spaces, like contemporary art galleries. Jennifer Sonderby, design director at SFMOMA, has worked at the gallery for the past 13 years. For an institution with such a high footfall,  using graphics to aid the viewer in understanding both the work and the navigation of the space it’s hung in are paramount. “You’re designing with the guests’ interests in mind, and you don’t want to make them work too hard to find the information,” she says. “It’s a bit of a dance between making the text [on walls and labels] easy to read, but without interfering with the art experience. We’ve fine tuned it after years of tweaking: it means that sometimes there’s less art in the galleries to accompany larger sizes of texts, because if we know it’s going to be a very busy show with lots of people, you don’t want a label that you need to be standing right in front of to read.”

Aside from these more prosaic considerations, Sonderby and her team look to create an “experience” through graphics that augment the nature of each show. Finding the essence of this starts with initial meetings with other SFMOMA departments about the “theme, thesis, and audience goals,” followed by discussions with the curators and artist(s), or artists’ estates, and creating 3D mockups of the galleries. “Then we whittle that down to what it means for the space, thinking about the story and how we tell it through the color palette, how that’s used throughout the rooms to guide the visitor through, how we’re going to be using the landing spaces to welcome the visitors, the logistics of what else has to be in the space, like the store.

“The graphics spring out of the overall approach—what the exhibition looks like and the objects in it—and the stories we’re going to tell. It’s about the emotional experience.”

SFMOMA, graphics for Typeface to Interface

A combination of this sensitivity to mood with the mechanics of legibility and navigation was rather smartly demonstrated in SFMOMA’s approach to the graphics for artist Richard Tuttle. “Minimalist art can be very challenging for some visitors,” says Sonderby, citing it as a movement that often ushers in the dreaded “I could do that” reaction. She explains, “there’s a very fine line between detracting from minimalist art and making the visitors understand it. You need to provide structure and support to allow them to see it from a different perspective, so we had to develop an object label that teetered on the line of disappearing into the wall, but you can see it when you need to see it.”

SFMOMA is fairly unusual in working solely with its in-house creative team (alongside the artists and curators of course) on the design of its exhibitions, as well as its overall identity design, campaign materials, internal communications, and pretty much anything else that needs to be designed. “We have the benefit of being able to just take the elevator down and and look at the space,” Sonderby points out.

“The intimacy we have with the space, and the flow of working with all the other teams in the museum to make it happen, make working with external teams inefficient. But different museums have completely different setups, I don’t know of anyone who does exactly what we do. [We] draw on things that external teams wouldn’t be privy to.”

Hilary Greenbaum, director of graphic design at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, agrees, to a degree. “Outside designers can bring a fresh eye to a project, but you lose both consistency within the building and institutional knowledge long term,” she says. However, “sometimes outside agencies are taken more seriously simply because they are outside agencies.”

You should thoroughly study and understand the subject or the person that you are doing the design for,” points out Tony Eräpuro, a designer at Finnish agency Kuudes.“Does the design reflect and express the subject and artist that is being exhibited?,” he says, reflecting on his recent exhibition designs for Olafur Eliasson’s Pentagonal Landscapes show at EMMA gallery in Finland.

“There’s no denying that in a spacious area with lots of viewers, that big type from floor to ceiling can work and look beautiful. It’s easy. But again, it’s important to consider the exhibited subject in the choices that the designer must make. There are no rules in creativity or art, right? The important thing is that the graphics are in tune and play well with the subject.”

One of Sonderby’s most memorable collaborations was with artist Matthew Barney, known for his large and often challenging sculptural installations and video works. “The most challenging exhibitions are the ones that stand out,” she says. “Matthew Barney was heavily involved in every aspect of the process. As a person he’s very much on theme with how he approaches his workhe’s very in the moment. He thinks as a designer and I really appreciated his understanding of the experience of what his art is. It’s not just paintings on a wall.”

These personal dialogues can play out in other ways, when a show takes a broader survey of a movement or era, rather than an individual artist. In Apfel’s designs for The Barbican’s Bauhaus exhibition, the studio looked to force the viewer into engaging the school and the people who went there using giant, enlarged archive photographs in the space. “We looked at the Bauhaus mantra ‘art as life’ and wanted people coming to the show to think about what it was like being there, what it was like as a student. To do that, we confronted them with the teachers and students at a one-to-one scale.”

These sort of graphic installations demonstrate how designers distil wider, more abstract concepts into individual graphic components. Apfel’s designs for an exhibition about dirt at the Wellcome Trust, for instance, featured wall lettering created using flocking to make it appear like “little particles of fluff that would match the color of the contents of a hoover. We were looking at ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ in how to bring dirt and dust into a museum environment,” says Thomas. “All the different elements work together to create the full experience of that exhibition, we used those to communicate in different ways. You don’t want a wall label to have as much graphic impact as a book cover, but there’ll be things that relate to each other: it might be the color, textures, typography, graphics, materials, or process. It’s how those things relate that can amplify the exhibition itself.”

McGrath terms this buildup of an experience through various components as “layers of content where everything works in a similar framework.” They key to designing seamlessly across everything from a large-scale installation to billboard posters, a catalog, merch, wayfinding, and tiny labelling is having “a clear agenda… working really intensely in a  conceptual way before you even start sketching,” he says.

“Only when you’re really clear on that can you create systems and frameworks [for graphics]. It’s often about structure and play: you have structures in place like a grid or typeface. or something permanent—a rule. Then within that, you can play.”

What must be both a boon and a thorn in the side of designers working on exhibitions is that their work is so crucial, but acts in support of the work on show, rather than playing a starring role. As Sonderby puts it, “The object is king, the art itself is what we are here to support.”