If you ask Lonny Schwartz what makes a museum exhibition great, he’ll offer up a clear-eyed design philosophy. A visitor, he says, should be able to walk through an exhibit without reading a word and leave understanding one key concept. Exhibits succeed not when they show off a cabinet of curiosities, but when they bring together environments, graphic design and object curation to tell a story.
And for Schwartz, it all points back to theatre.
When he applied to VCUarts in the late ’80s, he was deeply interested in the design and fabrication of stage sets, and envisioned himself a theatre major. But the era’s booming digital revolution brought with it heightened student interest in graphic design, prompting the Communication Arts department to unveil their very first computer lab while Schwartz was attending. After his freshman year, he took a summer internship and began designing with computers more and more; when it came time to select a concentration, he switched majors and joined Communication Arts.
Schwartz graduated in 1991 with a bachelor of fine arts, and in ’92, he was introduced to the business of designing three-dimensional, educational installations. For six years, he worked for a firm designing Smithsonian exhibitions, where he realized that museum exhibits were the perfect blend of his love of the stage and digital graphics. So, he broke out on his own as an independent exhibit designer in ’98. Together with Michael Lesperance, Schwartz founded The Design Minds in Fairfax, Va., and shaped it into an award-winning company and a strong player in the American museum industry. His firm has created exhibitions for nearly two dozen U.S. National Parks Service visitor centers, and designed museum installations from New Jersey to American Samoa.
At The Design Minds, Schwartz prefers to hire graphic designers rather than architects, considering visual communication key to the process of building and presenting a narrative. But relaying the trajectory of human experiences can get tricky in a living 3D space. He and his team have to consider how objects and text relate, how visual and spacial presentations effectively communicate to the viewer—in addition to how their exhibits will affect accessibility and day-to-day operations. While it’s tempting to pack the exhibition space with any variety of electronic bells and whistles, he and his designers are careful not to overwhelm museum-goers. “We’re designing for the client and the visitors,” he says, “not ourselves.”
For The Design Minds, authenticity and outreach are key to evoking a time period or way of life. Whenever he can, Schwartz utilizes genuine historic artifacts from a museum’s collection, and he makes sure to send his in-house historians to accompany designers in meetings with museum curators. His team also gathers input from cultural advisory groups, who in turn share historic resources with them.
Schwartz regards his experience at VCU as the foundation for his success. As a student, he was a tour guide and headed up Communication Arts clubs. His leadership roles prepared him for the director’s position he holds today, but the philosophy of great design is still central to his work. “As a designer, it is your job to uncover what works best for the client,” he says. “Never stop asking tough questions of the client or of your design. The right answer might just be a question away.”