Designing for Experiences by Tom Duncan

Designing for Experiences by Tom Duncan

Tom Duncan, founding partner of Duncan McCauley, shares his insights into designing engaging visitor experiences. Duncan explores the inspiration we can take from theoretical and philosophical explorations of the experience, how non-traditional film narratives can influence experience design and the various methods we can use to map a customer’s experience of a space or place.

Designing for Experiences by Tom Duncan

“The world is not so much made of stones but of fleeting sounds of waves moving through the sea.”

Carlo Rovelli, the Order of Time 2018

Thinking about space as experiential rather than material and considering narrative and timing I will share some thoughts towards designing visitor experiences for cultural destinations.

Contemporary museum and exhibition design is a relatively new practice which is responding to a transformation the museum had gone through towards the end of the last century.

Scholars such as John Falk and Lynn Dierking have documented a shift in the museum towards a place that is primarily about people, the visitors, and the experiences of the visitors. The museum has become experience driven. [1] This expectation is also firmly established in the contemporary museum visitors, as well as in the visions of curators and museum directors wanting to fulfil those expectations. As the museum is experience driven, the task we have as museum planners and designers is primarily to design experiences.

The philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey describes three qualities of an experience: it has completeness, it doesn’t come to an abrupt halt but it has closure. Secondly, each experience is unique and at least while it is happening it cannot be analysed or separated into constituent parts. Thirdly, an experience has a unifying emotion, though the emotion cannot be separated from the experience itself. [2] The exhibition maker Leslie Bedford describes emotion as the glue that holds the experience together. [3] The time based and narrative qualities of experience have led me to consider other comparative media when designing for the museum. The sequence and rhythm of cinematic representation of events in film lends itself for analysis to study underlying forms and structures that could potentially be informative and inspiring for the design of museum experiences. In film the viewer is drawn into the spatiality of the images through the action on a screen from a stationary position, while in the museum the visitor navigates the spaces with their own body to follow the story.

 Looking at the entrance to the Botticelli Reimagined (2016) exhibition designed by Duncan McCauley for the Victoria and Albert Museum, two walls in the foreground hold the introductory exhibition pieces: on the left is a short film clip from a James Bond Film, Dr. No running as a loop, while on the right is the exhibition title. The positioning of the walls enables a glimpse through to the exhibition. The visitors don’t perceive this entrance area as a static space but rather as a moment in their experience of the exhibition.

The entrance to the 2016 exhibition Botticelli Reimagined designed by Duncan McCauley for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The exhibition shows works of Botticelli but is also about his influences on art and design and our contemporary vision of beauty. In the briefing that we received from the curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum the chronology of the exhibition ran in reverse, starting in the present with art works from the twenty-first and twentieth centuries, going back in time via Botticelli’s reception in the nineteenth century to the time he created his original works in the fifteenth century. In the museum a reverse narrative structure is unusual, a forward moving chronology, from the past to the present as a way of narrating historical happenings is more common.

Looking towards the media of film can inform and inspire the way narrative structure is used in the exhibition. It is possible to identify different narrative structures outside of the classical Hollywood film, for example the film Memento by Christopher Nolan (2000) has a reverse narrative structure[4].

In the film Memento, flashbacks from Lenny, the main character’s past are used to create fragments of a forward moving narrative to help connect scenes and to help the viewer follow the narrative. In the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, contextual images of Botticelli’s paintings were placed alongside contemporary art works to create forward moving narrative fragments to help the visitor to navigate time in the exhibition.

Visitors to the Botticelli exhibition moved through three very different atmospheres, including a soft carpeted space inspired by a 19th century gallery (L) and an austere and brightly lit final space to inspire a new look at paintings (R).

The visitor to the exhibition moves through three very different atmospheres. First the darkened and limitless space of Botticelli’s influence on twentieth and twenty first century art, where the individual art works shine like stars, secondly a soft carpeted grey/blue space inspired by a nineteenth century gallery with the paintings positioned along the outside walls and finally a room showing original Botticelli paintings inspired by thoughts of a daylit workshop in fifteenth century Florence. The austere and brightly lit final space inspires a new look at Renaissance paintings. Visitor feedback was overwhelmingly positive and they didn’t miss not seeing an original Botticelli until the last third of the exhibition. The design of the exhibition won both a Red Dot Award (2017) and a German Design Award (2018).

At Vischering Castle an idyllic knights castle, our task was to create a cultural flagship project through the redesign of the visitor experience. Early on in the planning process we used role playing activities to map potential visitors expectations and emotions as they move through the site.

Vischering Castle in Germany. The Castle became a cultural flagship project through Duncan McCauley’s redesign of the visitor experience.

The role playing enabled members of the project team to discover perspectives of individual visitors and to think about who individual visitors might be and then to talk through their experience of the site. The mapping documented individual fictive visitor journeys, from the car park through the whole of their visit, noting reactions, feelings and requirements. We also recorded how much time they would spend at different moments on the journey. In the development of the individual visitor’s characters team members crossed genders, age and cultures encouraging a unique way of looking at the site that liberated the design process. The mapping process allowed us to investigate the importance and placement of different thresholds such as the entrance sequence and helped us decide where for example the ticketing should be positioned. The ticket barrier is an important decision-making moment for the visitor. Should I pay and enter the site or not? It is important both for the sustainable economic success of the site and also for the story-telling experience of the visitor. Through mapping the visitor route over time, the design team learned about the overall length of the visit and gained a picture of the underlying narrative structure that supports it.

Role playing and story-telling informed the design of the Vischering Castle experience

 The importance in structuring the narrative of an experience as part of the design process is fundamental to a user centred approach. If the expectations, desires and requirements of individual visitors over time for a given experience are understood the spatial design will be better informed and ultimately be more successful and fulfilling for the visitor. As a designer of experiences it is important to consider that what we are designing is not primarily material, but rather exists for the user as sequences of fleeting moments that join together to form a meaningful narrative to create memorable destinations.

Photos: Duncan McCauley / Philipp Obkircher

Tom Duncan designs engaging visitor experiences. He is a founding partner of the studio Duncan McCauley specialising in design and planning for cultural destinations. Recent projects by Duncan McCauley include the award winning exhibitions Botticelli Reimagined at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2016) and Diana: Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palace (2017) He combines professional practice with teaching and academic research at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester and the Technical University, Berlin.




1. FALK, J. H. & DIERKING, L. D. 2000. Learning from museums : visitor experiences and the making of meaning, Walnut Creek, CA, AltaMira Press.

2. DEWEY, J. 1958. Art as experience, N.Y., Capricorn Books.

3. BEDFORD, L. 2014. The art of museum exhibitions: how story and imagination create aesthetic experiences, Walnut Creek, California, Left Coast Press.

4. 4.) DUNCAN, T. 2018 ‘Beyond the Museum: a comparative study of narrative structures in films and museum design’ in MACLEOD, S., AUSTIN, T., HALE, J. A. & HING-KAY, O. H. 2018. The future of museum and gallery design : purpose, process, perception. Routledge.


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