G&A’s CEO talks about the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and his team’s magical recipes
“The longest journey begins with a step in the wrong direction” is one of Scott Wickstrom’s favorite maxims. As the CEO of Gallagher & Associates, an interdisciplinary design company working on complex and large-scale projects, he knows that a successful experience starts with thorough preparation and sincere user-centered research.
“Listen, consider, respond” these are the guiding principles at G&A, a recipe for success in ensuring that the first step they take when designing any given experience is indeed a step in the right direction. Their latest projects, designing the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, is a great illustration of their unique and sensible approach to exhibition and experience design.
The master planning of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs – which opened in July 2020 – started in 2013. From the very beginning, it was clear to both the Museum and G&A’s teams that universal design and accessibility would be the backbone of the institution. Upon entering the museum, visitors register their profiles to receive their Visitor Credential, an RFID-powered ID that ensures customized experiences to all visitors throughout the museum. As they progress through the museum, all the interactives “organically adapt to each visitor’s unique selections and accessibility requirements” explains Scott Wickstrom.
To achieve a seamless progression and an authentic rendering of what it feels like to experience the Olympic and Paralympic Games, G&A ensured they consulted with both Olympic and Paralympic athletes as well as with future visitors.
“Community engagement is key to our design process” says Scott Wickstrom, “the institution has more knowledge than we’ll ever have but we’re really trying to push them to realize that as great as that knowledge may be there’s always something really insightful that comes from talking to guests and visitors. It’s about hearing directly from them what content will to appeal to them and what stories they will identify with.” Community engagement and user-research also helps G&A determine what kind of scenario will result in the audience learning, remembering and wanting to share an experience. For Wickstrom, the success of an experience and the satisfaction of visitors highly depends on the quality and depth of this preliminary phase.
G&A had already adopted a universal-design approach when they were working on another museum project, that of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. “The museum had a bold mission that we wanted to live up to, which was to educate the world, preserve the legacy, and celebrate the central role African Americans play in creating the American soundtrack. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that successfully without injecting universal design thinking into the process at every phase.”
In order to carry out respectful and relevant user-research, G&A uses “traditional” tools such as focus groups, design charettes and mock-ups, community roundtables and surveys, but they have also developed an innovative approach allowing them to map and understand future visitors better.
Singular and personalized experiences
While most design firms will use personas to anticipate visitors’ needs and behaviors, G&A have adopted a different approach: they design based on visitors’ personalities. “Instead of considering people from a demographic perspective, we explore their attitudinal differences or similarities to map out different categories of visitors: are they new to the institution but experts on the topic ? are they skeptical ? are they new to both the topic and the practice of visiting museums?”, explains Scott Wickstrom. “Of course we pay attention to demographics in the master-planning phase to determine how an institution is going to achieve its goals in terms of numbers of visitors, flow management and ticket pricing, but it is crucial to us to determine attitudinal cohorts in order to ensure singularity of design.”
G&A’s concept of “singularity of design” is based on the idea that a person visiting a museum will actually have AN experience rather than a succession of short and clearly delimited experiences such as discovering the building’s architecture as they walk towards it (experience 1), then standing in line and buying a ticket (experience 2 and 3) and so on. Thanks to the attitudinal cohorts they identify and a “radical empathy” approach, G&A manages to architecture single and singular experiences for each visitor. “We like to think of this journey in theatrical terms almost,” explains Wickstrom, “there’s an anticipation then followed by a buildup there’s a climax or multiple climax events and then there’s a gentle falling off from that and the attempt to create some sort of desire to return.”
Another great example of G&A’s ability to push the boundaries of innovative storytelling and immersive design is their recent complete redesign of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. “We worked on the original Spy Museum over 20 years ago,” explains Wickstrom, “so we had a backbone of audience engagement tactics that provided a foundation for us to build on in order to ensure that the new Spy turned into a self-sustaining experience-first institution.”
Considering and supporting diversity
As CEO of G&A, Wickstrom is drawn to the fulfillment of managing and growing the talents of one of the most diverse and multidisciplinary teams in the field. “My role,” he says “is to get out of the way of all these experts that we have and to ensure that I am providing the environment for them to do their excellent work.” In order to address diversity, equity and inclusion in the broader experience design industry G&A also very recently launched a new program called G&A academy providing internships, mentorships and workshops in partnership with local schools and communities.
The breadth of talents and skills within G&A is both the firm’s biggest challenge and greatest asset. “Whether it’s the tools we use or the talents we bring to the conversation, there is a different magical mixture or combination needed depending on the client. It’s not a one size fits all.” One thing is certain, whatever unique mixture G&A put together for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, it is working its magic, delighting and welcoming all guests equally in one of the most accessible and interactive experience in the world.