Museums as products of the mind : An interview with Tanner Woodford

Many people believe that while museums may be interesting places to visit, they are usually heavily curated, backwards-looking destinations expressed through staid exhibits in quiet rooms. Tanner Woodford, the Director of the Design Museum of Chicago (DMoC) would beg to differ. He believes museums can be “a product of the mind through spaces that activate your thinking,” capable of sparking engagement through authentic ideas.

In 2012, I heard about a pop-up exhibition being held at a loft space in a then remote industrial area in west Chicago. It seemed a strange place to host anything design-related, so with low expectations, walked up a series of cavernous industrial stairs. However, upon entering a massive loft space, I was immediately impressed to see so many impeccable artifacts on display, not that I could see much of them through the crushing, excited crowd. In the middle of it all was Tanner, running through the crowd and making sure that everything and everyone was doing ok. This was the first time I met him.

In the past eight years Tanner has come a long way from hosting informal pop-ups and is now an institutional figure. No one in the local design community works harder or hustles as consistently to connect people, ideas and systems. In contrast to his quiet and humble demeanor attributable to his Midwestern farm upbringing in Macomb, Illinois — his life has been a series of pivots in art, product design, community organization, interaction design, and development. He has woven all of these together into something genuinely meaningful.

Tanner is a true believer. This belief has propelled him to accomplish things that few people achieve. He believes that design is not a single discipline or process, but a persistent in our everyday experiences. He also believes that design is the fundamental improvement of the human condition and that every microeconomic interaction builds through a network effect, which can begin to have macroeconomic consequences.

Tanner has said he only “lives 18 hours in the future” which means he is always on the move. As Director of DMoC, he is a consistent booster of everything Chicago, has built good will with many other cultural institutions in Chicago while challenging the idea of what a museum is and where it can happen. In the past ten years, the DMoC has completed 20 exhibitions and 181 events on a wide variety of topics. By iterating to learn, Tanner is constantly re-envisioning what the DMoC could become.

As if those accomplishments are not enough, he is also a newly minted father, lecturer, teacher and public art muralist. Play is as important as work to Tanner. It becomes the fuel for his mind and how he imagines moving the DMoC into the future. Design is about creating a better future, an optimistic endeavor to battle a world mired in mediocrity.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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You are a patent holder. H04N5/4403 – User interfaces for controlling a television receiver or set top box [STB] through a remote control device, e.g. graphical user interfaces [GUI]. Can you tell me more about how this happened, and what you learned about securing a design patent?

First, I have to tell you I am not sure how I feel about design patents. It’s a little awkward to hold one. This particular design patent happened in 2008, when I was an intern as an undergraduate student at Intel Corporation to design the next generation television.

Our vision and concepts were grounded in this situation: Let’s say we were sitting in front of a television watching a program. You liked it, but I did not. I could use a phone to swipe up or down and pull a copy of the television onto the phone, and then push it back to the main television and send you a signal to ask if you want to watch it.

The project was broad and thrilling and we thought of extended uses for such a product. If a person comes back from the beach, for example, it would automatically upload images from your phone and tag people you know. Then, you could talk to the television and ask to see pictures of your dog, which would pull up automatically. The idea behind our interpretation of the next generation television and the patent made it competitive.

I worked with Randy Dunton, who was a visionary designer and engineer who had been involved with all sorts of other projects like the digital camera and the ink jet printer. Randy clearly believed in patents and had secured many during his tenure at Intel. For this advanced television, I was included in that particular patent.

When I was at Morningstar, I was involved with a few other ideas for patents. We ultimately decided not to patent these ideas because the company believes its value is in delivering products that push the envelope through the experience. Its proprietary advantage is in the structure of its data to customers, which is what we charged for.

I believe that design patents can stifle innovation — many times because they take forward looking ideas and own them, rather than sharing and letting them be built upon. Innovation should be shared and built upon. That said, I also understand there are many predatory people who would take advantage of sharing if you do not protect your work.

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You have practiced graphic art and graphic design. For example you create murals that are both an escape and a way to engage a community. You also have created the Cutting Room Floor, using vinyl waste from the DMoC and turning it into collages and artwork. Can you tell me if there is a difference between you as a graphic artist and you as a designer? When do you practice each and in what context?

I do not see a clear distinction between art and design, but know we could have a debate about it. When I am painting something personal, it is art. Art can become design when it is shared as part of a larger intent or plan.

Design can be artful. An example is my recent participation in a mural project at Navy Pier. It is 60,000 square feet, takes four icons from Navy Pier and interprets them through four large external murals on the towers and three large interstitial pieces that connect them. It’s an artful exercise in abstraction — we used the lens of design to create an artful experience. It needs to be accessible, warm and communicate the features of Navy Pier. Therefore, it is art for art’s sake that then turns into a designed object.

The distinction between art and design from my perspective is that design has to work but art does not. Donald Judd said this. There is an interesting balance between both, and you have to practice both in order to be well balanced. The idea reminds me of Ed Fella, who is both an artist and a typographic designer.

So I am on both sides of the fence.

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You have done an incredible amount of activity in your life : designer, social activist, lecturer, museum founder and director and muralist. The word “hustle” comes to mind. What have you learned so far about being you?

One thing I learned early on is that I do too much at once. This is a self-critical statement as I can become overwhelmed while trying to balance an ADD mentality. I am interested in doing many things simultaneously – but this needs to be balanced against the need to deliver the level of quality I want to deliver. These at times are in conflict.

I have found balance by compartmentalizing my work. When I work on the design museum, I only work on the design museum and try not to multitask too much at the same time. My current role allows me to have philosophical conversations, followed by mentoring students and interns, followed by collaborating with team members, followed by a graphic design project. It allows a cadence throughout the day which makes me feel more full throughout my life. One thing I have learned about being myself is finding balance and not getting burned out, which can happen.

It is all an evolution. For example, I had never planned to open up a design museum when I was younger. It was a series of questions, answers and decisions that designed the life that I have now. It is hard to say who I was and who I am. There are major chapters in my life, with slow bleeds of transition between them.

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You launched a Kickstarter campaign to start the Chicago Design Museum through a 2014 Summer Exhibition and then used it to fund the book “What’s Worth Preserving.” What have you learned about crowdfunding?

Just like investing, you have to really take diversification into account. That is the main thing. Over the years at the Design Museum of Chicago, we have been both hand-to-mouth. where it was hard to raise funds and at other times we were flush, had money in the bank and were able to scale, grow and evolve.

The main strength of Kickstarter is allowing people to buy into the vision before you launch a product and that is what I really love about it. We raised $54,000 in our first year, which was matched by Joe Mansueto, the CEO of Morningstar (and an advocate of the Chicago Design Museum). When I was young, I considered $100,000 a lot of money. However as we quickly learned, Kickstarter was not enough.

In 2020, we have diversified our revenue streams. COVID has understandably reduced our current earned revenue but has substantially increased our special projects funding which feels like earned revenue but is less predictable. Our membership income is solid, and we have a solid list of sponsors like 50,000ft, Simple Truth, One Design, The Office of Experience, and other wonderful sponsors. Foundations also have been good to us and they give over time, year over year, to help us scale.

There is no one silver bullet to funding, it is more like a diversified investment portfolio.

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When you opened the DMoC you envisioned the MCA with various exhibitions. The more you worked at CDM, the more you and others realized a museum does not just fall from the sky. For a good part of DMoC, it was within a 17,000 square foot space within the shopping mall Block 37. Then CDM went back to being a pop-up at a 5,000 foot space at Expo 72. You have said several times that the world is tumultuous and operates within uncertainty. How do you evolve DMoC to be resilient when you really cannot optimize it?

Resiliency is the right word. That is something that we are always thinking about and always working towards. You have to work at being resilient. The vision of DMoC has changed a lot over time. In the early days it was easy to envision being like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) as they have been a successful museum model. There are parts of the MCA that still aspire to in terms of location, its wonderful store and audiences.

As I have moved forward, my belief is that smaller organizations can actually have a deeper impact in the community. We can educate students and build bridges with other organizations while being free to visitors. A visitor can come in without an expectation and have an authentic learning experience, which is exciting to me.

The MCA felt like stability as an institution. Going forward, DMoC will once again have a permanent larger space, but our work within the community will deepen because we are nimble. I am comfortable with the uncertainty that comes with being nimble. Stability can come in different ways. The Chicago Public School exhibition that we do every year is a good example of stability where we learn and grow intellectually over time, and deepen our partnerships.

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You said in an interview that “people visit the Chicago Design Museum expecting to shop and finding a museum and looking for a museum and finding a small museum.” You have also said the DMoC is “we are trying to institutionalize more” but have also said “We’re intentionally trying to do certain things differently. We’ve experimented in ways that a museum wouldn’t normally.” What have you learned about what a museum is?

The context early on is that I did not have a background in museums. I came with a background in design and education. There are certain things I have learned. For example, an obvious thing is that when you agree to acquire an object in your collection, you cannot turn around and sell it to pay for things like staff or operations. There are good reasons for this, because you have taken the responsibility for something, not for its financial value, but the story behind it.

Being in a public place, being in other pop-up locations and being free we are bucking a trend. Most museums get less than 3% of their operational revenue at the door, the rest are from donations and programming. I learned this early on. Being free, we can make up that 3% in other areas, as there is so much value to being free.

A museum should be neutral territory that is educational and welcoming to everyone. There are fewer and fewer places that are neutral. Being a sanctuary is more important than ever. An important trend this year has been the discussion of the decolonization of museums and their collections, which have questionable provenance or are overwhelmingly white. Right now, we do have a diverse collection of objects, but not from a diverse representation of people and cultures. Our collection is Chicago- and is process-based. It is also primarily graphic design. We want to decolonize our collection and widen our stories. I have a lot to learn.

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Museums are about being curatorial. This is based on interpretation and understanding. These interpretations can also be controversial. Can you talk about a controversy that developed from one of your exhibitions or even trying to get an exhibition produced?

Absolutely. We had an exhibition in 2018 about the bicycle. It was a great show and it was not just about the bicycle, but about the community and culture that goes with the object. We received a call from a dear friend and a longstanding member of the museum that stated we had a racist object in the show. Though it was the only critical comment we received, I believe at least 25 other people probably saw it, realized it was insensitive, and did not reach out.

When we were forming the show, we had a few objects that could be considered controversial. We had warnings and contextualized these objects to tell a full story, but we obviously missed one. He did not tell us which object it was, so we had to go find it. I went through the exhibition, and at first could not find it. When I did see this historical object, I really saw how bad it was, and it was a red flag. (Tanner did not tell me what the specific object was). We did not have a warning around it, and in retrospect, should have thought about how to present it in a deeper way. We decided to remove the object, and sent a letter to our friend apologizing. We also discussed within the DMoC about how to avoid this happening again.

We have had a few other close encounters with controversy. We had a show about Chicago theatre and showed several broadsides from the 19th century that were in newspapers that we received from the Chicago Public Library. They were incredibly offensive and racist in today’s context. We reached out to them and asked how they would handle this? They gave us some tools to address these objects, and we ultimately did include them in the exhibition.

While we did not receive any public comments about these broadsides, our willingness to recognize and discuss possible ramifications helped us be respectful. It is important for a museum to be neutral territory. We want to avoid being hurtful, which is the opposite of what we want to create.

In itself, controversy is not necessarily a bad thing. It gets a bad rap. If you can take a step back and see the problem with fresh eyes and learn something from it, it is a good thing. We are doing the best we can.

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What made you change the name from the Chicago Design Museum to the Design Museum of Chicago?

It was a big change for us. While we are a design museum in Chicago, we are not a museum only about Chicago design. I know it is a subtle distinction. While there was never really an overt confusion about our earlier name, we might have been shoe-horned into doing a lot of programming on design specifically in Chicago. However, the confusion was just below the surface. Ironically after changing the name, we ended up doing primarily Chicago-based programming. That said, we have also ventured into a collaboration with Hong Kong to do an exhibition at Block 37. We also went to Denmark to work. I want to get out of our bubble and do things that stretch us.

I liked the acronym ChiDM, except it was our URL to our main website and in our social media handles. It was very hard to spell and communicate verbally! Part of it was driven to rebrand to an acronym which is more understandable. We are still called CDM often, which is ok. It was a refinement rather than a total rebrand.

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I saw that the Design Museum of Chicago is moving to virtual events and online exhibitions. How has the pandemic affected the Design Museum of Chicago, if at all?

The pandemic has affected the design museum in a lot of ways. The idea of going virtual opened new doors for us. The Chicago Public School exhibition is a good example, where we had done a physical exhibition for students to experience their work in a white cube.

It is important that we let students know that art is a possible career path for them. They do not need to become Picasso. I’d be happy if they turned into an accountant, but want them to learn the foundations of art and design. You can use these in many career paths. This broadened our audience significantly as many students could send links to their family and friends to spread work further and faster. It is also important to recognize that not everyone has access to the Internet. Lots of kids still do not, and this highlights a lack of equitability.

Being virtual also changes the notion of the museum experience. It is hard to replicate a physical museum experience online. We learned a lot iterating on digital platforms around search, sorting, grouping works and use of videos. We learned the minutia about being digital and bringing something online, but we will never replace the physical museum.

We just launched new virtual programming called “Re:treat,” which is a two day weekend event. It started out because of COVID as a self-care conference and is wide programming with all sorts of goodies that could link to design. People can come as they please and watch content in any order. As a designed experience, I have learned alot about presenting content that is contextually relevant. We really need this right now.

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After doing 20 exhibitions and 181 events, you recently stated that “We’ve begun to assess our curatorial processes.” What do you believe DMoC has achieved, and how is this informing your thinking about its future?

The curatorial process at DMoC is focused on content in the form of exhibitions. We have always thought about the cadence of the programming. For example, we tried not to have a graphic design show follow a graphic design show. In fact, it would be rare for us to have a solely graphic design show at all these days, as we tend to look at design through a cross-disciplinary lens. We want to explore different design disciplines. We have achieved a broad portfolio of objects and stories through exhibitions and events very quickly.

I think about this all the time. DMoC is nimble, too small to fail, and we are happy to be scrappy. While we have had a few shows with six-figure budgets, most activities and programming are done with minimal four-figure budgets using tools we have on hand. Going forward, we need to be inclusive and equitable. We want to lift up students, and also work with retired people. We need to think broadly about how we communicate our field, and lift people up.

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Family seems very important to you. You mentioned in an interview that when you learned you were going to be a parent there were feelings of love, excitement and fear. How has becoming a parent changed your views about who you are, what you do and what design is?

In many ways. Like most parents, I learned the importance of play, but had not really thought of play in this way before in my work. In 2014 we explored this idea in an exhibition at Block 37 called “Work at Play.” Before my child was born, I had never done a typographic mural. After two months, I was cutting letters in our hallway and running to Gary, Indiana and painting a 60×25 foot mural. It did not feel at the time like I was escaping my responsibilities as a new father, but re-contextualizing what my family meant to me and processing new emotions through a newfound inspiration and creative energy.

Having a baby changed how I look at education dramatically and the importance of exposure, simply put. There are so many kids in the city that are smart as a whip but have not been exposed to the things I have been because they are being shot at while trying to go to school, and cannot see what is around them. You cannot expect someone to come to DMoC and expose them to something when their lives are so complicated. You have to go to them and expose them to culture where they live, and then maybe eventually you can get them to come and visit. Extrapolate this idea of exposure to core needs like sourcing healthy food, or getting to school safely, or even how a building gets built in an unsafe place. It is not obvious that things just don’t happen and that there is intentionality that needs to be pointed out. Doing so can change people’s worlds.

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You seem to be an optimistic person who is curious and resilient. This was embedded in a quote “I live 18 hours in the future.” How do you remain optimistic in a world that feels like it is unhinged and even deranged?

I have not been optimistic over the past few months and am trying to get back to that space. We are living in hard times and it seems as if there is a dark cloud over everything. So my optimism has been fleeting and I have become somewhat pessimistic, and certainly a little depressed.

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who simply said they are taking the longer view of the world. This was such an important trigger for me to wait things out, and started to help me become optimistic again. Over the past few weeks, I have started getting some of my optimism back. This has helped in many ways, including in defining new programming at the DMoC. Life ebbs and flows and when times are bad, it is important to remember that good times are coming. We have to have an active role channeling our optimism in times of challenge, in order to open more doors and influence more people. Good design can be optimistic.

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You stated that “Exploration is nostalgic to me. Getting one’s hands dirty is informative.” Now that you are older and a director of a museum that is thinking more macro-economically, how do you still keep exploratory and your hands dirty?

I grew up in a country town of Macomb, Illinois, and constantly visited my father’s rural farm, where I could play in a creek and ride a bike on lonely country roads. There were different forms of creativity through direct exploration in both contexts.

In today’s context, “Re:treat,” DMoC’s online event is a good example of exploration. The website was hand-coded by me and designed by Annie Leue, who is our wildly talented graphic designer. Also, my murals are painted solely by me, working 20 hours for three days in a row, and having the most gratified feeling when they are done. “Cutting Room Floor” is also a late night way for me to experiment with vinyl and see things in a new way to process things in my mind. Yet these are the obvious answers about getting one’s hands dirty.

There is also the ethereal answer of curating exhibitions. The theatre exhibition I mentioned is a good example of this, as we did not know what it was going to look like in detail when it was finished. It was a hard exhibition to pitch, because we were going to have a process and then have an authentic exhibition on Chicago theatre from its community at. We drafted a list of 350 theaters in collaboration with the League of Chicago Theatre and went through their database and contacted all of them to send an object, prop and share a story. Larger companies have a staff to do this, but smaller companies do not, which goes right to the question of equity. DMoC had to work with these small theaters and work with them by sending in a camera crew to document things, pick up objects and many other things. Many did not know what stories they had. Trusting the process of these types of shows that have higher risk is what I enjoy the most.

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You said “Design is the fundamental improvement of the human condition — through small acts” What is design to you in 2020 and are there any limits to design?

I will actually refine that quote. “Design has the ability to improve the human condition.” I have taken out “small acts.” Design can often make the human condition worse through the design of weapons, bad benches, and toilets in Japan that are uncomfortable to sit on. All these things cause harm and are not empathetic. Design is also as Paul Rand said the manipulation of form and content within a context. There are limits to design. For example, you cannot design a human life. On second thought there may not be limits. My logical brain says there is, but my emotional brain says there are not!

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