How Visiting a Museum Influences Visual Design

I find it extremely beneficial to physically visit a location before actually beginning any design work. It allows me to rid myself of any preconceived notions about a client’s organization or existing site, and it allows me to focus on what really matters: the visitor’s experience.

In the case of The Brinton Museum (see case study here) our visit greatly influenced the visual design of the museum’s website.

The Brinton Museum is located on the 620-acre historic Quarter Circle A Ranch nestled just inside the curve of the Big Horn mountain range in Wyoming. Showcasing an extensive collection of 19th and 20th century Western art, the historic Brinton house was built in 1892 and was opened to the public in 1961.

As we arrived at the Brinton after a half-day of traveling across country, I recalled something The Brinton Museum’s Director Ken Schuster mentioned from our kickoff call the week before: ‘people need to know that [the museum experience] is worth the trip.’

Whatever my reservations were regarding our cross country travel, they faded the moment we took the steps up the beautiful new Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Building (the new home of the art galleries). Carved out of the base of the Big Horn mountains, the view from the museum entrance looks out onto miles of Wyoming wilderness; a vast sea of rolling hills dotted with cattle, engulfed in brilliant sunshine. Peering out into this beautiful landscape, a distinct feeling emerges: one of pure freedom and inspiration. It’s no wonder so many American Impressionists felt compelled to paint here.

And like those impressionists before us, we suddenly found ourselves tasked with the impossible: to capture this beauty for the world to see: this time not with paint, but with pixels.

Capturing the sense of vastness and beauty was a integral theme in our visual design for The Brinton Museum. If you look close, you can see the unmistakeable look of awe on my face

Visual Presentation

We kept the color palette bright, but earthy. Muted but rich colors keep the palette feeling energetic, yet grounded in nature. Generous use of white space and extra-wide panorama photos help to convey that sense of space. Subtle use of gradients and layered elements imply depth and a sense that there is always something new to discover.

Far too often we see colloquial depictions of the American West: a barren, dusty wasteland–brown and dead. These depictions could not be further from accurate in northern Wyoming. We used true-to-life color photos to help The Brinton Museum redefine The West as it truly exists: a vibrant land teeming with life and activity.

This mood board was voted #1 Best Mood board of All Time by Everyone In The World Magazine. (Well, no it wasn’t… but it dang sure should’ve been) Our very own Jennifer Sweeting nailed perfectly the vibrancy and life the Wyoming wilderness and The Brinton Museum has to offer. It resonated to the core of our clients, to the point at which they even asked us to design the site identically to it.

Information Architecture

The location of the museum is integral in the visual design of the site, but it’s not the only way a physical visit influences its design and development. We held initial meetings and asked extensive questions about all the art and collections The Brinton Museum showcased. Truthfully there was so much that it was a challenge to wrap our heads around it. It wasn’t until we physically moved through the different buildings and exhibition spaces that we truly began to understand each collection’s themes and relevance to American History, Western Art and American Indian Art, and how it all ties together. This unexpected learning experience is a perfect example of a major component of The Brinton’s website that we were able to optimize because of our in-person visit.

While determining the sitemap from a top-down approach allows us to understand how web users are looking to engage with content online, the bottom-up approach allows us to see how The Brinton Museum is physically organized. When put together, these approaches give us the ability to keep the digital experience as cohesive as possible with the physical experience. Without this harmony, we risk presenting a museum’s identity in potentially contrasting ways, which can ultimately reflect negatively on the visitors’ experience.

All in all, I was floored by the experience at The Brinton Museum and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to work on the project. Though we had traveled almost 2,000 miles to get there, we felt like we had never left home; mostly because they let us—literally—stay in their gorgeous modern log-cabin home. We got to hang out with their awesome dogs, check out their personal art collection and they even made us a full-on biscuits and gravy breakfast with farm-fresh eggs. Ken and Barbara Schuster are some of the most welcoming and knowledgeable people in the Western Art world, and even though our visit lasted less than 24 hours, I can safely say that it definitely was worth trip.