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Chicago designers create new cross-section brochures for MCA

Kids like to touch stuff with their grubby little fingers. You can't touch stuff at museums. That's a problem--it's why children's museums are mostly just science-y sandboxes and toy chests.

Unless they can "lean on that [Basquiat], Blue, you own it," like Blue Ivy can on Jay-Z's new album, kids have a hard time understanding the appeal of most things, let alone the appeal of something like contemporary art.

Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art recently set out to "create a new type of experience for our audiences this summer," wrote Heidi Reitmaier, Beatrice C. Mayer Director of Education for MCA, in an email, so the the museum reached out to several artists with a brief asking them "to conceive of a project that considered audience experiences inside the museum--and considered that the nature of the museum isn't always so comfortable."

They ultimately decided on a design from ODLCO, a small batch design brand founded in Chicago by Caroline Linder and Lisa Smith in 2011 that had previously worked with the education part of the MCA. The group submitted several designs, but a print piece in the vein of zoo or amusement-park brochures caught the museum's eye, which was the point.

"We looked at maps of other types of family-frequented places, like zoos or amusement parks, and those are fun. They make you excited when you grab them," Linder said. "They looked at that, and said 'we want that one.'"

According to Reitmaier, the design was "beautiful, playful, and smart."

Getting there was neither short nor easy. The pair first had to conceive their entire design from scratch, which was the double-edged sword of an open proposal.

"We weren't commissioning ODLCO to design something we had conceptualized  This was conceptualized and executed in their vision, as an artwork," Reitmaier wrote. "They proposed the idea and presented us with a fairly complete design, and it was both inviting and a bit irreverent."

Linder and Smith pulled inspiration from all over, including graphic novels and Chinese landscape paintings. They said they turned to a cross-section-style map of the building, sacrificing the navigability of a rigid floorplan, because of how engaging it was.

"A floorplan does help with navigation, but we wanted people to think, 'What's around me?' 'What's above me?' 'What is a museum?' " Smith said.

They exhaustively examined the museum experience, using the comic-style vignettes to "tell stories to the kids" and the anti-depth-of-field from Chinese landscapes to avoid "giving any hierarchy to what's going on here."

"Even in the darkened sort of underbelly in other parts of the museum, it's still as important as the brightly lit areas," Linder said.

They even went so far as to indicate the atmosphere and experience of every room.

"So many different museums have different temperaments. The maps don't tell you what's quiet, noisy, somber or exciting," Smith said. "We wanted to convey that stuff too--the character of the space, not just the location."

All of this took a lot of work. The initial meetings took place early in February and March of this year, and the women worked past their June 1 deadline once the entire museum was able to see it and excitedly suggest some tweaking.

Now the brochure, which is poster-sized so two people (or parent and child) can hold it, has made its debut. Linder and Smith asked people to come and get a copy, even take it home.

"Part of the idea is that when kids took this home, they could hang it on their wall or start to draw on top of it," Linder said. "It's like a 'Where's Waldo?' thing. We wanted people to look over it again even after your visit."

It looks like the brochures, the first of their kind, could be here to stay as well.

"This is part of our long-term plans to really transform the types of experiences we offer our audiences at the MCA and to ensure that all the projects we offer our audiences are smart, playful and super creative," Reitmaier wrote. "Keep your eyes peeled and as there may be a sequel--you never know."
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