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In Conversation With: John Kudos, Managing Partner, KUDOS Design Collaboratory™ and KASA Collective

John Kudos

A creative director, educator, and technologist with over 20 years’ design and management experience, John Kudos has worked on a broad range of projects – both in the museum sector and beyond.

Ahead of his presentation at the MuseumNext Digital Exhibitions summit, John shares his experience of working on digital projects for museums and talks about his most recent project, Shaun Leonardo’s, Between Four Freedoms, which ran between September and November in New York.

Originally from Indonesia, John Kudos first moved to the USA to study graphic design as a student in the 1990s. After graduating, John found himself offered a role with Pentagram Design – one of the world’s largest independent design consultancies.

“I got really lucky,” John says. “It was a great business to be a part of. It was based in New York. I stayed there for seven years. In that time I often worked with museums and non-profits, so it really gave a direction to the trajectory of my career. Typically my role involved working on branding, design and web projects for museums and educational institutions.”

After those first formative years in the world of design work, John established the company that was to become KUDOS Design Collaboratory™ with a business partner.

“Fast forward 13 years and here we are today, with a business that I’m proud to say has worked with many great institutions. We aim to fuse graphic design and technology. Essentially we are a team that combines designers and developers to work on projects that excite us.”

Asked why he has always gravitated towards working with museums and galleries – both in employment at Pentagram and then once he established his own agency, John says,

“I would say I grew into it. The more exposure I had to projects and clients in the museum space, the more I realised how unique, special and personally rewarding they could be.”

John does admit that the process of working with museums is very different from working with his commercial clients in retail, finance, real estate and energy sectors.

“Timelines are quite different in the museum space and there is often a clearer focus on both finesse and quality, with many different stakeholders involved in the process. When we work on product branding, the focus ultimately comes down to generating sales. The drivers are quite different in the museum space.

“Really, working on museum projects is much more akin to the work we do in education – with the likes of Cornell University – where the key is engagement and impact.”

Partnering on the pivot

One of the projects John and his team have found themselves involved in during the pandemic has been to aid the Poster House museum in New York to repurpose some of their on-site digital assets for use online. He says,

“We had created interactive installations for Poster House that were essentially kiosks located in the museum. One of the ways we have looked to support the museum has been to turn the digital elements into a website that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.” He comments,

“I think that kind of repurposing and reimagining is being seen across many museums at the moment.”

While museums aren’t always considered by tech companies as being particularly agile or fast-moving historically, John says that, in his experience, progress with museums can be made much quicker when there are trusted relationships between internal teams and their external partners.

“When I have to advise museums on the way to manifest new projects it’s typically by finding the right partner, so that time (and money) is not lost trying to figure out what technically works and what doesn’t. At KUDOS we are accustomed to problem solving and experimenting all the time, so if we are working with an organisation that trusts us, they can really depend on us to find the right solution for them – which cuts down on the time and resources they need to dedicate to implement new initiatives.”

Of course, these relationships rely on the external partner having a proven track record, a clear understanding of the museum’s goals and a willingness to push back when necessary.

“Building this trust means being practical and pragmatic with institutions. Letting them know whether something like Augmented Reality is actually the right solution for a project or if it is just a technology that sounds impressive. Sometimes a simpler, less costly solution is the more impactful one – and its implementation proves to the museum that the partner isn’t just chasing the money.

“We have seen many instances where small wins in digital progress are the most important ones for our museum partners. They are quicker to implement, get people engaged, and show both the institution and the audience what success looks like.”

John suggests that this approach can then build the confidence required to invest in larger, longer-term ambitions,  while generating valuable digital output via a relatively limited resource and cost requirement in the short term.

“Often it’s smaller institutions that are more prepared to take a chance on new ideas. Perhaps because there are fewer layers of approvals or maybe just because there is less risk associated with failure compared to larger, long-established museums.”

Between Four Freedoms and beyond

At December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, John will look to share insights into the highly collaborative process that went into Shaun Leonardo’s experiential outdoor narrative “Between Four Freedoms” exhibited between September and November of 2021.

Using machine learning designed by John’s team, the installation enabled visitors to experience Shaun’s narrative on their own smartphones at the Four Freedoms Park – located on Roosevelt Island in New York City. In fact, the experience could be enjoyed from multiple locations, including waterfronts on both Manhattan and Long Island City.

Shaun Leonardo – Between Four Freedoms

“Essentially, it’s a monumental installation on top of a slanted surface, big enough to be seen from 1,500 feet away, across the river. There’s a strong focus on gestural movement, which is why you’ll see the blown up hands on the wall.

“In my presentation I’ll go into how we settled on machine learning, and how from the initial QR code scanning we were then able to create an experience that could be appreciated from a number of different designated points.

“I’m looking to share how this process of art meeting technology can work and how we went from the initial brief through various iterations to get to a point where we could execute the project in a relatively short period of time.

“I also want to be transparent about the fact that there are always going to be challenges when pursuing something like a digital exhibition or installation. We begin with a story and an experience to deliver – then we start to piece together how to do it. That’s never straightforward, but ultimately, the process can be of great value. As we push the boundaries of available technologies, whether it be machine learning, AR or VR, we learn more about how we can do things better and create new opportunities in the future.

“When it comes to museums thinking about audience engagement – be that on-site, out in a park or at home – we have to understand the different kinds of experiences that are being generated. We also have to be pragmatic about what is going to come out of a project. Is it going to be a long-term, super important project that’s worth significant investment? Or is there a solution that works well in the short- term for a temporary exhibition?”

Importantly, John says that it is ok for people to say that, “we are still in the midst of a process” and wants to remind people there is value in taking the time to figure out what audiences really want from their museums when it comes to digital engagement.

“There is a balance that must be found between people wanting to be in the physical space and those wanting to enjoy what museums have to offer remotely.”

If there’s one thing John wants people to take away from his talk it is:

“Don’t be afraid to explore ideas. Find partners that you can go with on the journey. To me, a good partnership is about trying to figure something out and make ideas work – often in a way that neither partner envisioned when the project started.”

Hear more from John and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit running 6th – 8th December 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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