Take your tablets…

A digital revolution

By Ben Hammersley

Published 10 March 2014

In the midst of this historic institution, a digital revolution is taking place. Here we introduce the Californian technology pioneers who are transforming our virtual world, starting with this brand new website.

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Ben Hammersley

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  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    While plans are being made for major building works at the RA, including the construction of a link between Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, another renovation is well under way. The first stage of a major digital overhaul launches in March when the Academy unveils its new website.

    Designing a website is no longer, if it ever was, a matter of just making it look good. A website has users, not readers, and the way the users can interact with the site is, in many ways, at least as important as the way it looks. The choice of IDEO as the Royal Academy’s partner in its transformation is a well considered one. Founded in California and with offices worldwide, and employing not just designers, but anthropologists, architects and surgeons, this award-winning agency – hired by Apple to create its first mouse, and by governments to redesign public services – has pioneered a technique called design thinking.

    Developed in the 1990s, design thinking changed the way that design firms were employed, as well as the way they did their jobs. In the old days, much of design was the creation of a façade, with the designer brought in to make an existing idea look pretty. Often the decision about how a new website would function, for example, had already been made and fully specified by others elsewhere. But in design thinking, the designer is placed at the heart of the innovation process: considering strategy and business plans and delving into the heart of the problem at hand – all before any solution is even considered.

    For the RA, the opportunities are clear. As the RA’s Director of Communications, Will Dallimore, explains, an improved digital presence extends the Academy beyond Burlington House. ‘The RA is a platform for art and artists, and this platform has predominantly been a physical one, at our home in Mayfair. We’re now increasingly looking to engage Friends and other art lovers in the digital world, as a way of greatly enhancing their experience of the Academy.’

    Practically speaking, IDEO’s design thinking approach isn’t complicated. It goes like this: first, the immersion stage, where the designers research the problem by plunging themselves into it – talking to the people they’re trying to help, working with them, interviewing experts. In the case of the RA, this meant not only talking to visitors and Friends, but also listening to staff and RAs, and understanding the complexities of the internal processes that have built up over the years.

  • The second stage – synthesis – is where the IDEO team gather together their findings and look for patterns. This is done with hundreds of insight-holding Post-It notes covering the walls of the IDEO studio. The designers clustered their RA notes around similar observations (such as ‘hearing more from the curators’ or ‘demystifying art’) until the true nature of the problems at hand were revealed.

    The third stage, ‘ideation’, brings brainstorming solutions to the real problems identified by stage two, and then comes prototyping, making mock-ups of solutions to try out against the problems. At the RA, that meant building a complete prototype website, and asking visitors and Friends in the galleries to use it, and give their feedback. Only at the end of this stage are judgements made; until then, all ideas are given equal weight.

    As Steve O’Connor, IDEO’s London lead, puts it, when they were given the task of creating a digital strategy for the RA, they found that a change of website would actually require a change in the way the RA works. ‘It’s an holistic project, with the website being the first part,’ he explains. ‘The most significant challenge to getting a design to market is not the design, but the people inside the organisation.’

    So IDEO developed a set of design principles for their RA work. The first is ‘No departments’ – reframing the internal perspectives of the old website, whose design reflected the RA’s organisation chart, into a new site that meets the needs of the user. The second design principle, ‘Content in context’, is all about creating a new avenue for the growth of the Royal Academy itself. The website’s blog extends the institution’s editorial platform, allowing the Academy to develop connections between its activities and the wider worlds of art and architecture. The new site also highlights the works on display in more detail, integrates audio and video content more readily, reproduces artworks at a larger scale, and examines more closely Royal Academicians and the students of the RA Schools – indeed, the students’ very presence is often unknown to the wider public. All this content can be accessed elegantly on smartphones and tablets.

    As Will Dallimore says, ‘It’s about reflecting a larger narrative. Both the digital and physical infrastructure projects are about being an academy, and making more of the things that make the RA distinctive.’



    Ben Hammersley is a London-based internet technologist, journalist, author and broadcaster.

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