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.