Case Study: Earth Lab: Degrees of Change
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2012 “Justified” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.
Climate change arguably poses the most important challenge humans face in the coming century. This dramatic exhibition within the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences endeavors to open the doors to the living laboratory that is our climate, while not shying away from the hard science behind the changes people are witnessing every day. The exhibit is a strategic blend of media that investigates the evidence that will inform the decisions we make in the future. It’s an interdisciplinary exhibit hybrid of public policy, documentary journalism and the earth sciences. It’s a hub for scholars, politicians and scientists, and a go-to resource for the general public to access the core facts about climate science.
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The team immersed themselves in the content of climate science. In order to make the information accessible, we had to know how to explain the information in everyday language.
The challenges of the Earth Lab were obvious from the start. Climate science and the issues surrounding climate change policy are difficult to explain in an exhibit aimed at a target audience of laypeople and children. The brief for the project was to use a suite of reports from the National Research Council that looked at current scientific conceptions of climate change, its impacts and possible strategies for governments, and to make these findings accessible to visitors—not an easy task. We used visual storytelling and actively engaged audiences with interactives in order to make the information accessible and engaging.
“Attract, interpret, engage, advance.” We developed an exhibit narrative following this structure that would guide the visitors as they navigated the space. The “attract” area sets the goals of the exhibit and establishes the perspective of the visitors. The “interpret” area of the exhibit shows current trends, future predictions and historical landmarks. The “engage” section draws the visitor deeper into the exhibit and invites them to take action and contribute to the experience. Finally, the “advance” section answers the question, “Now what?”, and leaves the visitor with positive, proactive takeaways.
The museum itself has seen great interest around the Earth Lab. The subject of climate science, although clearly important and contentious, is also difficult to communicate to a general audience. Our target audience, which includes the layperson—especially children—has proven to be incredibly receptive to the interactions in the space. Dwell times at the Mitigation Simulators have been much longer than expected. By turning the idea of offsets into a game and putting people in the role of policymakers, visitors were able to understand the thorny problem facing governments, but also that it is possible to reach sustainable goals. Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State and a Koshland board member, said, “The Earth Lab presents a visual journey through the best science on climate change. The exhibit opens your mind to the impacts, possibilities and decisions related to climate. We want people to engage with the best science on the issue and think it through. Then, it’s up to you to decide what to do about it. This game sparks discussion among players. People discover that there are many beneficial ways to solve this complex problem.”
The best representation of this project is Second Story’s portfolio page, which has a photo gallery, demo videos and complete description.