The Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) is the largest museum in western Canada and one of the top museums in Canada. Meet the designers behind every aspect of the exhibitions and brand for RAM.
I’m the Head of Graphic Design at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM). I started with the museum way back in 1999 with several small contracts. You know, the usual freelancing life of a young, fresh, eager designer. The ‘museum gig’ seems to have stuck. I accepted a permanent position in 2004 and, to my delight, the lead position in 2008.
To be honest, in the beginning I was looking to break into the design business, grow my portfolio and I believed anyone in a job for 10+ years was nuts. Later, with a growing family and mortgage to pay, job stability and health benefits gained in importance. Now my passion flows through the rich, diverse stories we have the honour and privilege to share with our visitors. Creating authentic experiences and provoking emotional response through design, interpretation, colour, texture, light, sound and motion image—that’s what drives me. It’s not just selling an experience, it’s delivering a memorable experience.
Like many others, the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make as a woman is juggling career and motherhood. When I first became a Mom, I was working on contract with no maternity leave. I decided to take three months off, with no income, and return to work once our daughter was a few months old. Luckily, my Mom offered to babysit until our daughter reached a year old and we could arrange childcare. Those were tiresome times. I had a baby who wasn’t sleeping through the night, I was breast-feeding and trying to make a mark for myself as a designer. To think if a coworker had accidently opened my lunch bag in the fridge filled with milk I’d been secretly pumping throughout the day—Gasp!
All jokes aside, it is so tough for working Moms attempting to give 110% to family and career. It’s just not possible to be all things, to all people, all the time. It takes planning and balancing and compromise in all areas, and it’s never ‘just right’ for long. It takes a continuous conscious effort on my part, along with huge support from my family, and I still have my share of stumbles. At the end of the day, I’m a better Mom because I can feed my soul through my work and I’m a better designer because I have the perspectives, experiences and curiosity of seeing the world through my children’s eyes.
The new museum project highlighted the importance of putting energy into personal projects. Much of my work over the past couple years shifted from creative direction and design to a more administrative type role. Though I was thrilled to play a part in this project of a lifetime, I hadn’t thought about how lucky I’d been pouring all my creative energy into my work. With not much more than contracts and spreadsheets, I felt really lost. With much soul searching, piles of books, and attendance at talks by Jessica Walsh, Lauren Hom and Elise Russell, I realized I was longing for that creative outlet I craved. I dusted off my sketchbook, started some side projects and initiated a quick Creative Mornings activity each Monday with my team—just for fun.
When building a design team it’s hard not to be drawn to designers with the same style and experience as your own. It’s important to find key talents that build on your team and expand the breadth of experience, knowledge and interest. Further to skill and talent, finding the right personality fit is critical. Teamwork and ‘design by committee’ can be cumbersome so having an agile, supportive dynamic is golden.
Put just as much effort into your pitch as your design concepts. Walk through your thought processes and design considerations. Share your inspiration and mood boards to give your clients a better sense of how you arrived at your concepts. Often times, there’s a tendency to jump straight into concept review without carefully guiding clients through the path at which you arrived at a solution. The delivery plays a big part in the success of design concept.
Brianne Higgs, Graphic Designer, 12 years at Royal Alberta Museum
Seeing examples of thought-out, well-executed design that address multiple problems with onegenius solution. Music, Nature, Family/Friends are the first on my list when looking for inspiration.
I’m proud of the work I contributed to the award-winning RAM Brand project. It was the most meaningful project of my career. I held RAM’s new visual identity system very close to my heart. After 10 years working at RAM, it became my second home and I cared so much (maybe too much?) to get it exactly right. There were several times the project went south and I wanted to give up, but I persevered. I look back now and I’m so proud that I kept going and am grateful for all the lessons and knowledge this project uncovered for me.
Taking a mental health leave. I struggled with the stigma of leaving for mental health reasons, but that shouldn’t be. Emotional pain is just as real as physical pain.
I wish I would have had a better sense of self, what my boundaries and truths were. I think that could have alleviated some stress that I have experienced in my career. I used to run around in circles, going against my creative intuition and education to try and please multiple clients/internal stakeholders. This doesn’t work. It results in loss of confidence, loss of power and sub-par design work. Find out what you stand for, what your boundaries are and think of a strategy to use when things are getting nowhere.
I am so proud of being sensitive and empathetic. I used to think being sensitive was such a negative word and I hated being called it. It made me feel weak. So, I would hide it.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that these are the things that make me a strong designer. I can always get on the client’s level with their experiences and emotions. I can feel their pain, joy, anger, etc. and I try to reflect that in my design. Visual communication is more than fonts and grids. Visual communication creates feelings without needing to say a single word. I believe that our visitors will remember their experience with more clarity when theyFEEL something, rather than read something.
Jovi Klak, Graphic Designer, 5 years at Royal Alberta Museum
This quote popped up randomly when I was in need of inspiration: “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman.
My personal and professional philosophy is that we are all searching to do meaningful work. That we should find something that makes us feel alive, inspired and challenged every day. I value putting in my best effort because I believe you get what you give. I also strongly believe in passion projects and creative communities. These things can truly feed your soul if you’re going through challenging times.
To me, success is when you’re authentic. When you make time to truly understand yourself and your values. Then, with this understanding, create short term goals and accomplish them. I believe the key to success is constantly questioning what motivates your actions and ensuring that they align with your values. So often our values and goals aren’t ours, but something our loved ones or society has instilled on us. We are told our dreams aren’t realistic and learn it’s much easier to be comfortable. When I first graduated from design school, someone made a joke that I’d end up flipping burgers at A&W. There’s nothing wrong with this job at all, and for a time I equated success with becoming a graphic designer at a design or ad agency. However, this was mainly motivated by how I wanted others to see me.
Now, I believe I am successful when I accept myself for who I am in the moment. When I discover something about myself that helps me break unhealthy patterns and grow as a person. When I challenge myself physically and mentally, and can ignore fear to create art and share it with others.
Thai massage masseuse, travel photographer, abstract painter, yoga or pilates instructor, textile illustrator, organic farmer, I’d just volunteer and do courses at Vipassana meditation centres all around the world, starter of an artistic hippy commune.
There would be huge windows with lots of natural light. High ceilings with white walls. The place would have a plant wall and access to a relaxing garden space/patio. A wall covered in cork, so you could post large inspirational images and quotes on the entire thing. A large whiteboard wall to outline priorities and plan your method of attack for the day. An office dog or cat. The plant wall/garden space and office animal would encourage healthy breaks. Adjustable standing desks. Magically refilling snack drawer with good selection of savoury and chocolate snacks (or replicator machine off of Star Trek NG). A large bookshelf stacked with inspirational photography, illustration, artist, graphic design books and magazines. A comfy couch and seating area with plush pillows overtop a gorgeous rug—for cat naps, lounging or when perusing great books and magazines. Large selection of art supplies. Photo studio area. Big table with large rulers and cutting mats for fun creative exercises. Good relaxing tunes throughout the day.
I enjoy meeting the interesting and intelligent minds behind the scenes of the museum. There is such a diversity—from researchers and scientists to carpenters, shop coordinators, family program coordinators, food service coordinators, etc. You are also able to access galleries and see cool artifacts that may not be on display. For example, with our WW2 exhibit, I was tasked to create a large graphic wall of WW2 posters. I worked with a curator and was able to see and photograph original and reprinted WW2 posters from their collection.
But, what I find interesting about the job, is also what I find challenging. With such a diversity of people, there is also a diversity of opinion—especially on how a design piece should work. I believe it is my job to communicate information in the simplest way to our main audience. Working with different personalities can be challenging, but also provides opportunities to improve your own communication skills and view things from different perspectives.
Michelle Weremczuk, Exhibition Designer, 7 years at Royal Alberta Museum
I was desperate to switch out my financial planning course in high school (sorry Mom!) and replaced it with graphic arts instead. I had been really drawn to the world of agency work through issues of Applied Arts as well as videography, illustration and photography while watching music videos. I was a teenager. I had NO idea how encompassing design was until going to university, and became immediately fascinated.
To me, success is seeing small victories happen over a long period of time. Every time I learn something new and apply it to my process, I feel like I have succeeded.
I graduated from the MacEwan program of Design and Exhibition Presentation, and had an amazing experience there. We had a small class of 6 individuals, technically not enough to be considered a “real” class, but it made our experience very tailored. We were all able to meaningfully connect with our instructors and each other. It was a ton of work and late nights, and I loved it. Having such small classes made us take ownership of our work in a way that may not have happened elsewhere.
Especially with social media, I think it’s really easy to see ALL the work being created in the world at any given moment, compare yourself to it and feel like you have nothing to offer. It can stop me dead in my tracks, so I’ve been working harder to create some healthy boundaries with social media like timers so that I don’t get sucked in and focus more of my energy on posting work including the messy process photos, or things that don’t feel perfect. something, rather than read something.
Zoë Henry, Graphic Designer, 10 years at RAM, 18 years in graphic design
I initially started university with the intention of studying modern languages. One of my ‘options’ was a fine arts studio class which helped me realize how much I missed having creativity be a part of my every day. Luckily, there was an introduction to the design program at the U of A in that class and I was able to transfer into design after my first year.
Do some stretches, open the windows, drink some tea, make my lunch and get to it!
Rachel Whiteread, Eva Hesse, and Agnes Martin.
Fine art, the natural world, pop culture, travel, talking to people, and, yes, social media.
Keep learning! The more you know about a broad range of topics really opens up the world and your thought processes for design. There is so much we don’t know, that is waiting to be discovered… and everything has connections.
I left a permanent job with Environment Canada to travel and work in the UK for a year and a half. I was only 3 or 4 years into my career but I felt I wasn’t learning as much I could. Seeing the design from different perspectives as well as being able to rely on myself was a great learning experience. It’s made me a firm believer in traveling for new points of view, influences, and inspiration.
Anything involving problem solving, creating and visualizing. Mountain guide, small batch gluten-free baker, carpenter, landscape planner / gardener, mixed media artist, whiskey taster… there’s so many!
There are so many people with such diverse backgrounds, education and passions at the museum and everyone wants to share why their ‘thing’ is so cool. It’s inspiring and fascinating! I’ve learnt so much about topics I never would have thought I’d be interested in.