The In-house Life: Evonne Mackenzie, V&A

In the latest in a series of interviews with creatives who are working in-house at brands and organisations, we hear from Evonne Mackenzie, head of design at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Evonne Mackenzie has been head of design at the Victoria & Albert Museum since December 2018, where she oversees work across the V&A family, including the Museum of Childhood in London and the V&A Dundee. Evonne started out at The Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for architecture and design, and has also programmed architecture, design and fashion for the British Council and worked as a producer at Heatherwick Studio.

She talked to us about the challenges of moving from a studio that is all about creating the ‘new’ to a 165-year-old institution, the importance of being a great advocate for design, and the complexities of designing for one of the world’s most famous museums.

This interview forms part of a series from the In-House Agency Leaders Club, created by consultancy WDC and ex-CR editor Patrick Burgoyne, which will explore the unique opportunities and complications of working in-house.

Top: Filthy Lucre exhibition, 2019, Exhibition and graphic design by V&A Design studio; Above: All Will be Well display, 2020. Exhibition and graphic design by V&A Design studio, lighting design by DHA; Images: Simon Kennedy

IHALC: Tell us about your role and what it encompasses.
Evonne Mackenzie: My role involves the design of everything for the museum that is ‘temporary’ and the remit is incredibly broad. In terms of discipline, it spans architecture, exhibitions, furniture, graphics, lighting, sound, audiovisual, illustration, photography, and I can also move between a marketing campaign to an exhibition, then a temporary display, leaflet, sign, visitor trail or an award trophy. That said, I’m not the only person who has responsibility for design and I also have amazing colleagues that lead on the design for digital, product and retail.

I’d say that my role and approach is primarily about trying to enable great design for the museum rather than about being a singular design voice. Coming to the museum, I knew I didn’t want to make everything all my way because that’s the antithesis of what I love about the V&A. Instead, I wanted to embrace the variety and amplify the world-building that I’d always loved. For each project, venue or audience the aim is to try to uncover the right design approach and to make space for multiple design voices and perspectives – both within the team and from design collaborators, which I think enriches the museum and the design output.

I was really drawn to the role because it’s the V&A but also because it was a chance to work across both commissioning design and the in-house studio. For commissioning I work with colleagues across curatorial, marketing and programming to commission and bring different designers into the museum. Then I also lead the tiny but mighty in-house design studio doing architecture/interior, graphic design and print production.

IHALC: What was the biggest shift that you had to cope with, going from Heatherwick Studio to the V&A?
EM: What I like about this role, which is very similar to Heatherwick, is that we are able to engage with all kinds of design and to work across a range of scales but the big shift was a cultural one. I’d come from a studio where risk and change were fully embraced. A place where if you already knew the answer at the start then you simply weren’t trying hard enough to do something original. Everyone had total comfort with the design process and that this involved the unknown. In contrast, the majority of colleagues at the V&A are responsible for caring for existing objects and ensuring they are cared for with the utmost diligence and that there is no risk of change. This has meant that I’ve had to get used to working with people who are less comfortable with creative risk.

The other big shift was that in my head I’d always perceived the V&A as a design place, and this says more about me than it does about the museum, because actually it is a much broader creative spectrum. The museum is full of academics, curators, technicians, conservators and a whole host of other specialists. There is all this knowledge and wisdom and you get to learn every day, but it also means that not everyone understands design and so there’s significant work to do to translate and advocate for design internally.

Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition, 2019. Exhibition and graphic design by V&A Design studio, lighting design by DHA, Images: Victoria and Albert Museum

IHALC: How have you tried to build awareness and trust in what the design department does and can do within the institution?
EM: I spent the majority of my first year just learning about the museum, going around to listen and talk and learn. I also presented my design vision and principles to the entire museum at one of our regular all-staff meetings and that was really helpful because there were people who connected with the ideas I’d shared and were drawn out of the woodwork to come to me to discuss design. Ultimately though, the most important way that we build trust and awareness is by doing good work. Each time we do a good project our reputation builds.

IHALC: And what about the team, how are you building a culture there?
EM: When I arrived, to me the studio felt more like six freelancers who happened to sit in a room together. Everyone was tight-knit but it didn’t feel like a studio and so I’m working with them to try to build a studio culture. This started with an overhaul of the space to make sure we’re set up with the essentials for the job, then starting up studio meetings where we share WIP, team lunches in the studio where we cook for each other (pre-pandemic), and then recently one of the team suggested we start running creative exercises in our virtual catch-ups – this week it was a hilarious 20-minute movement workshop. Next on the list is a more rigorous crit and review process for work before it goes out the door, presentation standards, project retrospectives. I’ve got a million things I still want to improve, it’s a perpetual work in progress.

IHALC: How do you deal with work requests and balance those against available resource?
EM: It’s a huge challenge because there’s always more demand than capacity and so it needs negotiation with client colleagues all the time.

We are definitely viewed as this unlimited tap and we are our own worst enemies because of course we always want to do stuff for people. Before the pandemic we used to be able to expand with freelance support to meet demand, but right now we’re trying to work out how we can operate with a fixed capacity. Ultimately we’re going to have to grapple with the fact that we can’t do it all and at some point it’s more important to give strong work the high priority elements than it is to service every request. No-one wants to hear that something is more of a priority than their project but we have to look at the big picture for the museum. That can be hard.

IHALC: How do you decide what to commission externally and what to do in-house?
There’s a range of factors that determine whether a project is commissioned or in-house, such as timing, scale and the nature of the project. For exhibitions and galleries there’s a long-term planning cycle and so these get locked in quite far in advance. For major exhibitions there’s an average of four-five per year and we might have a 50/50 split between internal and eternal. To determine which is which, we’ll do a clash finding exercise for in-house availability, as well as think about scale, the nature of the show, complexity of the works and who might be a good fit in design terms.

Mid-size projects such as campaigns and displays are planned on a shorter cycle, and for these there’s again the need to think about complexity, availability and budgets. Displays involve environmental work within the museum – this can require a good understanding of aspects such as conservation requirements and interpretation and so that necessitates that these often stay in-house. Projects that are less integrated into the building, are standalone or are externally facing, such as our national schools programmes, or learning academy, our design and art courses and workshops for adults, are self-contained enough to be able to be structured as a commission for a designer or studio.

Bags: Inside Out exhibition 2020 (reopening 19 May 2021). Exhibition design by Mutt, graphic design by V&A design studio, lighting design by ZNA. Images: Simon Kennedy

We also do projects that team up internal and external designers. This is great because it prevents the studio from becoming insular and also means that external designers can benefit from the accumulated knowledge of the in-house designers too. The Bags: Inside Out exhibition is a good example where one of our senior graphic designers Heather was working on the project but the design team was led by the externally commissioned architecture practice Studio Mutt.

The important thing is to make sure that the in-house team get a good balance of exciting projects, the in-house designers have to absorb a lot for the museum and to balance this, there needs to be enough projects that are interesting and exciting.

IHALC: How do you deal with approvals: I imagine that must be complicated at somewhere like the V&A where you have many experts in their subject and layers of bureaucracy?
EM: Approvals are definitely complex in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Loads of people have opinions but they don’t necessarily have our expertise in the design work and so we try to demonstrate that we are the people with expertise in this. Alongside this we have to get individual elements of designs checked and signed-off by different departments, so something might have to go to health and safety, estates, visitor experience, curators, conservators, security – each of whom has their specific element they need to check in the overall design.

I have really noticed a massive distinction between behaviour toward spatial or lighting designers versus graphic designers. People generally don’t tell the architects how to design, but lots of people feel qualified to give input on graphic design – that different treatment always surprises me and can impact on approvals for respective areas of work. Overall, I am keen to move to a place where we can structure conversations around design work in a rigorous way to best judge whether design proposals and details are successful. If we can frame the context of how to respond to work then perhaps that might be useful. Ideally, I’d like to ban the phrase ‘I do not like’! An ideal place to get to would be that people push, prod and critique the work but then ultimately trust us to balance all the competing factors to arrive in the right place.

IHALC: Do you miss pitching and the highs and lows it brings?
EM: We actually do quite a lot of concept presentations and pitching of ideas but it’s definitely not the same as competitive pitching to win work. I’d love to do more of that next level romance and seduction in our presentations and pitches because I know from my time at Heatherwick how special that can be, but we sadly don’t have the luxury of time. The great upside is that we have very little redundant work and almost everything we design actually happens. Almost every project gets built/made and so you’re not stuck just repeating the concept stage over and over with lots of work ending up on the shelf.

Bags: Inside Out exhibition 2020 (reopening 19 May 2021). Exhibition design by Mutt, graphic design by V&A design studio, lighting design by ZNA. Image: Simon Kennedy

IHALC: How does data inform what you do?
EM: The museum does gather visitor exit data, but in design terms it’s usually generic, anecdotal or unquantifiable and so not that informative but we do get other kinds of input. The studio is in the museum at South Kensington, plus we get to go to our other venues (pre-pandemic) and so I have this phenomenal feedback loop where I can go to a gallery space for a mock-up and see how it feels. I can also walk around the museums and observe how people interact with design and content. If we install something, I can go there and I can watch people enjoy something, ignore something or stumble over something and I find that observational feedback loop incredibly useful.

The one thing that doesn’t help us with is how to connect with people who don’t yet come to the museum but we’ve got a new head of marketing and insight who has come in and is just amazing. She has started to do more audience-facing brand-tracking and insight work and so we’re trying to learn how that will start to inform what we do.

IHALC: What would you say is unique about working at the V&A?
EM: You mean apart from it being the greatest design museum in the world? Joking aside, the thing that’s unique for me is that the work doesn’t stand on its own as discrete projects that go out into the world, but they all sit in the context of this 165-year history. The V&A was here long before me and it will be here long after I’m gone and so I see myself almost as a custodian. For the time that I get to be here, all I can do is try to do good work and not screw it up.

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