The science of design

Having helped take the V&A into new territories as its Head of Design, Annabel Judd is now using her talents to reinvigorate the Science Museum Group. She talks to Mark Sinclair about her journey so far

Annabel Judd is just seven months into her role as Masterplan Project Director of the Science Museum Group, but given the nature of the job she is already looking far ahead to the future. Next year will see the fruits of her first major initiative in the opening of the London museum’s new lecture theatre, while also on the horizon is the London Science City gallery and the new suite of Medical Galleries, set to open in 2019. At the same time, Judd’s role involves overseeing projects at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the National Media Museum in Bradford, where a new interactive gallery will open in March next year. There is, it’s safe to say, a lot going on.

Earlier this month saw the launch of the Science Museum’s new Winton Gallery, the Zaha Hadid-designed space dedicated to mathematics, while in October the innovative Wonderlab area was unveiled – designed by Muf, a practice much-admired by Judd. While both projects were conceived and developed before she came to the museum in May 2016, they represent the direction that Judd will no doubt look to maintain.

An exhibit at the science museum
A young visitor is reflected inside the Infinity Boxes exhibit © Plastiques Photography

Judd trained as an architect at the University of Edinburgh and The Bartlett in London before taking her first job at Michael Hopkins & Partners in 1994. “I’m a spatial designer, I’m interested in how a space feels and how you experience it, but also in the detailing of the space as well,” she says. “I put that [down] to working with Hopkins – [they] taught me to look at everything from the macro to the micro.” This approach was honed further by her time at Ralph Appelbaum Associates and directly informed how she engaged with the V&A’s extensive public programme as its Head of Design from 2006 until 2016.

If you look at my career path, it’s not linear. And that’s kind of like me; I just like getting involved in different things.

The V&A role was varied, encompassing everything from the design and delivery of exhibitions, galleries, shops and cafés, to ensuring that the graphic material created by the in-house  team was of a similar high quality. Acclaimed shows such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and David Bowie Is… helped to define what the V&A is today – just under half a million people visited the McQueen show, while the Bowie exhibition became the V&A’s most visited show to date.

Installation view of Romantic Naturalism gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A
Installation view of Romantic Naturalism gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A

According to Judd, when she was working as an architect friends would sometimes tell her that she wasn’t working for the kind of practices that suited her way of thinking – so “I sidestepped,” she says. “If you look at my career path, it’s not linear. And that’s kind of [like] me; I just like getting involved in different things.” Exhibitions was an area that offered Judd the imaginative space she needed. “Exhibition design is delivering content, delivering messages,” she says. “You’re creating a narrative environment – so you’ve got to understand the story and create different mechanisms to be able to tell that story.”

While architecture can engender a sense of narrative on its own, she says, it’s only with the addition of writers, graphic designers, audio/visual consultants and other specialists that a curatorial vision can be fully achieved. And when she came to the V&A, Judd says that the institution was already changing: Mark Jones had recently become its Director and the late Moira Gemmill was overseeing its ‘Futureplan’ – a movement “to reinvigorate the museum, kind of peel it back”. During her decade there, Judd was to become an integral part of its redevelopment and renewed success. “Under Mark and Moira it became a very cool place,” she says.

Installation shot of David Bowie is at the V&A, courtesy David Bowie Archive, V&A Museum London
Installation shot of David Bowie is at the V&A, courtesy David Bowie Archive, V&A Museum London

A year-and-a-half into the job Judd left to have her third child and returned with a broader remit in mind that would take her influence beyond the delivery of the temporary displays and associated marketing and learning materials. “More of an individual role came out of this in [terms of] delivering the Futureplan,” she says. “There was this massive programme of work that they wanted to build up.”

We’d work with interior designers, theatre designers, window dressers, depending on what we were looking for. The advantage of the V&A is that it’s a very experienced client

With show preparations beginning as much as four years in advance of opening, Judd says her team’s input would usually start with 18 months left to go. One of the highlights of the role was “looking at potential designers who have synergy with that particular content and who [were] doing interesting work; I loved doing that,” she says. “All our projects were tendered – [it’s] public money, that’s the way it works and should work.” Five designers would normally pitch for a job and the successful studio would generally be led by a 3D team. “I’d always ask them to appoint the 2D designer because you get a much better coordinated project,” says Judd. “[We’d work with] interior designers, theatre designers, window dressers, depending on what we were looking for. The advantage of the V&A is that it’s a very experienced client – they knew where to help a team.”

images of the newly unveiled Winton Gallery, dedicated to mathematics and designed by Zaha Hadid. Photography by Luke Hayes
images of the newly unveiled Winton Gallery, dedicated to mathematics and designed by Zaha Hadid. Photography by Luke Hayes

Judd cites the key aspects of a good exhibition team as one that communicates well and isn’t bound up in making design statements over and above the content or show narrative. When curatorial briefs were sent over (containing the loan requirements, object lists and a sense of the ‘story’), she would ensure they were adapted for a design team and any “direct design references” were removed so they could work without any preconceived direction. Being “brave” is also a vital part of the process. “People are incredibly risk-averse,” she says, yet success comes from “being able to take risks … because you’re trusting each other”.

People are incredibly risk-averse, yet success comes from being able to take risks … because you’re trusting each other

The beginnings of the V&A and the Science Museum are intertwined – their collections both came out of the same institution at the turn of the last century. Yet while both places aim to inspire and tell the stories of some of world’s greatest contributions to art and science, how has she negotiated the transition from design and visual culture to technology, machines and industry? “I don’t see a big disjuncture between the two at all,” she says. “Everything is designed, [though people] just might not think of it that way. There’s a drive at the Science Museum for everything to be well-designed now and have a broader reach as an institution to attract different types of people. Science, tech and design are, to me, one and the same.”

V&A Dundee,
V&A Museum of Design in Dundee

Such is the long-term nature of Judd’s work that one of her last major V&A projects – the V&A Museum of Design in Dundee – should open when she hits the two-year mark at the Science Museum. By then she’ll no doubt have realised more of her vision in her new home on Exhibition Road, as well as within the Group’s three other major museums. “I’m working in Bradford, helping Manchester do a project,” she says of her schedule. “There are multiple sites – and an energy to create something fantastic.”


Annabel Judd is one of CR’s Creative Leaders 50 which, in partnership with Workfront, celebrates creatives in leadership roles across the creative industries. 

More from CR

How Sonos is changing the way we listen to music

A new generation of ‘smart’ speakers, linked to cloud-based streaming services is changing the way we listen to music. We speak to Tad Toulis, VP of Design at US audio brand Sonos, about designing such experiences

IIASA_115x115

Graphic Designer

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Centaur_115x115

Integrated Designer

Centaur Media