Processes are necessary but not enough: How relationship-building and cultural adaptation are at the core of what we do
We often talk about the creative direction or content strategy of our work, but behind the scenes, processes are just as important to our success. Here is a look into the tools and project management strategies that we’ve developed and refined over the years, based on a conversation with veteran GSM Project Director, François Bellehumeur.
Like all exhibition design firms, at GSM Project, we've identified specific project phases and roles to make things run smoothly, from the moment we’re in discussions with a client about a new project to after delivery. These phases are not unique to GSM, but we've adapted them to our needs and tweaked them over the years for best results.
One aspect that you’ll notice in the above graphic (see Table 1) is that our Concept / Design teams are involved from beginning to the end of a project, along with our Production teams. This was not always the case. We used to operate with a hand-off of the project from a Creative Director to a Production Director. We noticed, however, that this often produced a gap in the relationship with the client, a lack of continuity.
Today, we operate as a trio: a Creative Director, Production Director and Project Director are involved from the beginning to the end of the project (see Table 3). Of course, it’s normal that the Concept team will be more involved at the beginning and Production towards the end, but we’re working hand-in-hand to ensure that there’s no break in client’s experience.
Another key consideration is that someone from our business development team will act as a sponsor and continue to follow the project from pitch to delivery, ensuring that there is no breach between promise and reality. This allows for a real institution-to-institution dialogue at a higher level.
Our Process Differentiators
While many phases in our process resemble those at other firms, there are a few which we have refined and we believe, give us a leg up over our competition.
Phase 1: Strategy & Mobilisation
It was not uncommon for us, until about four years ago, to begin developing a creative concept during the first phase of a new project. It’s not that we weren’t doing strategic thinking, but it was bundled up with the creative kick-off. What we started to notice is that this would sometimes result in the creation of a concept that wasn’t exactly what the client needed, requiring us to go back to the drawing board.
Today, before getting into concepts, we take the time to get to know our client and understand how we’re going to work together. It’s not uncommon for the brief that we receive to be part of a request for proposals that was written, months, if not years, earlier. So it’s essential that we go through it and find out how needs or expectations may have evolved. Based on these discussions, we write our own creative brief which we validate with the client, becoming our bible for the remainder of the project.
“It’s so much about human relationship in these projects, understanding stakeholders and their influences and their expectations.”
Phases 3-4: Design and Technical Validation
In Phases 3 and 4 of a project, we’re coming up with a preliminary, then detailed design concept. Where we may differ from other design firms is that our production teams are intimately involved in these stages. Because we’re a multidisciplinary studio often working on turnkey projects with many specialists, including both in-house and external suppliers, we want them to be implicated as early on as possible.
“There’s a dialogue between clients with realistic figures behind it, not just great concepts. It doesn’t serve the client to come up with an amazing design that they can’t afford.”
In doing so, we learn the importance of technical and budgetary feasibility. We put more emphasis on the how: what needs to be validated, prototyping, validating with suppliers also to ensure the feasibility of the ideas, resulting in a much smoother production phase.
Phase 8: Post-Opening Support
As experienced exhibition operators, we know that our job doesn't end the day an exhibit opens to the public. The end of a design project is always the beginning of an operations project for the client.
“When we’re done, we have a drink at a launch event and everyone is happy. But then the real work for the client begins, they have a new exhibit that they need to live with it to bring visitors to. It’s important that they understand that we’re still around to help them.”
There are two aspects to this. In a turnkey project, for example, we typically offer a 1-year warranty on anything that we’ve designed, whether it’s to repair any snags or adjust anything that wasn’t properly designed or produced. This is pretty standard across all design firms. We then take it a step further, making ourselves available to support the client’s needs, whether it’s augmenting or improving an installation, or executing formative visitor evaluations. After all, an exhibit is always going to be a prototype of sorts, it’s never “done”. So when a client has the funds to improve and adapt the exhibition as it evolves, we love to be part of it.
Common Process Challenges & Solutions
The most significant and frequent challenge that we face on our projects is a misalignment of culture. We’re not talking about geographical or linguistic differences here (although these do exist), but about institutional culture. How does a particular museum or institution work? Who are the stakeholders? Are governance and approval channels clear, i.e. who makes the creative and budgetary decisions? It’s not uncommon at the outset that the client needs to figure this out just as much as we do.
A proper Strategic Phase 1 and client buy-in to the Creative Brief is essential to mitigating any cultural difficulties that may arise. Since most of our clients are for one-off multi-year projects, as opposed to recurring smaller ones, there’s only one chance to get it right. We really aim to seek clarity in proposing and discussing work processes upfront. This doesn’t happen in a single meeting — so much lies in building understanding and human relationships. In this way, when a difference of opinion or confusion arises, as they inevitably do, we have a framework for discussion within which to address it.
“We have processes and phases and names, but every project has its own specificity that you can't put in a box. We don’t have a rigid method to create a rigid outcome. We structure the work of course, but we adapt to client’s culture as much as possible.”
Our clients often comment on our transparency and open-mindedness when working together. At the end of the day, our methodology is made to serve the project, not to bolster our portfolio. We’re not showing up with “the truth”, but rather with a system to create a design that meets the needs at hand. We’re known to be approachable, aiming to reduce barriers as much as possible with our clients. We believe this not only results in better projects, but is a more pleasant way to work!
As we grow and continue to work on a range of projects, be they museum exhibitions, branded experiences or observation towers across Asia, Europe and the Americas, these processes will surely evolve. Whereas in the West, for example, a museum exhibition design may take place over the course of two or three years, in Asia and the Middle East, we’ve learned that timelines are often shorter. Our flexibility to work in new ways, adapting our processes to new situations and cultures, is therefore crucial to our continued success.
In the long run, these are simply tools. The maxim often attributed to the late business management guru Peter Drucker “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” rings true. Cultural understanding helps so much more than a flowchart showing who’s doing what when. If we continue to focus on human relationships and building trust — knowing who is on the other side of the table and what their real motivations are, then we believe that we’ll always be one step ahead.