Outside the Box: 60 Great Ideas in 60 Minutes

When planning your next exhibit or program, hold a ‘town hall’ or roundtable event with your targeted audience and ask them, ‘Why do you like to play? How do you like to learn?’ Results are often beautiful and authentic and may help guide your design and content development.

-- Jo Haas, Kentucky Science Center

Got a puppy?

Help him (or her) tell you when it’s time to go. 

Hang a short string of bells on the front and back doors. Every time you take the dog out to do their business, ring the bells and lead them outside with a treat. Once they are successful in the yard, reward them with the treat.

Your little guy will quickly associate the bells with relieving himself (and a treat) and ring the bells to let you know it’s that time again.

-- Cindy Roth, Principal & Founder at RPM Design+Production

Keep a can of WD-40 in the house to remove permanent marker stains from fabric, furniture, and glass.

-- Jean Burch, Mother of 2

Here at the Exploratorium, we've found this bubble formula to work fairly well in our exhibits.

•                 2/3 cup Dawn dishwashing soap

•                 1 gallon water

•                 2 to 3 tablespoons of glycerine (available at the pharmacy or                   chemical supply house.)

-- Exploratorium

Picking the right type of graphic is important. For graphics made of fabric, ask about the dye-sub method, which involves dying the fabric all the way through. This is the most durable and easy to clean.

For outdoor banners, bus and vehicle wraps, or window graphics, go with UV printing for lasting and vibrant colors.

-- John Stein, Moss Retail & Environments

When you’re brainstorming, don't waste paper. Install a full wall of dry erase board or a painted chalk board for all your ideas. Photograph your progress at the end of the day, then start fresh the next morning.

-- John Stein, Moss Retail & Environments

One thing I have never been very impressed with is the speaker volume on my iPhone. It's nothing more than a whisper if there is any surrounding noise. It becomes impossible to hear if I set up an audiobook and hop in the shower. So I have been grabbing a plastic cup and throwing it in there (speaker-side down). The cup serves as an amplifier and increases the volume by about 200%. Not necessarily the best sound quality through this method but more than sufficient for spoken word. My thought was that someone could market a bathroom cup specifically designed to be used for an iPhone while getting ready in the morning. The materials and design of the cup could be designed to provide better quality audio. And it doesn’t have to add clutter to the bathroom counter top. Just use it as a water glass and it does double duty.

-- Garrett Bowhall, Owner at GD Squared

Overwhelmed by email messages? Treat your email like a physical mailbox and touch each message just once: Act on it, reply to it, forward it or trash it. Emails tend to multiply like rabbits, so keep them at bay.

-- Todd Buckton, management consultant

Always ask yourself: how can my museum or organization ‘give back’? Organize a trip to the local animal shelter with your staff. Offer quilting classes to the public, then give the blankets away to a homeless shelter. Helping others is the quickest way to refresh and regroup.

-- Steve Hemphill, Scenic Artist

Looking to bring new guests into your historical home? Host ‘period dance’ lessons after hours. Provide hats or costumes and period-appropriate refreshments. Helping your guests step back in time inside your space may help them develop strong emotional attachments to your museum itself.

-- Despi Ross, Museum Playbook

Small budget for your next exhibit? You probably have more money than you think you do. Choose simple graphics, design modular pieces with flexibility to maximize your possibilities, and consider building in phases to stretch your budget over time.

-- Chicago Scenic Studios

Want to boost your numbers and reach more people? Try creating an exhibit for a group outside of your main audience. For example, if you’re a children’s museum, create an exhibit specifically for adults! Or, if you’re a science or history museum, create space just for kids.

-- Missouri History Museum

Introduce fine art to your guests at any and every opportunity. Think nature photography in weather exhibits. Fine art portraiture in science centers. Modern art in children’s museums.

-- Diane Langhorst, Great Ideas Woman

Hate installing holiday lights every year? Consider using RGB lighting. With easy color changes, you can celebrate holidays all year long and NEVER take lights down in January again.

-- Jean Burch, Project Manager

Instead of buying a cake every time someone has a birthday, celebrate the month’s birthdays altogether. Saves money and creates a feeling of intimacy within your team.

-- Steve Hemphill, Scenic Artist

Age gracefully. Be yourself wherever you are in life's journey. Forget about recapturing your youth. Enjoy the wisdom of ages and the respect that comes with maturity.

-- Don Crawford, Sales Manager at Shickel Corporation

Convincing museum visitors to look at a work of art for more than a few seconds can be a real challenge. Visitors are not sure exactly what they are supposed to be looking at or they lack a personal connection with the work. Capture that emotional power and build a replica of the painting, allowing visitors to recreate the scene (and bring their emotional stories with them). Include signage that prompts visitors to take a specific role in the painting and prepare for it by carefully studying what’s happening in the picture. By preparing emotionally for the “role”, they will assess what the painting means to them – what’s going on in the picture – and take their place with purpose.

-- Despi Ross, Museum Playbook/Art Institute of Chicago (‘Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’)

Want to be able to find your files for ongoing faster? Name them using the European method: Year, Month, Day. Many software programs want the month first, but if you have a 5-year project and all the "Januarys" and "Februarys" from multiple years group together, it's confusing. Why the YYMMDD method has not become standard in North America remains a mystery!

-- Craig Francis, Creative Director of Kidoons Network

Want to reach more of your community? Offer programs and events for special needs individuals. ADA compliance is just step one – by designing events specifically for people with hearing, sight, or developmental conditions, you’re meeting their specific needs and learning techniques.

-- Heather Little, Early Childhood Educator

In the midst of a busy season? Have a week-long event that’s stressing you out? Plan a little party for your staff to blow off some steam and re-energize. Games, wine, a summer cocktail – whatever it takes to get your group laughing.

-- Steve Hemphill, Scenic Artist

I use bread bag tabs to label the cords plugged into my power strip.

-- Julie Govert, Exhibit Developer at The Bakken Museum

Want to attract new groups of people to your museum? Host events targeted to a different age group. At Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, adults flock to nerf gun night. In between nerf shots, they drink shots.

-- Betty Brinn Children’s Museum

If you’re living on a budget, walk to the grocery store. If you only buy what you can carry home, you’ll learn to make smarter decisions as you walk down the aisles.

-- Katelyn, Student on a Budget

Keep your fork. At the end of the meal when they come to clear away your place. Always keep your fork. The next course is dessert. You never want to miss the celebration that follows good work.

-- Don Crawford, Sales Manager at Shickel Corporation

Want to increase the emotional impact of your exhibit? Work with actual artists as well as your exhibit designers. Dancers in the performance space, artwork interpreting the same topic, creative storytelling onscreen or live for an audience, or musicians in the hall help bring the topic to life in different ways. It also engages different areas of the brain and provides different types of use and outreach for your site.

-- Craig Francis, Creative Director of Kidoons Network

Line clear plastic plates and cups with colored tissue paper. Place them on a light table and let the fun begin as visitors place a blue cup into a yellow cup or a yellow plate on top of a red one.

For a more durable and reusable exhibit, laminate pieces of tissue paper to lay on the table as a mat.  This creates an engaging, colorful and eye catching exhibit.

-- Karen, Kentucky Science Center

Don’t be discouraged if you have a big idea but a small space.

Think vertically instead of horizontally. Put empty wall space to work and add color to a tight space.

Create pocket parks! Fit a small play area in a corner or hallway. It provides the opportunity for quiet play.

Get curvy! Curves maximize play space and the number of guests that can gather around an interactive.

-- Children’s Museum of Illinois, NASA Glenn Science Center, Chicago Children’s Museum

When traveling via airplane, always bring fruit, granola bars, nuts, or even sandwiches in your carry-on. These items are sure to get past security and they save your dollars for that pre-flight martini at the fancy bar. (On that note – throw an empty water bottle into your bag, as well. Most airports are now equipped with water fountains specifically designed for water bottles, and the money you save on that Dasani will buy your new friend at the bar a martini.)

-- Katelyn, Writing Student

Create your meal plan for the week before you go grocery shopping and you’ll save money. You’ll also save time and stress when it’s time to cook dinner each evening.

-- Dana Barber, Project Manager

Need a way to keep your audience’s attention during your next presentation? Take a break in the middle to do group jumping jacks, sing a rousing rendition of (insert song here), play an old school game, or any other silly activity that’ll get people moving and talking.

-- Diane Langhorst, Marketing Director

Have you ever noticed that some pieces of furniture are simply not built to the proportions of an average human? Do your feet hang off the end of bed? Or, do your feet dangle when you sit on a couch? Why not address these issues with a line of furniture that is built to the scale of a large (or small) modern human?

-- Garrett Bowhall, Owner at GD Squared

Identify your museum’s key touch points and then include them on a visitor experience map. Be sure to include that online, too!

-- Despi Ross, Museum Playbook

Donors contribute to museums for all sorts of reasons and these motivations range from the idealistic to practical, but let’s face it: most donors care about how people see them. They give to causes that their friends also care about, go to VIP events to be seen and honored and look up their names in your annual report to see those beautiful words in print.

So, why don’t we just embrace these very human motivators and provide some new donor benefits that will satisfy these needs? Imagine it: A dedicated staffer who works with your highest tier donors (or those who are upwardly mobile in your donor lifecycle) to provide some unique brand management services, like developing an online persona, personalized media relations, social media content, and drafted email blasts to share their successes. Just think about it. What if your personal brand manager was so good that people gave your museum money just to get time with her? (Or him?) If you do it right, it could happen.

-- Despi Ross, Museum Playbook

Here’s how I work smarter…

If I’m writing, need to stay focused, or am on a deadline, I DO NOT open Outlook (or whatever the email system is).  Emails will only distract, and if something is that important, someone will call me.

-- Julie Govert, Exhibit Developer at The Bakken Museum

When traveling, take a picture of your parking spot at the airport (or drop a GPS pin), then forget about it until you return. Precious time can be wasted at 10pm looking for your car in F4 when it’s in F3. And when you think you’re close? Use your electronic key fob to unlock, then lock your car again. When it locks, it will honk.

Let your car tell you where it is.

-- Todd Buckton, management consultant

Before you head to the airport, make a reservation for a massage immediately after the show. Knowing you’re going to take care of you after the show will get you through many rubber chicken keynote dinners and mindless chatter.

-- Todd Buckton, management consultant

People love swag. Provide small trinkets to remind guests of their experience and keep them coming back for more. Keep it simple and free – and a separate space from the gift shop.

-- Steve Hemphill, Scenic Artist

Next time you host an event with tip jars, make them duel! Batman versus Spiderman, Nicolas Cage versus Russell Crowe, cats versus dogs. Give people one more reason to drop a dollar (or two) in a jar. Present them with a choice (two jars) and they’re likely to give a bigger tip or even double their donation.

-- Despi Ross, Museum Playbook

Listen more. Talk less. This idea works well in business and personal relationships. Use active listening techniques. Rephrase what you heard to be sure you got it. This also makes others feel heard.

-- Don Crawford, Sales Manager at Shickel Corporation

Build a stronger team, create empathy and understanding by having various company departments deliver a visual presentation about their area of focus, their core competencies, challenges and solutions. Include a common challenge, present it to the group, and see how they would solve it.

This is a great teambuilding exercise and provides a new level of appreciation for your colleagues. (I once did this and served strawberry shortcake to make my point. The shortcake represented one department, the strawberries were another, and my department was the whipping cream). Who doesn’t love a dessert metaphor!

-- Barbara Axelson, Freelance Writer & Editor

Design the lighting and audio in a space first and the rest of the design will fall into place much more easily.  It makes the whole process less expensive and more integrated.

-- EB Dangerfield, AVI Systems

Want to break the ice at team-building or social events? Provide a basket of puppets – yes puppets!  More puppets than people, and of all types. Not only do you gain insight by which characters people choose, people will be bolder and speak more truths out of the mouth of the puppet than they will out of their own mouths. Every time.

-- Craig Francis, Creative Director of Kidoons Network

Create an online museum industry ‘help wanted’ board where independent artists/fabricators can search for projects (posted by museums or businesses that serve them) that fit their skill sets.

-- Michael Holland, Michael Holland Productions

Introduce the ‘FISH’ concept to your staff. This idea comes from Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, where fishmongers literally ‘throw the fish’ to rousing applause from the audience. The concept centers around a positive, energetic, playful work environment and follows these core practices: choose your attitude, be there, make their day, and play.

Host a workshop or event with exercises devoted to these core principles. Or – if you’ve got some extra cash lying around – head to Seattle and see how it all began!

-- Arlene Hawks, Executive Director at SciTech Hands on Museum

Use the phone: If it takes more than 5 sentences, delete the email and pick up the phone. Or better yet, go see that person. It’s amazing how much can get done when you talk to people in real time.

-- Todd Buckton, management consultant

Shouldn’t someone develop an app that allows us to take our heroes’ influence with us during the day in the form of quotes and even horoscopic type of advice? Large databases could archive information on the world's influential leaders and parse it out into usable chunks that people could read while they're going about their lives. For example, a mobile phone app could post notifications to your device on a timed or random basis that serve up inspirational quotes from your heroes. You could pull wiki pages on these heroes, read extended information and discover more about how to apply their wisdom to everyday life. Fun Q/A could be compared and help you chose the right course of action in the moment.

-- Garrett Bowhall, Owner at GD Squared

How can you put everyday items to unusual uses? Here’s an idea: got a big planter to fill? Instead of filling the whole thing with dirt, try something different. Visit your local dollar/discount store and buy cheap whiffle balls. Fill the planter with the balls – about two-thirds full – then top off with the soil and plants.

-- Marlena Cannon, Freelance Marketing Professional

Commit yourself to helping others. Don’t go in looking to sell, go in looking to help. It can be as simple as a restaurant recommendation or a book suggestion. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with what you do or sell. But it connects in ways that a pitch cannot. Then follow up with that contact in the same way: go in looking to help. 

-- Todd Buckton, management consultant

This idea might skew young, but I love turning a driveway into a giant game board. We use chalk to draw a path big enough to stand in. The players add bonus spaces, traps, and challenges. Then we pass the spinner or dice to move through. Since it's drawn with chalk, the game can, and often does, change as you play. Try human-sized Monopoly for adults!

-- Sharon Bilman, MonkeyBar Collective

Need an icebreaker for your next group brainstorming meeting? Buy some easy origami books and paper. Nothing gets a group talking and laughing faster.

-- Diane Langhorst, Marketing Director

Need to keep the kids busy? Try this three ingredient recipe for sand!


Corn Starch

Baby oil

•       Optional: 1 cup or 2 cups of white sand for grit

Mix desired amount of flour, package of corn starch, and enough baby oil so that when you are mixing it; you can make a lump in your hands. Add sand for grit.

-- Rachel at the Kentucky Science Center

Replace the tired team seated dinner with a hands on cooking class.  Even the most inexperienced cooks enjoy the camaraderie involved with prepping and enjoying the team meal.

--Randy Stancik, General Manager at the Willis Tower/Skydeck Chicago

Home automation is starting to become ubiquitous. Automated home lighting systems, such as Philips Hue product line with its App, allow users to control their lights from almost anywhere on the planet. It’s very compelling technology and the only time you need to be in the dark is when you want to be.

-- EB  Dangerfield, AVI Systems

If you’re walking for exercise, make sure you’re doing it right. Flex your abdominal muscles and adjust your speed as you walk from block to block. The goofier you feel doing it, the more you’re engaging your core. Like this!

-- Katelyn, Marketing Assistant

Want to work on bettering your overall health while sitting at your desk? Sit on an exercise ball! It allows you to get in some abdominal exercises throughout your work day, it forces you to pay attention to your posture, and it’s fun! TIP: Don’t try to sit on it all day your first week. Start with an hour or so a day and build your way up. I learned the hard way and somehow managed to pinch a nerve and I’m no doctor, but I’m guessing it was from my new “chair”.

-- Katherine Lathrop, MAD Systems

Since I’m a “squeeze from the middle” toothpaste person, by the time I get to the end (or even halfway), it gets a little tricky.  So I roll it up and use a binder clip to secure.  Then I can still squeeze from the middle of a shorter tube.

-- Julie Govert, Exhibit Developer at The Bakken Museum

If you’re looking to create tactile experiences, go beyond touch. Create fully immersive exhibits that engage all senses and allow for optimum engagement.

-- Kentucky Science Center

Hair products should include sunscreen so that your scalp is protected from the sun.

-- Jean Burch, Project Manager

Texturize your play tables and racecar tracks with inexpensive materials that provide unique learning opportunities to children. Allow kids to experiment with different surfaces and the effect each has on a particular object.

-- Chicago Children’s Museum

Morning Calisthenics – Gather your team before the day starts for a quick stretch session and to discuss the day’s priorities. Let’s show you what we mean! (DO THE STRETCHES)

-- Steve Hemphill, Scenic Artist

Outside the Box: 60 Great Ideas in 60 Minutes