Julia Hoffmann: Thinking Design


What is design thinking? A term that’s tossed around, adopted by businesses, and used by designers. To Julia Hoffmann, it is a process she has never thought about, and for her comforting talk at Morningstar in October for AIGA Chicago’s Design Thinking Event Series, she flipped it, made a pie chart, and demonstrated her innate sensibilities.

When you are designing, you are thinking, and in a perfect world it would be balanced. But the reality is contrary. To Hoffmann, it is problematic if you are thinking too much, and while you can never stop designing, one must be careful to not over-design, “design shouldn’t be so hard.” As a designer’s career progresses, efficiency takes over and designing happens less. Efficiency also comes templated. The current visual language used by MoMA was designed by her former boss, Paula Sher of Pentagram. Within that template, however is complete freedom, and quite honestly, much time is saved when the perfect typeface is already chosen for you. This creates consistency and becomes recognizable in a landscape with many different competing institutions. 

Being in-house means that you might be indirectly responsibly for revenue. At MoMA, this is especially true where the task is converting visitors to members. Hoffmann presented two case studies, a failure and an unexpected success. “I went to MoMA and…” was an experiment as a small card that was handed out to visitors asking people to share their museum experience. After receiving over 10,000 responses, the experiment ballooned to a successful campaign from small-space ads to a website, all the while actively engaging with the public. The failed case study was a perfect example of over-design, and ultimately was scrapped.  

When it comes to her team, she strongly discourages specialization in design. When given an exhibition, the designer works six months in advance, doing everything from the invitation to the title wall. This way one can be truly saturated and flex their muscles across mediums in 2D and 3D space.  

Although, one may romanticize the environment, the magic does not happen in the alluring galleries. She reminds us it occurs in “a regular, midtown office, with low ceilings and cubicles.” Since this is a non-profit organization, there is a great deal of meetings. Depending on how many people are the decision makers, time spent in designer’s purgatory can fluctuate (working with a living artist tends to be easier than working with an artist’s estate). 

“Visitors complete the artwork”, a quote shared by Hoffmann and a notion that is evident in her work and direction. While she is exposed to a never-ending array of art, she has proved herself to be a collected leader, where practicality and experimentation can coexist.  

Julia Hoffmann is the Creative Director of Advertising and Graphic Design at the In-House Design Studio at MoMA. The disclaimer on her personal website is quite wonderful. This was originally written for AIGA Chicago. 

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