May 3, 2009

The Lincoln Memorial and Designing the User Experience

Image credit: Obama Inaugural “We Are One” Concert by Dale Sundstrom, Flickr

Born in February 1809, Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, inspired many memorials. One of the most popular is the celebrated Lincoln Memorial, dedicated on May 30, 1922, and located in Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting “Designing the Lincoln Memorial: Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon.” It offers some inspiring input for designing the user experience:

Make a draft
The sculptor French made a plaster model to help inform the memorial’s volume and scale. Whether it’s a paper prototype or a virtual prototype done in pixels, iteration puts rigor into the design process. More questions will arise than be answered, but that’s a draft’s essential purpose: To question everything.

Take license
Though French studied fellow sculptor Leonard Volk’s 1860 castings made of Lincoln’s hands when he was alive, French decided not to be faithful to them. He felt that their clenched gesture was inappropriate. Instead, French referred to his own hands, which he cast and positioned on the chair. While being faithful to the source material is a noble aspiration, any given creative endeavor may demand a different approach. French’s move not to use the original casting is a reminder that it’s wise to take an interpretive stand.

Have a soundboard
French worked with architect Henry Bacon, who designed the Parthenon-inspired temple in which Lincoln sits. It was reported that the two wrestled with the factor of size throughout the eight years of their project collaboration. In addition to engaging oneself as a creative soundboard in wrestling with a problem and solving it, or transforming an idea, it’s equally crucial to clarify your ideas with others. The interaction can lead to new and more informed outcomes.

The result of the two collaborators’ debates and efforts was a monument composed with a variety of stones—from Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama and Georgia. From conception to carving, these raw materials were unified into a cohesive user experience.