QA with Pat Chester, Traveling Exhibition Designer

"Pride & Passion: The African American Baseball Experience" exhibition panels

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of Q&A features highlighting contributors to ALA Public Programs Office traveling exhibitions.

Graphic designer Patricia Chester creates stunning ALA traveling exhibitions, including “Pride and Passion: The African American Baseball Experience”; “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World”; and “Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend.” Her vast portfolio also includes work for the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, the Valentine Museum, and more.

Read on and delve into Pat’s creative process—learn how she works with curators to create a “look” for each exhibit, discover why she loves her iBook, and understand how an ALA traveling exhibit takes shape before it arrives on your library doorstep.

Programming Librarian: You have worked as a graphic designer for a number of ALA traveling exhibitions. Tell us, what exactly does a graphic designer do?

Pat Chester: If you ask six designers this question I’m certain you will get six definitions for graphic design. I look at graphic design as a way to bring organization and visual interest to complex subjects and ideas. I have had the good fortune to design exhibits on a wide variety of topics, from quilts to hot rods. Each time I start a project I get to learn new information and develop a way of visualizing that information for a general audience.

PL: How do you develop a vision and visual style for your exhibition designs? Is it important to keep your intended audience—library communities—in mind as you translate content into traveling panel format?

PC: The audience is always my first consideration. I want to use the best images available with typography that is legible and accessible to an average reader. Curators are so deeply immersed in their topic that they forget to explain key points to those of us who work outside their subject area. It is my job to ensure that we all “get it.”

Once we work out the exhibit content, I design the visual identity of the exhibition. Benjamin Franklin is not baseball, so I want the audience to get a sense of the topic just by looking at the exhibit. Color plays a big role in each exhibit. I spend time testing background colors with type and illustrations to produce the right look for the subject and time period. Now that every production method is computerized I can devote much more time to these choices. In the dark ages before computers we did all our layouts with paper and colored pencils. Presentation of ideas took hours of preparation—I guess it still does, but the results are far more spectacular!

PL: What tools of the trade do you use most? Do you have a favorite piece of hardware, application, or gadget that would be hard to live without?

PC: Why my iMac and iBook of course. I love them more than my washer and dryer and almost as much as my iPhone. The ability to create text and images with such complexity and definition has completely transformed the design world. I can work on a project in stages and make a PDF to send to my client for immediate response. We’re all much happier with that collaborative effort.

I still keep my 18" metal ruler and my 6" architectural scale ruler nearby at all times. Because exhibits are so large, we work in scale on the computer. Our files are designed at half size or quarter size. Intellectually I know that I can view my files at any size on the computer screen, but at least once a day someone will ask to see how big a label or picture is in real life. That is when the rulers come out.

PL: Is there an ALA traveling exhibit that you particularly enjoyed creating? If so, why?

PC: This is the “which child is your favorite” question. I love to work so I enjoyed them all. “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” was particularly engaging for me. Everyone knows the kite, key, and lightning saga. Designing this exhibit gave me a new perspective on all his interests, accomplishments, and rock-star fame for the times.

And, of course, I designed the ALA traveling exhibits featuring King Arthur, Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, and Frankenstein—interesting historical companions all.

PL: Do you have a favorite graphic design book, magazine, or website—or other source of creative inspiration—to recommend?

PC: If I told you that I spend my time reading design theory books I’d be fibbing. I look at everything from Hot Rod Magazine to Architectural Digest and read everything from cookbooks to historical fiction to mystery novels. I know my librarian friends are gasping for air but I think it is important to move outside of your areas of personal interest when you are a designer.

Audio books are my absolute favorite. They combine my childhood memories of storytelling and reading out-loud with the dramatic dialog of the theatre. They also allow me to build my own vision of the time and place of the story. So my only creative advice is look and listen.