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Interview with Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design Museum London

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Helen Charman, Head of Learning at the Design Museum in London. Helen’s role is to develop and oversee formal and informal learning programs at London’s museum of international contemporary design.

You can follow the work of Helen and the Learning Team on their recently launched blog, Designerly Learning, a shared space for cultural learning peers, design educators, and all who share an interest in the role and value of design education in the museum context.

Helen-Charman-DV-awardsIt’s an exciting time for Helen and her team, as the Design Museum is moving to a new home on London’s Kensington High Street in 2015. With expanded exhibition spaces and improved educational facilities, the new museum will be the world’s leading museum of contemporary design and architecture and a creative hub promoting innovation and nurturing the next generation of design talent.

Q: Helen, welcome, and thanks for talking with me! Can you tell us more about yourself and the Design Museum?

A: Thank you for inviting me! Well, I’ve been at design museum for seven years. My role is Head of Learning and I’m part of the management team. We are undergoing a huge transition now as we prepare for our new home opening in late 2015. The museum is growing up into full adulthood!

At the heart of the Design Museum is the drive to enrich lives through the value of design. Design has an impact on everyday life. We want to promote critical engagement with design, and model the ways that designers think and work.

We all live in the made word. We are all inhabitants and consumers. Our goal at the Design Museum is to bridge the worlds of formal learning and professional practice. We are a connecting hub, a meeting place, and a thinking space.

Q: Can you talk about how you use design processes and methods internally?

A: In the Learning department, we always think beta. For us, developing new programs is a cyclical process of explore, experiment, and evolve. We’ll have lots of pilot programs over the few years leading up to opening of the new building

We work on a [design] brief approach. We always have practitioners involved at an early stage in our process. We want them to help us understand the opportunity, the problem, and then look at it from a variety of perspectives.

We often try to consider the “anti-plan”: what would this look like if you put it on its head? For example, what does the “flipped museum” look like? We have the notion of the “flipped classroom”—what does the “flipped museum” look like? This is about turning assumptions upside down and asking questions like, “Do we need to have objects in our Learning programs?”

For example, we were working with students at the Royal College of Art in the Master’s program in Service Design. The students wanted to have an interactive exhibit. I said, let’s do an event instead. We needed to challenge some of the assumptions. Why does this have to be an exhibition?

Another key point of all of this is empathy. Right now, empathy is quite in vogue. When we first did our brief for Discover Design [an online portal for teachers and students] about five years ago, one of things that went into the brief was that we wanted a resource that fostered empathy between learners and the museum before learners came to the museum. What if we laid some connections in advance? How might we create empathy with our learners? Learning happens when you can create that deep connection and can develop some points of familiarity.

Q: What is something you are working on right now that you are excited about?

A: I’m most excited about the new museum. We currently have a learning studio that is 90 square meters with no lunch area and no natural daylight, and we just can’t meet the demands with our current space. In the new museum, we’ll have 486 square meters of learning space!

In the short term, I’m excited about the upcoming relaunch of Discover Design. It’s based upon our philosophy of modeling the way designers think and work within the unique context of the Design Museum as a site for learning.

This site tackles the question: how do you promote the creative thinking involved in design? How do you teach creativity informed by rigor? The new Discover Design site will contain prompts for discussion around the why and the how, not the what.

When you exhibit design you want to unpack the why and the how. Why does this object exist? What problem presented itself for this idea?

We’re examining the pebble in the pond and its concentric circles. Designers create affect and effect. It’s all about agency. That’s why it’s such an exciting field!



  1. I’d like to see empathy treated as a fulcrum around which design revolves. Having worked with so many museums and other cultural projects, I know that beginning with empathy and allowing it to infuse everything that follows can lead to wondrous results.

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