The Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus had its official grand opening Friday, November 20th, 2015.  As we look back to when we started the project on December 12, 2008 (yes, nearly seven years ago) one of the more memorable moments was the selection of the design team. In Part 1 of this two-part blog, we will focus on the submitted design proposals.

Upon being hired to serve as Owner Representative, we met with the staff and toured the Museum. We quickly picked up on the culture of the facility and staff – everything they do is with the end goal of providing children opportunities to learning through play. When it came time to generate the architectural design RFP for the expansion and addition of this prized community facility, the client communicated that it was imperative that the design firm selected not only be capable of designing a beautiful facility, but they must demonstrate that they are in tune with children and how they interact and think. To help the client achieve this goal, we generated an RFP with questions that went beyond the typical “how many have you done” mentality. By creating a list of submittal requirements unique to the Children’s Museum, we felt we could vet out the teams that would be the best cultural matches. Below are a few examples of the questions asked, along with the submitting design firms’ responses:

Q: Submit a top-five list of what you feel would be the best exhibits to have in the Museum.

A: Some of the best responses:
– Build your own Platte River
– Soundscapes: light and sound interaction
– Take V – TV Studio
– Mad scientist laboratory
– Bubbles (“hey, you asked us – we know you love’em, but most people tell us that they can be a managerial nightmare”)

Less well-received responses:
– Exhibits that offer no right answer, so adults and kids are on equal footing for exploration
– Allow visitors to extract different kinds of information from the same exhibit
– Exhibits that allow multiple kids to engage with it at the same time, supporting collaborative play
– Opportunities for kids experience real stuff – water, dirt, leaves, and rocks
– Exhibits that offer opportunities to make connections between experiences and outcomes

You may be asking why some of these are good or not as good and, again, it comes down to a “good match.”  We found with this client, that the educational-described responses fell short of the more light-hearted, creative ideas. The client was the expert and didn’t really need an education on the fundamentals of learning-through-play. In general, it follows suit with the philosophy of answering any RFP question – be creative and specific when possible.

Q: Submit a top-five list of what you feel would be the worst exhibits in the Museum:

A: Some of the best-received responses:
– The Economic Bailout: purchase a failed mortgage securities firm with face money!
– Fun with drug-resistant bacterial cultures
– The history of spanking
– Prison life: Scared Straight
– Time Management: the seven principles of highly effective kindergartners
– Historic China dolls of Colorado – a looking glass
– Video Wall – watch video of other kids playing around the world
– Still Frame – see how long you can sit still without moving or making noise
– Things your mom won’t let you do at home, like, draw on walls, break dishes and jump on your bed

Less well-received responses:
– Exhibits delivered by an intermediary “Mickey Mouse takes you to the fire station”
– Exhibits that have prescriptive instructions
– Exhibits that deliver unvarying preprogrammed responses at the push of a button
– Exhibits that require kids to line up
– Exhibits that focus on right answers
– Exhibits that offer finished environments in which the visitor is a consumer of an experience, rather than a collaborator or co-creator

Again, we found, with this client, that the educational-perspective responses fell short of the more light-hearted ideas.

Q: List the top three things you hope patrons say after spending a day at the newly expanded CMD?

A: Some of the best:

– That was cool! Can we do it again?
– The Children’s Museum is different every time we come!
– The Children’s Museum is much bigger than I thought it was.
– Hey! Look what I made!
– Check this out…cool!
– We are definitely becoming members.
– I need a nap.
– Do we have to leave?

Q: List the top three things you hope patrons would NOT say after spending a day at the newly expanded CMD?

A: Some of the best:
– Let’s get outta here!
– Mom, I can’t get this stuff off my hands!
– Why are your feet swollen?
– Let’s go somewhere else next time.

The ”Not as good” responses to these questions (not listed) were found to be too negative, while the better ones, while still answering the question of what you don’t want people to say, evoked humor.  Consider generating positive responses whenever possible.

Q: In your best child’s hand, generate a drawing of your experience after visiting the new Museum.  (It should be noted that many teams cheated and had their children do the drawings, which, in the end, wasn’t a bad thing).

These were not weighted heavily in the selection but did provide some insight into the submitting companies. The drawing with the flag must be a five-year-old prodigy.

Some other proposal ideas that resonated with the client, make cultural connections:
– A proposal designed as a coloring book was very clever
– Use of childhood pictures on resumes. The Museum’s employee name badges featured a childhood photo as well as the President of the Board’s framed photo of himself at age 10 in the administration office.
– Fun fonts and creative doodling. The hand-drawn effect was reflective of the fact that the Children’s Museum does not offer exhibits with computers.
– Proposals were delivered in creative packaging with crayons, in a bucket of sand, and other thoughtful ideas.

Incorporating the client’s culture into the RFP process, allowed the selection committee members to gain a feel for which teams can speak their language, in addition to designing a successful facility. The short-listed firms were chosen because their proposals communicated and embraced the Museum’s mission.

Paul Wember, President