I received a surprising email last week, which has a great story behind it... In February I wrote ‘Meet the Explainer’ after attending a Bubble Show at The Science Museum, I loved the idea of someone having the job title ‘Explainer’ and I wrote about the parallels between the roles of an Explainer and a Designer, here’s the original post

At the time of writing, I didn’t know David’s full name and certainly didn’t expect him to eventually read the article! Well, some keen googlers at the Science Museum found my post and passed it on to him. Excitingly, David got in touch last week to discuss some of the points I had raised, so I asked him if he would like to write a response on The Usual Studio’s blog and he happily agreed.

David Houston, Learning Producer at the Design Museum during #MuseumWeek.

David Houston, Learning Producer at the Design Museum during #MuseumWeek.

Guest post by David Houston, Learning Producer at the Design Museum and part-time Explainer at the Science Museum...

"I was very touched to find that the show had an impact… and also that my job title had caused so much further thought. I've shared your article around the Science Museum's learning department because it's a great exploration of the word. Personally, I feel the my job title ‘Explainer' misses the mark of the actual role, I often describe it as 'learning facilitation' because a good education experience should come from discovery. There's plenty of great research to show that we invest more and remember the experience if we make the discovery ourselves. As such, our role is to gently guide people to that discovery.

There’s plenty of great research to show that we invest more and remember the experience if we make the discovery ourselves.

Charlee complimented the aforementioned Explainer job title and recommended it feature highly on my CV (it's on there Charlee!)… and it’s caused some interesting conversations. I once had to give it as my occupation when entering New Zealand and was met with a very stern official who quizzed me; ‘An 'Explainer' - what does that mean?’, ‘I work in a museum and we facilitate young people’s learning through play and discovery…’ The irony was not lost on me.

Here’s where the problem with the job title comes; we’re not there to just tell everyone the answers. We’re there to excite both young minds and those who remember dreary science lessons at school, into wanting to question and explore their world further. We’re not trying to get a scientific formula into people’s heads or getting them to memorise the theory of relativity. We’re getting them to pick apart their own questions; when a child asks ‘why?’ we’ll ask ‘what do you think? Is there something different? Can we test it? Can we change it and try it differently?’ We want to enable them to pick apart and unpack the question, observe and experiment, form their own conclusions and then discuss them with their peers…. we want them to think like a scientist. 

As Charlee so brilliantly summarises in the first point of her article; this is exactly what the designer does too, as they unpack their brief to ask questions like ‘who is the user?’ and ‘what are their needs?’ At the Design Museum we’re getting young people to think like a designer… or Designerly Learning as we call it. Does a designer also do this? Absolutely! Designers have to think like the end user.

Another easy victory for Charlee!

David Houston collecting liquid nitrogen 

David Houston collecting liquid nitrogen 

David's colleague Chi, making ice cream with the liquid nitrogen at the Science Museum's #AstroNights event

David's colleague Chi, making ice cream with the liquid nitrogen at the Science Museum's #AstroNights event

Much like design is a skill that can be learned, learning facilitation is a skill that can be learnt too. In the same way that designers can use their skills across different disciplines, learning facilitators can use their skills with different subject matters. I taught a session to a group of engineers at the London Transport Museum. Through a few helpful questions about form, material, colour and moving parts I guided them to work out the use of some mystery products (the Lakeland catalogue's finest spider catchers and orange peelers). At the end I asked them 'was that fun?' They all nodded enthusiastically. ‘Now imagine how exciting you can make any object you show to young people, or any aspect of your job, by letting them find the result.' I watched the eureka moment, as all of their faces lit up.

Explainers have the power to share a lot of knowledge with young people...but only if we make it accessible and fun! These are the choices that we make about how the content will be presented.

So bang on the money again Charlee!

This is where the designer is in a similar position. They guide the user and a good designer can fire up someone’s passion for their product whether that’s a poster, a household object, a service etc.

Points 4 and 5 really hit home. As Learning Producers and Explainers we’re constantly developing content; experimenting, curriculum mapping, sharing knowledge, evaluating our offer and learning from the best practice of others, through papers and conferences as well as our network of contacts. This all comes from a place of passion... as it does for a designer worth their salt.

David and colleague Sarah-Jane, meeting Britain's first Astronaut Helen Sharman during Tim Peake's landing on the 19th June. 

David and colleague Sarah-Jane, meeting Britain's first Astronaut Helen Sharman during Tim Peake's landing on the 19th June. 

In face to face interactions we have to shift our language and our tone to engage the user. We have to work out the brief on the fly; how much does this young person know about this particular subject? Go in too high and you lose them, go in too low and you patronise them. Once you know the framework that you’re working with you can then deliver the product (the explanation) to meet the brief.

Another gold star for Charlee!

The Science Museum’s Explainer unit (yep, that’s a thing) employs scientists, artists, actors, filmmakers and educationalists among many others to make up the Explainer team. My role is now more in the development side, I’m creating a show for a new gallery at the moment but I still have my Sunday on galleries delivering shows, demos and just engaging young people in science chat. I never have dull days; I go from making ice cream with liquid nitrogen… to hanging out with Helen Sharman (Britain’s first astronaut)… to hacking an old hard drive into a musical instrument. I’ve been a TV presenter, a fashion model and a guest magazine writer along with a host of other amazing experiences. I’ve met many of my heroes and seen many young minds light up to new ideas and concepts they previously thought closed to them.


So what of the Museum world? Lots of excitement… I'm working with a team of very talented learning producers who create content on the cutting edge. Engaging young audiences to think about how design affects their lives and the lives of those who use it. We’re pioneering new work in user centred briefs that incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM) learning. We also get to rub shoulders with cool designers and be at the forefront of the design landscape. 

The Design Museum moves to a new home in Kensington for our opening on November 24th. The new museum will house our first permanent gallery, Designer Maker User which will bring design to life, from the design process, through to the manufacturing and eventual use.

The Science Museum also has an exciting learning event around the same time, Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery will be opening on October 12th. A huge interactive gallery that will be our biggest yet! With 50 fun interactives, new demos and shows… one of which I’m frantically writing.


The final piece of the puzzle is that the job title envy is mutual…. A good friend of mine switched me on to design a number of years ago. We were sat drinking a beer in Zurich and I asked him Why he was studying it? What was the appeal? He used the example of a chair: ‘It has to look good when I’m sat on it, it has to look good when I’m not sat on it. It has to be functional but compliment the space it’s in. It has to stand out but not draw too much attention from the rest of the room. Who uses it? Where do they use it?’

That was my eureka moment about design. 

If I had my time again then I would definitely retrain as an industrial designer. So Charlee…. I’m very happy to trade job titles!"

Written by David Houston, Learning Producer - Schools at the Design Museum, Explainer at the Science Museum