Van Gogh Museum reflects intersections of art, science and storytelling

June 16, 2013

A week ago I had the privilege of speaking at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to a large group of multinational scientists from laboratories all over the world on behalf of our client Abbott Diagnostics. Yes, you heard that right. I was talking with scientists at an art museum. As a designer, there are few things cooler than that.

Standing in a beautifully renovated space housing many of the lifelong works of Vincent van Gogh, I spoke about “why design matters”— even in a laboratory. With the “professionalization” of the design industry, as Larry Keeley would say, the world, people and business have come to expect design. We are seeing, thankfully, a rise in social, public and even government design. So why not in laboratories, too?

Design and science are both inherently iterative — in a constant process of experimentation and learning to arrive at the better answer. The Van Gogh Museum event beautifully highlights the intersections of art and science.

Vincent van Gogh, known for his post-impressionistic paintings like Starry Night, Sunflowers and his Self Portraits, actually spent much of his short career constantly experimenting with various techniques, mediums and styles. Some of my favorite pieces at the museum are some of his earlier works: Old Man with a Stick (pencil on paper), and The Poor and Money (chalk, watercolor, pen and ink).

It's a unique time at the Van Gogh Museum because Shell Nederland (their science partner) recently partnered with the museum on intensive research into van Gogh’s techniques and material use. Alongside van Gogh’s paintings, the museum has added a space dedicated to the science of his paintings. There are microscopes, paints, materials and information that document his tools, process, materials and techniques, giving depth to our understanding of how he worked.

Design and science are both inherently iterative—in a constant process of experimentation and learning to arrive at the better answer.

The museum beautifully blends a raw, rich history within a minimal, modern building. I was struck by all the stories the museum represents. Each piece of artwork tells a story of a moment as well as a piece of van Gogh's life journey as a person. The science behind the research that Shell conducted uncovers an even deeper story — a story about how Van Gogh worked as a developing artist. The minimal, geometric space that houses the works of art tells us a story of how artwork over a century old remains relevant and meaningful to us even in today's modern world. It is about beauty, meaning and storytelling.

As a comparison, just across museum square, adjacent to the Van Gogh Museum, is the Rijksmuseum. It originally opened in 1885, while van Gogh was mid career, and it has recently reopened after a renovation. While the renovation took over a decade to complete, the story is about transporting the viewer back to a time and an era where the interior reflects the ornate detail of the original space. In the renovation, all of the pieces moved to new walls at the Rijksmuseum except for Rembrandt's Knight's Watch. It's not only a lovely story, but when you walk through the space, you feel the impact of Knight's Watch as a focal point, and it is breathtaking.

As I spoke with the scientists about why design matters, I highlighted examples in our lives of modern-day solutions that improve the human experience — from the Dyson vacuum making the mundane almost pleasurable to the Square enabling entrepreneurialism and the tools and technology we love. Great human-centered design is not only truly useful but also tells us stories — stories about companies and brands, but even more so stories about ourselves and what is important to us and our lives.

Design is about delivering functional and useful solutions; but, as the Van Gogh Museum demonstrates, what makes design beautiful is the combination of art and science to tell us stories that will last.