The Creative Studio at the California Academy of Sciences


[Alyson Kuhn] The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is an amazing place. Beneath the incredible living roof, behind the extraordinary exhibits, is a huge permanent staff of scientists, educators, presenters … and a prolific in-house Creative Studio. Their handsome little book, Evolution at the Academy, has won a Best of Show in Mohawk Show 11. Felt & Wire recently spoke with Rhonda Rubinstein, the Academy’s creative director, about other products and projects her department gets involved in.

How far in advance of the Academy’s grand reopening did you join the staff?

I began working at the Academy in January 2008, nine months before the public opening. I was brought in as creative director, a relatively new position, to ensure all creative elements were on brand and would create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It was a bit daunting on my first day to receive a document that positioned me as responsible for overseeing the Academy look and feel in all forms: marketing design (studios have included such notables as Pentagram and Hot Studio), exhibit graphic design (including Volume) and even architecture (Renzo Piano Building Workshop)!

How is your department organized?

We have five full-time designers, plus myself. The Academy employs hundreds of people — and then there are the 500 docents who volunteer their time. Our department works with all six of the other departments here.

What categories of material do you design?

Basically, everything! One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is designing exhibit material for the public floor and getting people engaged in the scientific content. For the recent Extreme Mammals exhibit, we designed exhibit elements, banners, signage, graphics, multiscreen previews, web pages and retail products.

We also design ads, invitations and collateral, and staff uniforms. And, of course, we design a lot of products, including books, posters and apparel.

Most of the Academy materials feature crisp, beautiful photography. Is illustration a part of the Academy style?

Yes. We have developed an illustration style with Michael Bartalos. I commissioned Michael to create a series of 12 illustrations for the retail store, representing different aspects and exhibits of the Academy. Each illustration has modular components that can be used in different formats. The animal representations combine personality with specific detail so the species are recognizable. The graphic style is intended to appeal to all ages. These graphics are on the store’s walls, and on T-shirts, mugs, notebooks, postcards and more.

In addition to retail, the illustrations are used for educational materials for kids — for booklets, scavenger hunts and aquarium screens.

And how do you keep track of everything that is going on?!

Actually, we recently instituted an electronic project tracking system — we logged 1350 projects in this past fiscal year.

Evolution at the Academy is one of the products in the California Academy of Sciences’ Felt & Wire Shop.

Alyson Kuhn experienced natural camouflage in action in the Academy’s rainforest, when a red butterfly landed in the red hair of her tour guide, photographer Susan Middleton.

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