Planet Word is the world's first voice-activated museum, housed inside the landmark Franklin School in Washington, D.C., built in 1869. Throughout the museum, visitors use their voices to interact with exhibits, while hearing from a diverse cast of leaders, authors, and orators who share what language means to them.
In collaboration with the Planet Word team, we designed Planet Word's ten immersive galleries, each with a participatory experience at the center. The activities were designed primarily for children aged 10-12, but we took a universal design approach, resulting in experiences that are intuitive and compelling to visitors of all ages and the differently-abled. Some of the most popular galleries include:
In the introductory gallery Where Do Words Come From?, a massive wall composed of over 1,000 three-dimensional words comes to life by speaking aloud, asking visitors questions, and responding with a lively combination of sound, animation, and detailed projection mapping. This wall uses its voice to address stereotypes and misconceptions about how language works — for example, the idea that "ain't ain't a word" and presenting evidence for language as a living thing that goes beyond what's in the dictionary, and is shaped by us all
The Library is a magical place where the wonders of imagination and literature collide. Visitors pull an RFID-tagged book from a shelf, place it on the surface before them and watch as the characters, settings, and important moments come to life in front of their eyes. As birds fly, basketballs bounce, and Alice falls down the rabbit hole, visitors hear cinematic narration that describes what makes each book special, as well as original audio of authors describing why they wrote these beloved works of literature.
In the Word Worlds gallery, visitors use a smart paint brush to "paint" with descriptive words like "hibernal" and "crepuscular." As they move their brush along the wall, the landscape comes to life with imagery, motion, and sound effects that reflect the meaning of that particular word.
The Spoken World boasts a stunning 4,800-LED kinetic sculpture. The spectacle is in service of creating personal, face-to-face experiences with native speakers that demonstrate what is unique about 28 different languages — many of them rare or endangered — and two signed languages from six continents.
Unlock the Music feels like a contemporary karaoke lounge. Lyrics are displayed in time with the music. At banquettes around the space, guests use iPads to request songs they would like to perform. The exhibit MC introduces each song, including a story about the techniques heard in the song, and visuals underscore the techniques by highlighting patterns across lyrics.
In I'm Sold, visitors enter a "media spiral" composed of 25 screens displaying hundreds of ads streaming horizontally past them. The spiral is divided into sections, each describing a specific copywriting technique. Each section of screens provides an "x-ray" effect, highlighting the copy in ads that use that technique. At the center of the spiral, visitors can create their own ads using the techniques featured.
How could we design a museum of language inspired by the interactivity of science and technology museums? One where each visitor would feel heard, and where the democratic and decentralized nature of language would be highlighted?
The traditional museum experience is primarily visual: visitors spend most of their time looking at things and doing a lot of reading. Even if an exhibit is "interactive," it's usually a browser for more looking and reading. Planet Word founder Ann Friedman challenged us to completely reimagine that paradigm, and put visitors in control of every experience.
After ruminating on the shape of a museum of language for years before selecting us as design partner, Friedman's vision was clear — innovative, meaningful interaction would be the most important design consideration. For visitors to grasp the world-shaping truths about the power of spoken, written, and signed language, every concept had to be presented as an active, personal experience. People needed to connect emotionally, not just intellectually. The need for leading with voice interaction arose from the desire to be true to the reality that language is mostly a spoken medium. Writing was invented long after spoken communication, and even today, we speak and hear vastly more than we write or read.
Exhibit designer, architect, and client worked hand-in-hand to take hundreds of initial ideas and hone them into ten immersive experiences within a National Historic Landmark building, a status that required us to work closely with the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle to ensure that all building preservation requirements were met.
Our firm led the development of the exhibition concepts, physical design, graphic design, media design, and software for Planet Word. Our work spanned ten galleries and a photo booth experience inside an auxiliary space. The team surmounted the challenges of working inside the landmark Franklin School, as well as pulling off never-before-tried innovative approaches to design and technology, including the use of monumental architecture and interactivity to create moments of awe and delight.
Despite opening during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Planet Word exceeded expectations, with visitors enthusiastically booking tickets in advance for a reduced-capacity experience that put visitor safety first.
Press lauded Planet Word for establishing a new paradigm for the museum experience—one with exciting interactivity built right in. Publications covering the museum include FRAME Magazine, Washington Business Journal, Architect Magazine, The Daily Beast, and others highlighted below:
"At this awesome new museum, the exhibits respond to the sound of your voice. Words never looked so good."
"It's a purposeful, positive feedback loop to being vulnerable, which articulates the museum's entire tone of inclusiveness. Consider the nervousness or apprehension with which you might try to say a foreign name for the first time. Even a 2016 Kamala Harris ad playfully chastised people for saying her name with the incorrect rhythmic emphasis. But at Planet Word, instead of getting the stick for being wrong, you get the carrot for being right."
"Moments like this demonstrate Local Projects' unique ability to leverage simple, established technologies to create special experiences."
The Washington Post:
"Every room in Planet Word, which opens October 22, celebrates heeding that other urge — a desire to communicate that turns baby babbles into complex languages that let you deliver punchlines and powerful speeches."
"Young people play an important role throughout Planet Word. 'Who experiments with words? It's kids,' says Friedman, a former reading teacher, who appreciates that children and teens tend to create vocabulary."
"Opening a book in Planet Word...is like opening and stepping into your imagination as a child."
"At the end of the Planet Word experience, the museum acknowledges the fact that we are all experts in our own opinions. Themes around words are told through real life stories, encouraging people to leave words they feel define them. It's a chance to think about how we can define and exclude others through labels and share our own labels with the world.
In this time where diversity and inclusion are top of mind, words matter more than ever."
Beyond all the positive press, our greatest honor was to see—six blocks from the White House—the common sight of visitors spanning three generations, with average visit time exceeding three hours, all affirming the power of language.