DC Public Library

Elevating community voices to create a uniquely DC exhibit

With the modernization of its landmark building in Washington DC, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library wanted to create a new exhibit space that would be a home for local DC stories, past and present. To ensure that the design of this exhibit met the needs and hopes of community members, DC Public Library sought Openbox to engage them through an intensive community engagement and research process.

After eight months of generative design research and prototyping of exhibit concepts with community members, we delivered to DCPL blueprints and a guidebook to provide a framework for community engagement and five-year plans for all key exhibit experiences—to sustain and to elevate a community-centered exhibit within the MLK Library.

In 2022, our work won Core77's Notable Design for Social Impact Award.

We met a wide range of DC residents over multiple rounds of research, first focusing on key audiences, then broadening to all library users.

How we did it

  • A strong community-centered approach in which we met residents where they were. We went to local food banks and teenage after-school programs; interviewed residents at their offices, classrooms, and homes; and invited participants to our meeting with the client—at a neighborhood library branch.
  • Coordination of design partners (architecture, media, fabrication and communication firms) to integrate the needs of the community into each partner’s piece of exhibit development. 
  • Alignment of internal and external stakeholders around exhibit goals and three key audiences for initial research: teens, creatives, and long-time DC residents.
  • Live prototyping at library branches to get actionable insights for guiding exhibit development. To create our exhibit prototypes, we researched and wrote copy, designed and produced twelve 8-foot panels, installed the panels and made adjustments on-the-fly to them while in the field.
  • Rapid shift to remote prototyping when our final phase of research coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19. Between a Thursday and a Monday, Openbox redeveloped all of our prototypes and research guides to work over video conference calls, and leveraged our existing community relationships to quickly recruit participants. 
  • Blueprints and a guidebook codifying the above process and results to support DCPL’s current as well as future exhibit development.
(1/5) To explore how an exhibit space could tell local stories, we asked research participants to bring objects that represented their personal experiences in DC to build a miniature "My DC" exhibit.
(2/5) In a research activity to explore exhibit content, we asked participants to pick three current or historical DC figures they would invite to a dinner party.
(3/5) We attended neighborhood events around DC to support and get to know community members and organizations.
(4/5) We created an immersive experience for participants by installing large-scale prototypes in library branches across DC that included audio stations and a go-go dance floor.
(5/5) Participants were curious to hear other local viewpoints and enjoyed moments where our research activities gave them an opportunity to share their voice with others.


Through our commitment to deep community engagement, Openbox was able to establish a pathway between resident voices and exhibit design.

Our design partners observed: “It was the first time that we were able to have community outreach on our team. This has meant a more direct coordination between design and content, design and those we serve, design and effect.” Our client noted the impact: "You guys were so wonderful to work with, and vastly improved the project on many levels.” Most importantly, members of the community felt heard: “It was exhilarating! I applaud you and your team's openness and flexibility and acute listening skills.”

Holding space for difficult conversations

DC’s legacy as Chocolate City and current position as one of the most rapidly gentrifying places in America came up in almost all our conversations. Creating and holding space for new and old residents to respond to content on the city’s change—and to each other—was a critical part of our job. Many times these were uncomfortable conversations, but they were all the more important to have because of it.

As one participant noted: “I could not help but notice how the process you used expanded the knowledge base, inspired respectful listening and introspection between members of the group I participated in.”

Responding to an unfolding pandemic

At 2 p.m. on March 11, 2020, based on growing evidence around the severity of COVID-19 and our concern for the community we work with, we decided to cancel our train to DC—but not our final round of prototype testing. Within 96 hours, Openbox had successfully transitioned to researching remotely. To get to this point, we recreated the experience of interacting with physical prototypes by filming a series of choose-your-own-adventure style videos; we rewrote our discussion guide to more precisely guide participants through screen sharing and other online interactions; we reconnected with community groups and recruited some previous participants because we could no longer rely on library visitors coming upon an installation. With minimal delay, we delivered findings to our design partners and to DC Public Library.

Building community relationships

Openbox’s approach means engagement with participants through the research and design process, and it means transparency in our findings and practice. After community research, we invited community leaders and members, as well as research participants, to attend our insights workshop with DCPL staff and design partners. The ensuing conversations and activities built credibility and confidence in our findings and process.

One research participant stated, “The workshop today was helpful for me to better understand the design process for the new exhibit project for the MLK Library. I really like your work in engaging the community, your focus on including the presence of Black DC and your openness for ideas from the DC community. Thanks for inviting me.”

Making refinements with community

Three years after the exhibit opened to the public, we had the opportunity to return, along with Studio Joseph, to conduct a round of live prototyping in the space. We installed two concepts to expand upon the Marion Barry narrative, and talked to visitors about the type of content, imagery, design features, and interactive elements that best communicated to them the events leading up to and through Barry’s fourth term in office, known as his “comeback.” Our research validated Barry’s lasting legacy in DC, and revealed the need for additional context to help make that significance legible to locals and out-of-towners alike.