The Shedd Aquarium
The Polar Play Zone Exhibit
I was chosen to illustratively represent the underwater world for the Polar Play Zone Exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium. We set out to create a space where children would be compelled to stay and play and be surrounded by imagery that is inviting and animals that are amazing. The Polar Play Zone was created to give young visitors their first introduction and interaction with beluga whales, magellanic penguins, Pacific white sided dolphins, sea otters and many other tide pool inhabitants.
Prior to the Polar Play Zone, the Shedd Aquarium had no exhibit space where young children (ages 2-7) could play and discover. The goal was to transform the lower level of picnic tables and viewing tanks into an engaging, interactive exhibit that would give families and children special spaces to watch, explore and learn. The animals at the aquarium are amazing to watch live in their environments, the illustrations would enhance their personalities and give them a voice. They wanted to transform the dark lower level with artwork that would be bright bold and friendly.
We specifically focused on families and children ages 2-7 for this exhibit. The Shedd Aquarium team believed illustration would be most powerful way to connect with this audience. Illustration speaks to young audiences.
I worked closely with the creative team at the Shedd Aquarium. A creative director, designer, and sculptor mainly. In order to win the project, I had to sketch samples of how I would approach and the process. Once awarded, we outlined all of the activities, signage, murals, characters, and branding elements that would be needed for the exhibit. We assigned timelines to each piece of artwork and then we set out to create and craft the work that would cohesively tell the stories of the four main animals at the aquarium. We would meet every few weeks and I worked diligently sketching, color testing and revising imagery to connect with what the designers were envisioning. My role was to create the illustration, the creative team dealt with all of the design compositions and final production. I create my illustrations as vector so imagery can be easily sized. The team was excellent, and because of the amount of organization we put in up front, the process moved smoothly. It's important to put the organizational structure in place first, it helps everyone stay on the same page. I also worked with a sculptor at the aquarium who converted my illustrations of anemones into 3 dimensional structures for one of the murals. The collaborative team experience was a great success!
One of the most interesting parts of this project was the level of research and development for the four animals characters. These animals were a specific species and had very specific markings, traits and personalities. They wanted me to capture all of these characteristics literally and playfully. When you see a Beluga whale, it's very distinct and huge, when you draw a Beluga whale, it's a bit like a big white blob. I think I sketched at least 100 versions of Beluga whales, trying to capture the proportions, the head shape, the fin to body ratio, the eye placement and of course the curly mouth all in multiple poses. The designers were great, I would send over new sketches and they would give me mini-critiques and I would go back and work on another round. This process made me realize how unique the world is. That not all dolphins have the same nose shape, that some penguins have red markings and some don't. The individuality of each of these animals was astonishing even within it's own species. In the end, I was able to capture the essence of each animal and it was very rewarding.
Once the project list was developed, I began a massive phase of research: internet, library, books and archives from the Aquarium. I have binders full of tissue paper pencil drawings. I trace, draw and doodle until I have practiced enough to become more authoritative on the content I am creating. Then I sketch with the goal of getting responses from the client. They give me feedback and I continue in the process of refinement. Working with a good team has always made my artwork better. Once a sketch is approved, I outline it, scan it and redraw it in vector and begin the colorization process. There are more approvals in this phase as well. The goal for me is to really listen to what the designer needs, address it and keep the revisions minimal. Once the image is approved, I send an illustrator file to the designer and they begin applying it to all the signage, wall graphics and branding materials.
The Polar Play Zone is a permanent Exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium. It's successful because we, as a team, worked hard to make it an engaging, timeless environment. The animals I illustrated have become iconic in the space. They are full of energy and emotion and children connect immediately to the illustrations and the interactivity of the exhibit. Over 2 million people visit the Shedd Aquarium each year. I created over 60 illustrations to bring this exhibit to life, including four key characters used on directional signage, additional illustrations for activity signage and interactive play exhibits, a 70 foot tide pool mural and a system of branding elements used throughout the space…The aquarium is so full of amazing creatures and characters. It was great to be part of a team that helps create an environment where kids can explore and learn!
Brian Steege filmed and edited the art video about my artwork at the Polar Play Zone. The Polar Play Zone exhibit book captures the design process in depth. The book was produced in collaboration with Subzero Design and SR Studio photography. Click on booklet to view full screen.
Molly Z. at the Shedd Aquarium