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20 must-visit design museums

team lab Borderless design museum in Japan

Browsing through our Instagram feeds, soaking in beautiful web design and design blogs, and creating Pinterest boards can certainly help spark an idea or open our eyes to new trends. But if you really want to trigger your imagination, get your brain working and find inspiration, there’s nothing quite like visiting an actual, physical museum.

Unlike many online sources, the work you’ll see displayed in a museum has been carefully curated. Each exhibit is placed precisely where it should be; its context, history and connection to other pieces having been thoroughly researched and thought-out. In such a digital age, finding the time to visit museums is highly valuable for creatives who want to keep their work and minds fresh and inspired.

That’s exactly why we’ve created this list of the world’s 20 best design museums, located from California to Finland, Japan and much more. You’ll find everything from classic design museums, to conceptual spaces and cutting-edge art institutions.

We hope these museums are just what you need on your journey to becoming a freelance graphic designer, and we're sure they'll provide plenty of graphic design portfolio inspiration to take into your work.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, that houses an outstanding collection of over 2.3 million historic objects, has expanded to open Scotland’s first ever design museum. The spectacular structure, designed by award-winning Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and completed in September 2018, is made to resemble a Scottish cliff face. Its curved concrete walls and cutting-edge design required a highly creative and innovative engineering process. As well as recently presenting the V&A’s video game design exhibition, the museum also showcases international exhibits, plus galleries dedicated specifically to Scottish design.

Situated in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the Vitra Design Museum has an impressive exterior, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry. Although the initial idea of the museum was to display a private furniture collection, it’s moved on to host a variety of exhibitions. These include retrospectives of some of the world’s biggest names in industrial design and architecture, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Alexander Girard. In line with its original mission statement, the museum’s Vitra Schaudepot section is dedicated to furniture design, displaying furniture and lighting pieces from the museum’s collection of 20,000 objects.

Side note: if you’re in the area, make the most of your stay and check out Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station!

Vitra Design Museum, Germany
Credit: Vitra Design Museum

Situated on NYC’s Museum Mile in the landmark Carnegie Mansion, this museum is home to an extensive collection of design objects, both historic and contemporary. The temporary shows exhibit the best of current-day design, from a variety of creative disciplines. The museum chooses to focus on innovative themes, such as cross-collaborations between designers and scientists, interactive homeware and craft techniques merged with new technology - making this the place to go to get updated about the latest goings-on in the design world. There’s also a rich education program at the museum, so look out for their courses aimed at all levels, from emerging designers, through to professionals.

Home for fascinating exhibitions, the unique structure of this art museum makes for an intriguing visit. The underground galleries, designed by Helsinki-based architect firm, JKMM, double up as an outdoor playground space. The galleries’ rooves extend to form bubble-like structures that protrude into Helsinki’s Lasipalatsi Square, creating a fun, playful landscape. Other than their collection of 20th-century art, Amos Rex has hosted a variety of exhibitions since their 2018 launch, presenting classics such as the works of Belgian painter René Margritte alongside modern Nordic art, and more.

Amongst Amsterdam’s many museums, you’ll find the super trendy, boutique Modern Contemporary (Moco) Museum. What makes Moco stand out from the crowd is its focus on street art. They have a rich collection of subversive art that comments on today’s society through humor and irony. The highly engaging, contemporary exhibitions often contrast with the building itself - a traditional Dutch townhouse, designed by Eduard Cuypers in 1904. Their past and current shows include solo exhibitions by Banksy, Daniel Arsham and Yayoi Kusama, definitely making this a spot you shouldn’t miss if you’re in the region.

Extra! If you’re heading to Holland, here’s a designer’s guide on what to do in Amsterdam.

This unique experience is definitely not your average museum visit. Art collective teamLab has been creating interactive, digital art works for years. But since opening their own space in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, visitors have had the chance to truly immerse themselves in this vast, all-consuming experience. Spanning 10,000 square meters, the museum features 60 works that respond to and intertwine with one another seamlessly as you wander through the space. You’ll find a room full of different colored lamps that react when you approach them, a floor-to-ceiling world of flowers, and many more breathtaking delights.

team lab Borderless design museum in Japan
Credit: MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless

Both a physical and a virtual space, this museum houses a growing collection of items that act as mementos of past relationships. Intimate stories surrounding obscure personal possessions, like a snippet of an ex’s dreadlock or a handmade pair of puppets, make up the core of the museum. The creators of the project, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, invite us to take a moment to acknowledge, treasure and share stories of heartbreak. While the permanent museums are located in Zagreb and Los Angeles, the collection is constantly popping up in other museums across the globe, so keep your eyes open for the next exhibit.

8. Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Korea

Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, award-winning architect and the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, this impressive complex is said to be the largest 3D amorphous structure in the world. Inspired by the bustling, dynamic surroundings of the Dongdaemun region of Seoul, Hadid designed a fluid, boundary-less space. The DDP is more than a design museum - it’s a complex of exhibition spaces, design shops and an eco-friendly park. Its large scale makes it the perfect location for many events, such as conferences, fashion shows and other cultural happenings.

This Tokyo museum is a truly magical space for animation lovers and fans of Miyazaki Hayao's Studio Ghibli. The prestigious animation film studio is the force behind a few all-time favorite movies for designers, amongst them Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and many more. The museum’s colorful, fairytale building is covered in vines and surrounded by tall red pines. Upstairs, you’ll find an equally beautiful rooftop garden, where the guardian of the museum, the Robot Soldier statue, towers above you. You’ll find surprises in every corner of the museum, from the Cat Bus (featured in the movie My Neighbor Totoro), to an original fresco painting and the museum’s cafe.

What started out as a temporary exhibition in San Francisco has since become an ongoing and much talked-about interactive art experience in NYC’s SoHo neighborhood. The show itself is a joint effort by local food vendors, nonprofits and a collection of designers, illustrators and artists. Taking inspiration from the city and its many colors, the 16 installations that make up the exhibition are multi-sensory, drawing you into a wonderfully curated, colorful world. Don’t be fooled by the Color Factory’s enticing Instagram design account- the real experience even more impressive than their beautiful feed.

Color Factory design museum in New York
Credit: Color Factory

While this isn’t exactly what you’d call a design museum, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions bring together the worlds of medicine, art, design and science, in fascinating and innovative ways. Their shows combine installation, collections of curious objects, prints, digital mediums and more, to create exploratory, thought-provoking experiences. They also join forces with creatives from the art and design world, who create engaging exhibitions for the museum. Apart from the art itself, the museum’s cafe, shop and medical library offer a calm and comfy getaway from London’s busy streets, as well as its spacious reading room.

Written and illustrated by Helsinki-born artist Tove Jansson, the Moomin books are without a doubt amongst the world's best art and design books. The Finnish city of Tampere is home to this one-of-a-kind museum, celebrating this legendary series. The museum holds an expansive collection of over 1,000 original ink drawings and gouache and watercolor paintings by Tove Jansson, depicting scenes and characters out of the 12 Moomin books. Among the exhibits, you’ll also find Jansson’s own illustrated versions of other much-loved books, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hobbit. The museum invites you to step inside the wonderful world of Moominvalley - and may even give you book cover design ideas of your own.

13. IK Lab, Mexico

This space is by no means what you’d expect from a standard art gallery. Located in Tulum, it keeps aligned with the region’s eco-friendly ethos, with a structure predominantly built out of locally sourced tree branches. The flowing shapes, harmonious color palette and natural light that enters through the gaps in the branches make for an unusual setting for the art on show. When visiting, prepare to remove your shoes and enter an alternative experience. The works exhibited interact with the space in fascinating ways, managing to seamlessly merge with it, while also often forming a contrast with the gallery’s natural environment.

IK Lab design museum in Mexico
Credit: IK Lab

Since moving to London’s Kensington neighborhood in 2016, the Design Museum has settled into its new home, reviving the landmark 1960s building that had stood vacant for years. The new space has enabled the institution to expand their activities and put an emphasis on design education, through the many educational courses they offer. Their free exhibition, Designer Maker User, gives us a solid tour of 20th and 21st century design, with a display of historical and nostalgic objects from various design disciplines. Their changing exhibitions also cover a fascinating range of fields, including the recent Stanley Kubrick exhibition, designed by Pentagram partner Marina Willer and her team.

With two venues in Milan and another in Venice, Fondazione Prada is known for its innovative program. Its three diverse locations hold experimental exhibitions in contemporary art and culture, including permanent shows displaying the works of Jeff Koons, Dan Flavin and other renowned artists. The most recent addition, by OMA architectural form, is Torre - a 60 meter concrete tower that makes up the Milan complex, along with six other buildings. Each building has its own unique style, from the ultra contemporary Torre, to the warehouse-like structure, Deposito and the “haunted house” that is decorated in 24-carat gold leaf. A delight inside and out, this is definitely one not to miss if you’re in the area.

The first thing you’ll notice about this museum is its cutting-edge design, completed in 2010 by industrial designer and architect, Ron Arad. Its flowing rust-colored strips appear almost as though they were sketched free-hand into the sky, and the building’s striking appearance stands out against the residential, geometric buildings surrounding it. Inside, you’ll find clean, white galleries that contrast with the building’s exterior. The museum hosts a variety of exciting exhibitions, including retrospectives of both industrial and graphic designers, as well as themed shows. There’s also a library of materials that’s home to innovative materials developed by both designers and engineers.

Design Museum Holon, Israel
Credit: Design Museum Holon

This is one of three museums by the prestigious Red Dot Design Award, the others being in Essen, Germany and Xiamen, China. Their Singapore museum, located in the iconic Marina Bay district, holds a permanent collection of hundreds of futuristic designs, all of which have received the Red Dot Design Award’s recognition. This makes for a fascinating exhibition, showcasing predominantly industrial design works that boast innovative uses of technology, new materials and fresh thinking. Other temporary shows on display, such as the current Human-Nature, focus on the most relevant, pressing questions of our time, examining the role design will play in our future society.

Appropriately situated in Germany, the birthplace of the Bauhaus School and movement, you’ll find the Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design. Although it’s currently under construction, they’ve made sure to provide visitors with a temporary museum, also located in Berlin. There, you’ll find an illustrated timeline outlining the history of the Bauhaus, as well as a photography exhibition of the women of the Bauhaus and an exhibition of modern-day Bauhaus objects, from the ‘60s until now. Additionally, the museum offers tours around the city, providing background information on Walter Gropius (one of the founders of the Bauhaus School), Bauhaus-inspired buildings and more.

Bauhaus Archive design museum, Germany
Credit: Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design

Founded in 1874 with the aim of devoting itself to modern art, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam has since taken on many changes. Today, it invites us to explore modern and contemporary visual art and design. Its vast collection of works, spanning from 1880 to now, provides visitors with an interesting perspective on the history of visual culture. With a fascinating curation choice of displaying iconic art and design works side-by-side, the museum creates a dialogue between movements, like De Stijl, pop art and Bauhaus, examining the cross-over between creative disciplines. You’ll see works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Piet Mondrian and many more renowned artists.

This Manhattan-based museum focuses its exhibitions on all disciplines within contemporary creative practice. Originally named the Museum of Contemporary Crafts when opened in 1956, it continues to put an emphasis on the actual creation process, whether it be digital, artisanal, or anything in between. Ongoing shows include MAD’s collection of studio and contemporary jewelry, an unusual glass goblet collection and other site-specific pieces. Their other temporary exhibitions are highly varied, including the best of graphic design, fashion, art and more.

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