From Museums for the elite to Branding and marketing Museums for everyone (Part Two)

Part Two of Two: Logo, Typeface and Color Surveys

Please read part one here:

Logo Survey

Designing a logo requires significant thought and strategy. A museum logo design should not just convey an acronym, it should evoke a message. Positive and negative space is a classic design trick that plays a key role in conveying messages and could be mixed with typographic fonts to create a logo. Modern museum logos are focused on adapting modern perspectives. Vibrant, modern logos for museums usually focus more on shapes and silhouettes. Museum logos should incorporate an understated touch of the old and new.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco launched a new logo in 2011 that was created by Wolff Olins. The old logo, which was created in the early 1990s, took the form of a solid red square bearing the word “ASIA” in dropped-out white, bolstered by a stylized red “N.” The red block recalled the signature seal that appears at the margins of many East Asian painting and calligraphy scrolls (Kobayashi 2012). Tim Hallman, director of communications and business development, told the (San Francisco Chronicle’s digital presence), that in place of the old logo, “we wanted something bold that didn’t suggest an institution just representing the past.” The current logo consists of an upside-down letter A. When the inverted “A” was presented, a board member’s spouse pointed that as a mathematical symbol an inverted “A” represents “for all.” “We decided we were on to something,” Hallman noted. (Baker 2012)

The first thing I did when my copy of A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump arrived in the mail was to survey the book’s design. Immediately, I noticed that the color scheme was consistent with the exterior of the Museum’s facade and typeface was consistent with exhibition labels. My favorite detail was the use of the museum’s recognizable corona logo to denote each chapter number.

Here we have an early iteration of the NMAAHC’s logo (or a working logo) and the current logo. The working logo has quite a few problems: it is over complicated, too colorful, has poor spacing, and the two typefaces do not complement one another. Interestingly, some of those colors survived and can be seen in the NMAAHC’s current brand guide (National Museum of African American History & Culture n.d.). Meanwhile, the current logo (this is the horizontal iteration) is nothing short of excellent. Aside from highlighting the building’s distinction on the National Mall, it can stand alone and work without text and be instantly as recognizable as the Nike swoosh. Interestingly, they also retained the use of serif and sans-serif typefaces with the latter dominating the design. The museum has a long name and even its abbreviation is long (which, of course, cannot be helped). But note that from the working logo to the current one, they dropped the word “and” and substituted it with an ampersand. Time will tell if a catchy nickname emerges.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States with two locations in New York City and is commonly known all over the world by its nickname, The Met. The museum decided to capitalize on this when they created a new logo 2013. The previous logo, a classically diagrammed M clearly influenced by western art, had been in use since 1971. One of the reasons for the new logo was to give the then three sites a unified image (at the time the locations included the main museum on 5th Avenue, The Met Breuer, devoted to modern art, which closed in 2020, and The Met Cloisters devoted to medieval art and located in upper Manhattan), not unlike what The Tate did with regards to creating a unifying visual identity for the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate St. Ives, and Tate Liverpool. The logo, like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco logo redesign in 2011, as well as The Tate redesign, was created by Wolff Olins.

Justin Davidson, New York magazine’s architecture critic called the logo a “graphic misfire” that “looks like a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs.” Davidson goes on to note: “You might think an art museum that attracted 6.3 million visitors last year might not worry much about coming off as too aloof. Or that those who feel intimidated by ceremonial staircases and neoclassical colonnades might not be soothed by a logo with stylized ax blades hanging off the E and T. Or that it might seem a little childish to grab back a nickname already embedded in the logo of another Met. (The designer Paula Scher broke the word Met / ropolitan before Opera specifically to highlight the shorthand.)” (Davidson 2016)

I wholeheartedly disagree with Davidson. First and foremost, The Met isn’t solely about western art. The old logo, which immediately recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing, implies that. The new logo brilliantly combines calligraphical and sans serif typeface elements (the old and the new) that connects the past with the present as well as the future. Davidson also fails to realize that the original logo was created in a pre-digital world. To the right is a screen shot from my iPhone of an e-mail I recently received from The Met. One can see how easy it is to spot and pick out the museum’s logo in between the Xpand logo, which would be more legible at this size if they used a white background, and the Travelzoo logo, which is nearly illegible. One important thing about any modern logo is its need to be scalable—it should look great whether it is big or small and, most importantly, should be easy to read and stand out whether it is at the top of a letterhead or at the bottom of a 96-sheet billboard. Finally, I would like to note that if one went to the top search engines (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) and typed “The Met” the first thing that comes up is The Metropolitan Museum of Art and not The Metropolitan Opera, which is always the second listing.

Typeface Survey

In 1448, Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith living in Mainz, Germany, was experimenting with a mold with the goal of speeding up the process of putting ink on paper. Gutenberg’s invention, the printing press, fostered the modern world of science and industry. Printing took off in large part because Gutenberg could produce, using movable type, a book that looked as if it had been written by hand. (Sington 2020) This was possible because he was printing the Latin alphabet. The letters of the Latin alphabet are simple, block shapes and all the letters are clearly separate and can easily become blocks of metal to be printed (Shaw 2015). Had Gutenberg been trying to print a type of script, he might not have succeeded. Every modern innovation is built on the technology of putting words on a page. (Sington 2020)

Since the advent of the printing press, there would be variations and advances in printing that include etching, lithography, mimeograph, screen printing, phototypesetting, inkjet printing, and laser printing. With the arrival of desktop publishing, the words typeface and font became common and are often used interchangeably. On a technical level both words have distinct meanings. The word font comes from the Middle French word ‘fonte’, which means cast in metal. Printers like Gutenberg would cast complete sets of metal letters to make up a font. Fonts with a common design made up a typeface. In a box containing a specific font were two cases – one for capital letters and one for small letters (which is where upper and lower cases comes from). Blocks of text were assembled letter by letter to form a page layout, which was then rolled with ink and pressed onto paper to make prints. (Webster 2019) In modern terms, typeface describes a style and way of presenting text, while a font refers to variations of a typeface, such as size and weight. Helvetica is a typeface that has a complete set of characters with common design characteristics. However, it is made up of a whole collection of fonts, each in a specific weight, style, and size, with different levels of concentration as well as italic versions.

Typography is an essential element in graphic design, and therefore a significant part of branding. Typography represents the tone and values of a brand not unlike the way color represents a feeling. Typefaces can be classified into the following three groups: serifs, sans-serifs, and scripts. Generally, serif typefaces represent classical tradition, authoritativeness, and trustworthy. The Times New Roman font, originally designed in 1932 for The Times of London newspaper (Microsoft 2021), is a widely used example. Sans serif typefaces typically look clean, modern, and universal. Helvetica is widely used in signage because of its high legibility and simple feel (the exact one used in the New York City subway redesign example noted earlier in this paper). Script typefaces, designed to look like cursive handwriting, look more personal and are often associated with creativity.

Typefaces have changed and evolved over different periods of time, following trends, technology, and art movements. When thinking about typography and design, all typographic elements should consider visual arrangement, color contrast, the blank space, as well as sizes. Every typographic element impacts design on both the macro and micro level. In museums, most notably with exhibition labels, the legibility of copy is important. Museum labels are indeed subject to brand standards.

Good legibility is largely influenced by familiarity. There are many typefaces to choose from that offer excellent legibility for the body copy of museum labels. However, it should be noted that redesigning typefaces created for traditional methods of printing and then translated for computer bitmaps can change the aesthetics. The qualities of a good brand typeface are legibility, uniqueness, and being able to work for various platforms and mediums while conveying a distinct personality.

Choosing the right typeface can make a significant difference between a good and a great design. Even though most computers come with a library of typefaces, this isn’t always enough as a designer might be looking for a particular look and feel. There are several websites with massive libraries to browse through. These sites are broken into three types, giving you the option between open source / free, paid, or a subscription. Open source typography is easy to find and experiment with and are often the choice of startups and small businesses. Typography found on sites such as Google Fonts is web-friendly and consistent across all platforms and devices. The downside is that they are often generic and lacking in character and don’t add much to a brand. When you pay for typefaces, you are ensured a greater degree of flexibility and uniqueness of personality. Options are indeed more numerous, but licensing for these can be costly. The best way to truly make a statement and get a typeface that is a perfect reflection of the brand is to create one. Custom typography provides a unique visual language, but it can be quite expensive. Creating primary, secondary, and tertiary font types is also very time-consuming.

The Cooper Hewitt in New York City is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to design. Founded in 1897 by the Cooper/Hewitt family as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Science and Art, it became a part of the Smithsonian in 1967. In 2014, The Cooper Hewitt rebranded. Like The Met, part of their rebranding included adapting their shortened nickname “Cooper Hewitt” (previously known as Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution) The rebranding also included a tailor-made typeface known as “Cooper Hewitt.” Smithsonian Magazine noted that “…the new typeface is strong, simple and versatile, making it “clear for signage, compact for print” and optimized for digital media.” The Cooper Hewitt typeface is an open licensed font free for anyone to download, use, or modify on their own. (Stamp 2014)

Color Survey

Color is a significant factor in branding. Interestingly, color does not exist in the physical world, only light waves of various wavelengths that are received and distinguished within the eye and brain. Although humans can distinguish between numerous wavelengths, our color vocabulary is limited. (Smithsonian Libraries 2017) Color perception has long been the subject of experiments and discussions. Perception of color can change based on a person’s age, gender, personality, income, and other factors. Considering the factor of age as one example, the North Carolina State University Color Lab notes that “the human body undergoes change as it ages and this includes changes in the optical apparatus and pertinent sectors dealing with the construction of retinal image. Variations in the macular pigment in different eyes as we age also contribute to the overall color vision variability amongst humans.” (North Carolina State University Color Science Lab n.d.)

The psychology of color is a powerful tool in design and branding. According to a 2006 study, “Color is ubiquitous and is a source of information. People make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products. About 62‐90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone. So, prudent use of colors can contribute not only to differentiating products from competitors, but also to influencing moods and feelings – positively or negatively.” (Singh 2006) The Color Psychology Chart offers a brief look at twelve of the most used colors along with affecting guidelines, both positive and negative. (Ignyte Branding n.d.)

Adobe Marketo Engage analyzed the world’s top 100 brands to explore the most popular uses of colors. They found that blue was used in 33% of the top 100 brands. Red was used in 29% and black or greyscale was the third most popular choice with 28%. Finally, 13% used yellow or gold. They also noted that 95% of the top 100 brands only use one or two colors to maintain consistency by staying simple in their branding. (Solar 2018) As I noted earlier with the logo for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the recognizable corona does not need the text to be effective.

The Craft Contemporary art museum (previously known as the Craft and Folk Art Museum) located in Los Angeles was established in 1975 to exhibit the work of underprivileged craftsmen and artists while promoting contemporary art made from local craft processes. The design firm, Siegel+Gale, discussed the name change: “The name Craft & Folk Art Museum was setting the wrong expectations. Together, the words “Craft” and “Folk” sounded ordinary and traditional, rather than rich and relevant. The name did little to pique the interest of visitors looking for a more contemporary museum experience. And it failed to highlight what makes the museum so unique: it functions as a platform for a diverse community of makers and as a space to both view and create art. The museum needed a more engaging introduction, one that appealed to a broader audience and worked to elevate craft in the contemporary art dialogue.” (Duong 2019)

As part of the overall rebranding, Siegel+Gale also redesigned the museum’s logo which is a simple sans-serif typeface with an edgy monogram. The simple, but consequential typeface was created to emphasize the letter C in the museum’s name. Note the orange color: as detailed in the Psychology of Color Chart, it has positive associations with the innovation, friendliness, and energy. Orange conveys the excitement of red, while concurrently conveying the warm aspects of yellow.

Siegel+Gale noted that the monogram that communicates, through the bold geometric shapes, a diverse community that believes in the distribution of contemporary art and culture. A bold, forward-looking triangle within the negative space was incorporated to represent progression and the pushing of boundaries.

Edwin Roman’s recent book of photography, Brooklyn: Black and White, is now available. All proceeds will be donated to American Kidney Fund.

Works Cited

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Association of Art Museum Directors. 2017. 2017 Salary Survey. Survey, New York: Association of Art Museum Directors.

Association of Art Museum Directors. 2021. 2021 Salary Survey. Survey, New York City: Association of Art Museum Directors.

Baker, Kenneth. 2012. New logo touts vision of S.F.’s Asian Art Museum. March 2012. Accessed 2022.

Beveridge, William I.B. 1957. The Art of Scientific Investigation . New York City: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Blattberg, Robert C., and Cynthia J. Broderick. 1992. “Marketing of Art Museums.” In The Economics of Art Museums, by Martin S. Feldstein, 327 – 346. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bunch, Lonnie G. 2019. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Carr, David. 1999. “The Need for the Museum.” Museum News 31-57.

Coates, Charlotte. 2021. Museum Branding That Stands Out From The Crowd. May 1. Accessed 2022.

Davidson, Justin. 2016. FEB. 17, 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Logo Is a Typographic Bus Crash. February 17. Accessed February 2022.

Duong, Ariel. 2019. Weaving a new thread for LA museum Craft Contemporary. February 2019. Accessed February 2022.

Frojo, Renée. 2014. Yoga, missing terracotta warrior draw crowds to Asian Art Museum. January 16. Accessed 2022.

Ignyte Branding. n.d. The Psychology of Color. Accessed February 2022.

Jones, Robert. 2014. Curators may be sceptical but branding is vital for museums. May 1. Accessed 2022.

Kobayashi, Sachie. 2012. “Description of East Asian Seal Impressions as Metadata.” Journal of East Asian Libraries.

Mann, Jorrit. 2021. Dieter Rams: Ten Principles for Good Design. Munich: Prestel Art.

McCall, Vikki, and Clive Gray. 2014. “Museums and the ‘New Museology’: Theory, Practice and Organizational Change.” Museum Management and Curatorship 29 (1): 19-35.

Microsoft. 2021. Times New Roman font family. November 12. Accessed March 2022.

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Schubert., Karsten. 2000. The Curator’s Egg : the Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present Day. L. London.: One-Off Press.

Shaw, Paul. 2015. The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital (Codex Studies in Letterforms). Edited by Paul Shaw and Scott-Martin Kosofsky. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Singh, Satyendra. 2006. “Impact of color on marketing.” Mangement Decision (Emerald Group Publishing Limited) 44 (6): 783-789.

2020. A to Z: How Writing Changed the World. Directed by David Sington.

Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis. 2001. Audience Building: Marketing Art Museums. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Libraries . 2017. The Science of Color. May. Accessed March 2022.

Solar, Matt. 2018. What Brand Colors Can Reveal About Your Business. May. Accessed February 2022.

Stamp, Jimmy. 2014. To Redesign a Design Museum Start with the Typeface. August 14. Accessed March 2022.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals. Accessed February 2022.

Webster, Garrick. 2019. Font vs typeface: the ultimate guide. July 4. Accessed March 2022.


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