While London’s Science Museum has generated plenty of ground-breaking exhibition design over the past few years (the Wellcome Wing, the Dana Centre and the Challenge of Materials gallery to name but a few), its own identity has seemingly escaped the same treatment. At the end of last year, however, design studio johnson banks was asked to redesign the entire Science Museum brand and produce a new logo for the institution.
It was felt, says creative director Michael Johnson, that the museum needed to further its appeal beyond its core family audience and that a new identity system would help provide momentum for a new direction. “The Science Museum briefed us to search for a more sophisticated visual identity, to avoid the usual science clichés of test tubes and white-lab-coated professors,” he says.
Stacking letters to make a logo
Tim Molloy, the museum’s creative director, explains that one of its previous logos came to be used more widely than was first anticipated. “The ‘Sci-M’ mark designed by Peter Leonard Associates in the late 1980s was first used on a shopping bag, but people connected with it so it became the replacement to the original wordmark and crest we had,” says Molloy. “But for 15 years we haven’t had anything other than a workmanlike logo. So Michael took us through the painful process of showing us what the museum ‘looked’ like; in each example, the logo was completely invisible.”
After experimenting with several routes, johnson banks looked towards research they had carried out on codes, puzzles, patterns and basic digital typefaces (not to mention some 1920s type experiments by Theo Van Doesburg). Collecting feedback from the public, it became evident that many people actively ‘decoded’ the stacked letterforms, a process that, for Johnson, tapped into the notion of unlocking information: a key function of the museum itself. “Some saw it as futuristic, some as scientific,” he says. “And that’s a useful trait for the logo as it can mean many things to different people, without being overly specific about one aspect of science over another. From the outset we wanted to implement the logo as large as possible and then extrapolate the typeforms into a headline typeface.”
Interacting with a wider audience
“Families are of course a core audience for us,” says Molloy, “but we still have a wider responsibility. There’s something about ‘interactivity’ having previously just related to young people – and now that’s broken down. So we wanted something that was flexible, appealing to both young people and adults.” Indeed, the Lates series of events, one of the museum’s most recent attempts to reach an older audience, is already proving popular with those wishing to enjoy the exhibits without the kids.
Molloy describes the new identity as “interactive but also contemplative”, with “a strong tone of voice that doesn’t shout”. It’s far from a regular mark, he suggests: “It can be realised in three-dimensions as it has a thickness to it, it can make shadows, become a veil, or even animate. It’s definitely got legs.”
John Dowling, creative director, Dowling Duncan
The new Science Museum identity is already doing its job. It’s raising awareness, engaging people and encouraging debate. We all know an identity scheme is more than just a logo, it’s about the visual language, the tone of voice, how it behaves and the overall detailing. The logo should communicate the nature, qualities and values of the business that it has been designed to symbolise.
Here, the logo has massive presence; it’s open to personal interpretation and, because of that, it reflects the ‘joy of discovery’ people experience upon visiting the Science Museum. For some, the amalgamation of the letter ‘i’ and ‘E’ might look forced, or seem to sit uncomfortably with the other characters. Yet this provides a focal point, a playful visual device that transforms the signature into a recognisable interactive shape.
The intention from the outset seems to have been to use the logo on as large a scale as possible, so the museum can reinforce who they are and what they do. In the future, you can imagine the logo becoming less of a hero, while the strong graphic language and fantastic imagery takes centre stage, as the identity evolves. Science is about making discoveries, and this identity captures that sense of endeavour and exploration. With that in mind, I’m off to the museum with my two sons.
Lucy Holmes, director, Holmes Wood
I wanted to be a vet – luckily I had a form teacher who had the sense to tell me that I’d be at school forever trying to pass the three sciences. As a result the Science Museum isn’t top of my list as a destination.
And how can you compete with the V&A across Exhibition Road? When I look at the V&A mark, it makes me very glad that I’m a graphic designer. I wish I’d thought of it – it’s one of the best examples of design I can think of.
But the origins of this new identity are sound. I’m intrigued by the decision to have different ‘e’ letterforms – scientific experiments often produce unusual and unexpected results, therefore this does seem to reflect the subject matter. But for me, legible typography is crucial so I suppose I don’t wish I’d designed this identity, and as a non visitor I’m not convinced I will change my mind.
Having said that, design is not an exact science and I will keep an eye out for how this new formula progresses.
Bryan Edmondson, partner, SEA Design
Identity systems are intentionally designed with an eye firmly on the future, whereas most advertising works in reverse – it’s immediate, consumable and, for the most part, meant to have a shorter shelf life. But when I saw the new Science Museum logo on a poster near where I live, it made me look twice. It had impact and made me want to find out more.
While I’m fond of ‘almost-illegible’ logos, I presumed this was the latest poster campaign aimed at the thousands of kids about to break up for the summer. But I also gave it a second glance due to its similarity to the New Alphabet font designed by Wim Crouwel. Using Crouwel’s investigations as a reference here is interesting, and appropriate given his interest in science and technology.
So does this work as an identity for the Science Museum? Gut reaction: yes, as it very clearly identifies the museum. I would imagine it has been designed to work big – looking great at large scale but, perhaps, once reduced to a ticket, a badge or a press advert, appearing visually weaker. I do hope this logo stands the test of time though.
More discussion on the museum identity here on the blog.