Five museums with great graphic identities

We asked regular CR columnist and Koto co-founder/creative director James Greenfield to pick out his favourite five museum and gallery graphic identities from around the world. He looks at what makes them so successful and effective as pieces of communication

Centre Georges Pompidou

Jean Widmer, Visuel Design Association

On paper, the idea of making a logo for an institution that is essentially a rendering of the building seems a little dull and old-fashioned. Jean Widmer’s classic from 1977 tears this thinking up, creating something which is much more than a simple pictogram. It still feels as edgy and contemporary as the Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers-designed Centre itself. It’s just a shame the rest of the brand over time has lost this edge and approach in its execution. Like many galleries, the Pompidou leans towards using simple imagery of artists’ work, thinking this is enough, and in turn loses its own identity. Great institutional voices shouldn’t be overcome by the powerful art within and vice-versa.

centre george pompidou building
The Centre Georges Pompidou with its distinctive external escalators that suggested the form for Jean Widmer’s identity (photo: Ronald Tagra/Flickr)
centre george pompidou branding
Two posters designed by Widmer in the 1980s

Tate

Wolff Olins

Arguably the benchmark for a cultural institution brand in the 21st-century. Designed by Wolff Olins at the turn of the millennium, as the gallery was in the process of creating the Tate Modern, this brand has stood the test of time, with a logo and custom typeface that feel as fresh as the day it came out. With this in mind, I was surprised to hear that Tate was considering changing it. The only limitation to this brand is the imagination of the designer who executes against it. What is the purpose of a visual brand? Value, identification, emotion, feeling? The Tate brand stands apart as much as its ex-power station modern home. As Tate builds a new wing and pushes forward I am strongly in favour of keeping that beautifully adaptive logo.

The Wolff Olins-designed identity for Tate and a banner at Tate Modern. The design team was headed up by WO chair Brian Boylan and creative director, Marina Willer, now a partner at Pentagram in London. Photos: Tate Photography © Tate 2013
The Wolff Olins-designed identity for Tate and a banner at Tate Modern. The design team was headed up by WO chair Brian Boylan and creative director, Marina Willer, now a partner at Pentagram in London. Photos: Tate Photography © Tate 2013
Tate logo as shown on glass partitioning
Tate logo as shown on glass partitioning


Whitney Museum of American Art

Experimental Jetset

Designed by Experimental Jetset in 2013, this brand was launched to coincide with the Whitney’s collections moving to a new space next to New York’s High Line in 2015. When it was first released I overlooked its conceptual rigour as, visually, it felt a little fragile. This, combined with the Dutch studio’s adherence to Helvetica and its many variants, also made it easy to forget. I don’t subscribe to the Massimo Vignelli-like belief that a few typefaces can service every brand. We’ve seen great ideas dressed in the same clothes as many other of the studio’s projects, making it more about the designers and their beliefs and less about the gallery’s change. This view then pivoted 180˚ when I visited the gallery for the first time last year. I now see it as a great example of architecture and brand working as one, to the point that it’s a pioneer in many ways, though I’m still not into the Neue Haas Grotesk. We’re not always lucky enough to visit a building when we first see its identity (often viewing it online), but seeing it as it’s intended made this one come to life.

Branding for the whitney museum of american art
Press ad for Art Forum designed by Hilary Greenbaum, photography by Jens Mortensen
Graphic identity for the whitney museum of american art
(Left)Handbook of the Collection designed by Greenbaum. Each iteration relates to the ‘responsive W’ system designed by Experimental Jetset. At its launch in 2013, the studio revealed that all items using the new identity would be produced by the Whitney’s in-house design team, headed up by its director of graphic design, Hilary Greenbaum, photography by Jens Mortensen; (Right) Directional signage designed by Francesca Grassi, Meg Forsyth, Keri Bronk. Signage Partner: Entro Communications. Photo by Ben Gancsos

deSingel

Why Not Associates

Viewed from the UK, the European gallery often seems a looser, more creative affair. Less about commercial footfall and more about the celebration of art, however obscure it may be. Identities convey the feeling and values of organisations that match a public need. This new identity from Why Not Associates very much fits into this idea: loose and playful, with simple block colours and silhouettes derived from both the Antwerp arts venue’s former logo, designed by Herbert Binneweg in 1979 (it appears on the facade of the original main block), and its various buildings. This European flavour, even though it was designed in London, feels perfect, with a design that could have been made at any point in the last decade. Each poster utilises the specific exhibition or show image, without losing the venue identity in the mix. No mean feat and one I would venture will stick around for quite a while.

Poster for actor/singer Liesa Van der Aa’s forthcoming performance of her album
Poster for actor/singer Liesa Van der Aa’s forthcoming performance of her album
Desingel museum branding
Leaflet for Amanda Piña and Daniel Zimmermann’s performance of War later this year

The Hepworth Wakefield

A Practice for Everyday Life

Does a gallery brand have to operate differently if it doesn’t occupy a place in a dense metropolis? Many regional galleries often feel that they do, to create a splash and drive visitors, resulting in identities that feel overly try-hard and cheap. The Hepworth Wakefield doesn’t have such an issue, its confidence creates an attractive consistency to its output. The UK’s largest purpose-built museum outside of London, it was named in honour of the famous British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, whose birthplace the gallery sits near. The typographic approach takes its formal cues from the David Chipperfield-designed building, itself derived from the local pitched roofs of Wakefield. Typography with reason and ideas can be rare, but in this case the results are restrained, confident and simple. A great design which echoes the work of the sculptor herself, making something that feels timeless.

Exhibition signage in the Hepworth in Context gallery; The APFEL identity on the gallery’s facade. All images © A Practice for Everyday Life; Lead image, The exterior of The Hepworth Wakefield, designed by David Chipperfield and featuring the identity by A Practice for Everyday Life
Exhibition signage in the Hepworth in Context gallery; The APFEL identity on the gallery’s facade. All images © A Practice for Everyday Life; Lead image, The exterior of The Hepworth Wakefield, designed by David Chipperfield and featuring the identity by A Practice for Everyday Life

This article was published in the Museums issue of Creative Review, July 2016.  

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