Originally founded in 1923, by the middle of the 20th century Herman Miller had become synonymous with modern furniture design, with many of its pieces widely considered to be classics today. Following the brand’s 100th anniversary last year, the team decided to embark on the “not-so-simple” design challenge of rethinking its global brand and how it shows up across every touchpoint imaginable, Order co-founder, Jesse Reed, tells CR.
The Brooklyn design agency was tasked with developing a design system that would retain Herman Miller’s heritage, while allowing for new and future applications of the visual brand. “This wasn’t an arbitrary task, but one fuelled by multiple changes in the organisation’s business strategy,” says Reed.
“For one, the company now lives under the Miller Knoll umbrella, which only strengthens their reach alongside all of the other MK brands. Parallel to that, the visual identity they’ve had for the last 25 years had served them well, but it wasn’t designed to meet the needs of digital, social, and brick and mortar environments.”
The team started out by defining the essence of who the brand is today. “The company has always stood for the same values — problem-solving, quality production, and having the highest standards — but the real secret ingredient was the joy and playful expression,” says Reed. “Our attention turned towards the company’s history that celebrated these more emotional moments (something that was there from the start) and bringing them back to the forefront.”
The company’s design heritage played a huge part in the process, with Order spending time at the Herman Miller archives in Zeeland, Michigan. Alongside its obvious reputation for modern design, what struck Reed most was the playfulness of the brand’s personality since its early days. “Their designers weren’t afraid of colour, scale, illustration, and happy accidents. In our line of work–which can be often very corporate with a capital C–this sort of human gesture is often lost or unwelcome,” he says.
The new design is heavily inspired by the late 1960s, when Herman Miller first worked with Chicago-based designer John Massey to strengthen its design system. A few years later, it also hired its first in-house graphic designer, Steve Frykholm, who would later be responsible for bringing a more emotional quality to the company’s graphic language.
“In the 1990s this playfulness began to recede, and the brand became much more contained. And so, our new design system leverages the playfulness of Herman Miller’s earliest collaborations, with the period of the company in which their furniture became solidified into the modernist canon, all supported by a structure to move into more digital and physical spaces with clarity and ease,” says Reed.
While the brand’s instantly recognisable ‘M’ symbol, designed by Irving Harper back in 1946, remains unchanged, it has been refined slightly to work across different mediums. Next to the logo is a more noticeably revised wordmark which is now set in Söhne, designed by Klim Type Foundry.
“Changing the symbol was never an option for us, as it’s the most consistent and long-lasting piece of their brand heritage, but the typeface was something we thought could use more purpose and function,” says Reed. Söhne is designed to be a contemporary nod to classic grotesque fonts such as Helvetica, which was used by the brand during the Massey era.
Supporting the new identity is a brighter and fuller colour palette, taken from earlier palettes when the brand used colour more expressively. While the team agreed the Herman Miller red was vital to maintain, they felt it didn’t need to be as restrained and so the additional colours are intended to be used throughout the system in as many places as they’re needed. “You’ll see much more of the system and how it works over the next six months as the team continues this transition,” says Reed.