Opinion: the Design Museum Shop identity

The Design Museum Shop has a new identity. Build’s friendly, fun scheme has been superseded by Spin’s elegant, pared back approach. Graphic design in microcosm.

The Design Museum Shop has a new identity. Build’s friendly, fun scheme has been superseded by Spin’s elegant, pared back approach. Graphic design in microcosm.

Five years ago, the Design Museum shop adopted a new visual identity system created by Build. “We tried numerous approaches, many of them serious, even a little high-brow,” the studio said of its work on the project. “The end result was much more fun, approachable and of course enticing, to get feet through the shop door at the end (or the start) of a visit.”

Update: see the end of this post for an explanation of the new strategy from Design Museum’s Head of Retail Alice Marsh

That scheme has now been replaced with a new one by Spin (as we reported here) which aligns the shop much more closely with the main Museum brand (merely adding +SHOP to the existing GTF-designed mark) and elegantly employs a simple line as a graphic device to tie the scheme together.

Design Museum Shop paper bags using the old Build identity (top) and the new Spin scheme (above)

There is always more than one route to solve a design problem: in this case, we must presume, boosting sales for a shop within an insitution that caters to a design-literate, or at least design-curious, audience. Do you create a separate identity for the shop thus distinguishing it from the rest of the Museum, recognising the demands of its distinct, commercial, public-facing purpose and building a brand in its own right, or do you exploit the brand of the Museum itself by making the shop visually much more a part of the organisation and aligning the Museum’s various activities using one consistent visual language? Do you seek to make what could be seen as a high-brow institution more friendly and welcoming, your mission to convince that design is for everyone and not just those in fancy glasses, or do you take the view that the country’s only specialist design museum should be confident in its appeal and reflect the values of those whose work it displays? Should the Museum Shop’s own visual identity be as visually stimulating as the products it sells or should it stand back, be neutral and let the products take centre stage?

The Build-designed Shop (top) and Spin’s new look (above)

In many ways the Build and Spin schemes are a microcosm of graphic design. It can be warm or it can be cool: rounded or sharp-edged. It can seek to differentiate or integrate. It can be open and diverse or it can seek order and tidyness. It can bound up to you, tail wagging, or it can maintain its distance and be slightly aloof.

Build-style package top, Spin above

You can find fault with either approach: the Build scheme might be seen as twee, its distinctiveness may date, its style jar with that of the rest of the Museum. The Spin scheme, on the other hand, could be accused of being too ‘obvious’, too pared down, lacking in character, the line too simplistic a device. And that – bizarre to me – criticism that we often get in the comments here that ‘they haven’t done much for the money’ as if the worth of design projects should be determined by ink coverage or the quantity of typefaces employed.

Build bags top, Spin above


And both can be praised: Build’s scheme was a breath of fresh air, it offered multiple opportunities to create ‘own-brand’ products, it was fun and extremely engaging. Spin’s is elegant, appropriate, brings the shop back in line with Museum brand and we all know that doing the simplest thing can be the hardest thing of all.

There are always shifting priorities within client organisations which inform the tone of their communications: at some point the emphasis is on being more approachable, friendly, then research tells them that’s gone too far and they want to be taken seriously again. In times of plenty they may want to be seen to be confident and effervescent, then times get tougher and something more austere is the order of the day. One year it could be all about establishing a federation of sub-brands, the next something more monolithic is deemed appropriate. One year they want flexible and multifaceted, the next iconic. It’s up to the designer to respond to those demands and produce something appropriate. It doesn’t mean what went before was necessarily wrong (although it might have been), more often simply that it might be an idea to try something new.

That’s why what has happened with the Design Museum shop is interesting. It’s far from the biggest or most important redesign we’ll see this year but it’s a good example of how different graphic design executional approaches result from different perceived client needs and of the two parallel tracks that visual communications often finds itself on. The slightly warm and fuzzy, informal and friendly set aside the cool and elegant, formal and intellectual. Neither is inherently right nor wrong and, as this case shows, both can be deemed appropriate for the same organisation at different times. In another five years, we might see the Design Museum Shop switch tracks again.

UPDATE: I’ve just been speaking to Design Museum Head of Retail Alice Marsh regarding the thinking behind the new look. As suspected, Marsh says that “We wanted to bring the shop more in line with the museum in general” as the Museum continues to go through a period of change preceding its move to a new site. “We wanted to pare everything down, streamline it and move forward in keeping with the whole museum.” Spin had already been doing some work with the Museum on membership and so was asked to work on the shop. Marsh says that the Shop hopes to continue and expand its programme of collaborations with designers to produce products for sale. Therefore, they wanted an identity with a more neutral stance that would place the designers themselves more to the fore: that the shop would act as a platform for the designers it works with, almost a blank canvas for them to express themselves upon. “We didn’t want to impress our mark too much on them,” she says. The new scheme has templates which allow for collaborators, including designers and makers, to be credited on, for example, packaging or the Shop’s bags (see type top right on paper bag in the image below).

This also explains the introduction of the + symbol, which will be used to indicate the collaborative nature of the Shop in commissioning designers to produce products for it ie DESIGN MUSEUM SHOP + TERENCE CONRAN.

As for the line device, she says “It’s a starting point” and that they will go on to explore it with collaborators so that, for example, a textile designer might produce a piece for sale featuring a stitched line on a scarf.

Marsh stresses that the DM still works with Build on projects such as Young Designers, will still stock Build-designed ranges in the shop and sees the studio as a very important partner. “I loved the Build identity,” she says. “[The new look] is not a discredit to them in any way.” Build’s birdie badge (below), which is derived from the old identity, is still a bestseller in the shop.

As regards the Museum’s impending move, Marsh says that the Shop will have a much bigger space in the new building allowing for even more collaborations.



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