Poetry as a visual art – on designing a new identity for the Poetry Foundation

Pentagram has brought a new typographic look to the Poetry Foundation and its long-established magazine, Poetry, which explores the visual possibilities of this unique written form. Michael Bierut explains the thinking behind the work

New-look edition of Poetry magazine, July/August 2017. Business cards shown top of post

Since its founding in 2003, the Poetry Foundation in Chicago has worked “to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience”. The organisation evolved from the Modern Poetry Association (founded in 1941) and continues the publication of Poetry magazine, itself in print since 1912.

As part of its remit to bring poetry to a wider audience, the Foundation now also supports a variety of events and digital programmes – its website contains everything from extensive biographies of writers and themed collections of poetry, to podcasts and individual poems – over 43,000 of them.

Poetry Foundation identity variants

In a project that unites the look of the Foundation, Poetry magazine and the organisation’s online presence, Pentagram New York designed a new grid-based identity which allows for the name to be displayed in myriad different ways and emphasises the place of graphic design and type in shaping our appreciation of this written form. We spoke to the studio’s Michael Bierut about the project.

CR: You mention in your text on the Foundation website that poetry is “a peculiarly visual art form” – and how the words are arranged on the page is key to how we read a poem. Can you tell us a bit more about how this idea influenced the identity redesign?

Michael Bierut: We considered a number of different directions, but this was the only direction where the focus was on visual treatments of the word ‘Poetry’. We found ourselves thinking of everything from the radical Futurist poetry of Marinetti to the idiosyncratic punctuation of Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings. From that we took license to divide up the word into its 2 x 3 grid and to experiment with different kinds of letterforms and mark-making.

Cover mock-ups demonstrating a range of approaches for Poetry magazine

CR: Poetry magazine had its previous identity for just over 12 years. What considerations did you make to retain the support of those who know the magazine, while attracting the attention of new readers? Do you have to strike a balance between recognition and newness?

MB: Poetry magazine has been published for over 100 years, and and its cover has changed over the years. For decades, the cover was often purely typographic. The design approach from my friends at Winterhouse a dozen years ago introduced the idea of consistently using illustration.

Our approach is meant to merge the two: type as image. We’ve been consistently surprised by the appetite for change at the Poetry Foundation. They don’t see themselves just as custodians of a historic tradition, but as the champions of voices that have relevant contributions to make today and tomorrow.

Poetry Foundation literature

CR: What’s the thinking behind changing the magazine title typography issue to issue? I like the idea that it chimes with poetry as a medium/artform for trying new things, but how have you balanced an evolving magazine aesthetic with a fixed identity for the Foundation itself?

MB: As a designer I’ve always been obsessed with themes and variations, and as we started this project it occurred to me that poetry works the same way. Our introduction to poetry is often through set forms: the haiku, the limerick, the sonnet. The variations that are possible within these variations is where the art comes in.

The identity of Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation is based on the same kind of rules. What’s the underlying structure? What can vary and when? The covers, which are meant to be timely, change the most. The Foundation identity is structured the same way but is relatively stable.

Poetry Foundation website

CR: It goes without saying but typography is hugely significant to poetry – from how the words are ‘designed’ on the page, to the choice of type itself. In terms of how the poems are displayed on the website and in the magazine, what was your role as designers here? Have you changed any typefaces, brought in new ones?

MB: I always liked the typeface Pietro the magazine was already using for its poems, so we’ve kept that and specified it as the supporting typeface for collateral and other uses. I thought the Gill Sans was looking a bit tired, so we updated that to Rod McDonald’s Gibson, which has a similar tone of voice but a wider range of weights and a slightly more forthright character.

More on the project at poetryfoundation.org and on the Pentagram site, pentagram.com

Poetry Foundation digital icon suite
Poetry Foundation tote bag

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