Why the Science Museum has a new identity

The Science Museum in London unveiled a new logo last week – just one element of a wider identity system created for the six institutions that make up the Science Museum Group. We spoke to Sean Perkins, partner at North Design, about the thinking behind the new system and the controversy it provoked on Twitter

Last week, the Science Museum in London posted a tweet announcing a new website and visual identity. Its new logo – a sans word mark in a gradated font – was revealed in a short animation and will replace a design created by johnson banks in 2010.

A few days after this tweet, the usual response to almost any notable rebrand or logo update ensued. There were tweets speculating on the cost of the project, tweets criticising the decision to replace the museum’s existing logo, tweets likening the new design to “a student project” and tweets comparing it to other designs. Johnson banks, meanwhile, also took to Twitter to express its disappointment that its work had been replaced. All this took place before the Museum had shared details of the rationale for the new logo or the wider identity system behind it.

This week, the Science Museum Group – made up of the Science Museum in London, the National Railway Museum in York; the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and Locomotion in Shildon – revealed a comprehensive new identity system that includes a custom font, a vibrant colour palette, a wealth of new photography and new logos for each of its museums.

The system was created by North – the same studio that revived the Co-op’s clover leaf logo from 1968 and refreshed the Tate’s visual identity last year before unveiling new branding for the Southbank Centre in June.

The Science Museum Group’s previous branding

North says it was asked to design an identity that would enable the Science Museum Group to present itself as “a family of museums with a shared vision”. The identity reflects the group’s new focus on shared programming and collections – more exhibitions will be travelling between museums and a new website built by Leeds agency Numiko allows users to browse and search for items from across the group’s collection in a single online archive.

The identity first appeared in Bradford following the reopening of the National Science and Media Museum and will be rolled out across other sites over the next 12 months. It is already visible at the Science Museum in London, both at the building’s main entrance and the entrance to its Illuminating India exhibition.

The Science Museum in London
The Science Museum in London

The identity is based around a custom typeface created with type foundry Fontseek. Logos for each museum use the same font and layout with words stacked on top of one another and letters shifting from bold to light.

The typeface comes in six weights from fat to light and its uniwidth design means that letters maintain the same width across multiple weights. North says this ensures type retains “a consistent shape and position” as letters gradate and animate.

SMG Sans is a uniwidth font, meaning its letters stay the same width regardless of weight

Letters can run from bold to light or light to bold and North says the effect can be used to illustrate a range of themes – such as illumination and light at the National Science and Media Museum or speed and progress at Locomotion.

The typeface will appear on everything from posters to packs of pencils sold in the museum store: “The idea is that it’s quite versatile but it’s unique enough so you know, even when it’s not used along with the logo, that it’s from the Science Museum Group,” says Perkins. “It’s a beautiful language once you get playing with it and will allow [the museums] to articulate a range of ideas.”

The gradated font and a gradient effect will be applied to staff uniforms and way finding around each of the group’s museums

The identity isn’t the first to use a gradated font. This effect was famously used by Otl Aicher for Erco in 1976 to reflect the company’s focus on lighting and by Canton Elektronik to represent sound. Paula Scher’s work for New York’s Public Theater and this year’s London Film Festival identity also use gradated lettering.

Perkins says North was aware of this and discussed the fact that other companies had used a similar effect but adds: “We all agreed that the SMG identity could execute a typographic gradient idea uniquely and that the approach offered a near perfect solution to the group design brief.”

The identity in use on posters promoting interactive Wonderlab galleries in London and Bradford

“The SMG font is about speed, illumination, focus, sound, movement, progress – even steam. It is used as a visual language, a recognisable style and voice and not just a logo…. The concept of the gradated typeface is indeed not new, however our approach and application is,” he explains.

Photographer Lee Mawdsley was commissioned to create a vast library of imagery for the Science Museum Group to showcase highlights from its collection. These images will be used in way finding as well as educational resources.

Photographer Lee Mawdsley photographed highlights from the Science + Media Museum’s collection. The images will be used to create pictorial way finding

As well as providing some great visuals for posters, Perkins says photographs will be used to solve one of the major issues facing the group’s museums – the fact that visitors often fail to see all of the exhibits in each museum.

“The collection at the Science Museum in London is incredible but they had found that many people didn’t necessarily make their way to all the different parts of the colossal collection,” says Perkins.

“We commissioned [Mawdsley] to photograph various highlights and they’re going to be used to create a pictorial way finding system, so when you enter on the ground floor, you can see images of [items on other floors].

“It’s a way of giving people more access to the collection, and it’s going to be used in the same way in Bradford and Manchester,” he explains. “It’s just really simple … and for international visitors, they don’t have to decode the wayfinding, they can just look at a picture and say, ‘I want to see that’ and go to that floor.”

Other features of the identity system include a vibrant colour palette made up of the seven colours of the spectrum and a gradient effect that has been applied to staff uniforms and merchandise.

Perkins says the design will save the group money in the long run. Design and marketing teams can now draw from a bank of shared assets to create shared communications – reducing the time spent producing materials in house and money spent on hiring external designers to create identities for individual exhibitions.

“There will be a lot of shared exhibition collateral and marketing materials,” he explains. “Using a consistent font means you don’t have to buy different licenses and you don’t have to commission so many different designers all the time…. In the past, [the group] created new typographical languages for new exhibitions, but the idea now is that they can use this one typeface. It can still have lots of different voices and volumes and tonality but you don’t need to be using a different font and reinventing the wheel every time.”

Perkins insisted the design wasn’t changed for change’s sake but because the group felt that the previous system and logos just weren’t working or weren’t capable of being applied to the whole group.

North has been working on the identity since last summer and consulted with stakeholders at each of the museums to understand their needs and identify any issues with previous branding. In London for example, Perkins says the Science Museum had discovered that visitors found johnson banks’ logo hard to read and wanted something more legible.

“Without criticising the past identity, [it was felt that] it just wasn’t one that could work across the whole group, and be easily understood and read by everybody,” explains Perkins.

johnson banks’ logo divided opinion on the CR blog when we covered its launch back in 2010 (in much the same way that North’s has now). There were several positive comments from readers but there were also many concerns raised over its longevity and legibility.

The Science Museum Group has gone through several changes in the past few years: its museums have undergone major refurbishments, new galleries have opened – including the Wonderlab galleries in London and Bradford and the impressive Zaha Hadid designed Maths gallery – and new educational programmes have been rolled out.

“This is one of the biggest museum groups in the world and it was really important that they have a clear and functional identity – an identity that you can read and understand, that is not just embellishment or decoration, that isn’t trendy, that will last and that is relevant whether you’re talking about moving image or railways or the future of locomotion … it’s not just a London-focused identity, it’s got to work for [the whole group],” adds Perkins.

The new identity will also have to work in many more ways than previous systems: “There’s a lot of material that hasn’t been rolled out yet – this touches everything from retail, to hospitality, sponsorship, enterprise and education,” says Perkins.

In terms of the the reaction to the identity on Twitter, Perkins says, “This is such a big project, it’s ridiculous to reduce it down to just one logo. You’d think people in the industry would be informed enough to understand that change is usually for a very good reason. This was a strategic change, it’s not just cosmetic – it’s for the general public and it’s [designed] to improve the visitor experience, to make more people visit the museums … and solve some of the challenges [the group] was facing,” he continues.

Perkins says the new identity is built to last and he hopes it will be in place for some time to come. North is a firm believer that identities shouldn’t be changed unless it’s absolutely necessary – but says in this case the best to decision was to create a system from scratch.

“The idea that an identity should last is absolutely true,” he says. “We did the RAC one over 25 years ago, and we revived Co-op’s logo from 1968 – so we believe in having true identities that should last and we try to avoid following fashion or style and trends. That’s what we tried to bring to this project, that longevity and flexibility.”

The response to the project online is indicative of many wider debates going on in design. Criticisms of the system’s simplicity reflect an ongoing debate around the simplification of graphic design (or ‘blanding’ as it’s often described) and a perceived lack of differentiation in contemporary branding as more and more companies look to streamline their visual identities. It also highlights the very real sense of loss that designers can experience when a piece of work is replaced by something new: after its initial Tweets, johnson banks has since posted a much more reasoned piece on its blog looking at why brands change identities and how designers may feel about that.

Tweets pointing out similarities between North’s system and others with gradated fonts also raise an interesting question around originality (a topic that designer Christopher Doyle recently discussed at length with CR). If this system works for the client, does it matter if it looks superficially similar to other schemes? Particularly if it is used in a new or unique way?

It’s also another example of the knee-jerk reaction that is all too common in discussions of identity systems. The same happened when The Met unveiled a new logo (and Airbnb and the Premier League and many other brands before that). The response to The Met branding prompted designer James Greenfield to write a piece for us on the negative impact of such reactions.

This is a considered piece of work that delivers on the brief to create a more cohesive visual language for the Science Museum Group. It takes months to roll an identity system like this out and even longer to gauge its success – but images already show how the identity will allow the group to communicate in a range of ways that it wasn’t able to before.

More from CR

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency