Taking a letter for a walk

At the heart of the new identity for the Whitney Museum in New York is a single, not uncontroversial, zigzag line. Meet Experimental Jetset’s ‘responsive W’

On the subject of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new visual identity, let’s get a couple of things straight. The first thing is, it’s not Helvetica. The second is the W. It’s not just a W. It can be a line, too. Flat and, yes, straight when you want it to be.

The first matters only to typophiles and students of the output of the Dutch design studio, Experimental Jetset, which designed the Whitney identity system. EJ’s regular employment of Helvetica in its work seems to delight many consumers of design and annoy intensely those design observers that think it’s an easy (and lazy) way out of typographic selection.

The font for the Whitney, though, isn’t Helvetica. Not quite. It’s a redrawn, digital version of Neue Haas Grotesk, the typeface that became more widely known as Helvetica and, as such, over 50 years, has been through the typographic mangle in its adaptations for different typesetting technologies. By using NHG, EJ can further deny the ‘myth’ that it always uses Helvetica (and point to its use of other fonts such as Univers and Futura in schemes for other museums); critics will claim the Whitney font is Helvetica, as near as damnit, and question its appropriateness.

We’ll draw a line for now under this enduring font fracas and move on to the other line, the line that is a zigzag, the zigzag that is a W, the W that stretches and folds its limbs into the white space of the Whitney’s printed matter, for this is what lies at the heart of the new system, the thing that animates it and brings it to life.
In a booklet from 2011, produced to mark the ground breaking ceremony for the Renzo Piano-designed building that will be the Whitney’s new home from 2015, chief curator Donna De Salvo wrote this: “It would be much easier to present the history of art as a simplistic line – but that’s not the Whitney.”

The museum has never lacked confidence. From its iconic, staircase frontage on Madison Avenue to the debut retrospectives it has given to a succession of big-name artists over the decades, the ‘preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States’ has always made its presence felt. This extends to its visual – what it would now call its brand – identity. The monolithic wordmark designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram in 2000 – which the new system supercedes – “stunned” the Whitney board when Miller unveiled it for the first time, but was still adopted.

“A lot has changed both for the Whitney as an institution as well as for branding in general since the old identity was introduced,” says the Whitney’s director of graphic design, Hilary Greenbaum. “We didn’t start the re-branding process with any intent except to create an identity that felt true to the Whitney now, and would remain so after we moved to our new building.”

To Experimental Jetset, the concept of a non-straight line, a zigzag, seemed not only to encapsulate the De Salvo/Whitney concept of art history, but a host of other notions and images: most obviously a W; less obviously, Piano’s architecture and the idea of an institute that is continually moving between past and future, industrial and sublime; and least obviously, hidden hobo symbols on the High Line and the waves of the nearby Hudson River (the new building lies between these two landmarks).

The responsive W

The W’s evolution into something elastic and foldable followed EJ’s attempt to convince the Whitney of the virtues of a purely typographic, text-only design approach, free of images of art. The museum wasn’t having it. What the designers hit upon when placing images of art within areas of standard print dimensions, was that each artwork created a unique area of white space around it on the page.

“In many ways,” says the studio, “this remaining space can be seen as a sort of representation of the museum itself – it is the space that exists around the artwork, the area in which the institute becomes visible. So our idea was to find a way to somehow emphasise this remaining space, to make it visible, to reveal it – through the use of the zigzag line.”

The concept of the ‘responsive W’ developed from there: a flexible identity in a literal sense, a system that responds to the art on display, with the implication that, at the Whitney, ‘the art comes first’. On print material, the W’s three uppermost points remain stationary while its four stems telescope around the page, fitting into the vacant space.

Responsive or invasive? It could be said that the elastic line/letter exerts too much of a presence; in ‘revealing’ the space, isn’t the W also removing it? “True, there’s a paradox at the heart of this,” say EJ. “To reveal an open space is also to enclose it. But it was exactly this tension between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ we were searching for.”

Greenbaum highlights another delicate balance that the identity, in common with that of almost every other art institution, must achieve. “The tricky part about a museum identity is that it has to be recognisable on its own, but also deferential to the artists and artworks being represented. This mark allows for us to adjust the volume of the brand in a way that extends beyond simply modifying its scale.”

According to EJ, the new system offers ways of using the W in a more controlled fashion, to leave artwork more space to breathe, including, if necessary, collapsing it into a flat line. This can best be seen on the new Whitney website (by Linked By Air): scroll down on the home page and the W shrinks into a flat line, “after which all the flat lines on the website suddenly reveal themselves to be part of the system”.

Dutch style

Turning the volume down goes against EJ’s natural instincts: to create as strong a presence as possible for its cultural clients, even if it means dispensing with all images of art, as the initial concepts proposed. The studio argues that “an art institute is a mediated (and mediating) environment, and in our opinion, you should be totally honest about that. That’s why we personally don’t have a problem with graphic identities that manifest themselves in a bold and outspoken way.” EJ cite the posters produced by Wim Crouwel for the Stedelijk Museum, many of which overprinted the SM monogram on top of the reproduced artwork.

Coincidentally, the identity by Mevis en van Deursen that superceded Crouwel’s ‘SM Style’ (see CR Logo Log May 12) and the Whitney’s are on a very similar wavelength: flat, monochrome, with rules and all-caps sans-serif type applied in a consciously elementary, awkward, almost naïve, manner around the art.

It’s these qualities that have angered some American design-watchers (“soulless”, “flimsy”, “asinine” are some of the adjectives). Other sources of annoyance are the Whitney’s choice of a non-American design studio and EJ’s choice of a strongly European typeface on the grounds that it captures a tension between the respective positions of American and European art that has always informed the Whitney’s identity. Seen as purified Helvetica, the font is also, of course, very New York. The Whitney identity could be seen as simply reviving a European connection that started with the work of Massimo Vignelli and Unimark International, and the NYC subway signs.

The identity is undoubtedly a radical departure for an American art institution, but this is an American art institution in the process of a radical departure. Its identity signals that as clearly as the new premises will, rejecting the heavyweight, patrician image and in favour of an air of accessible, approachable authority, wit and restless invention. It is perfectly attuned to the Whitney’s model art consumer. And in the giftshop, on bags, badges and notebooks, it will get them queueing all the way to the Hudson.

Greenbaum is excited by the potential. The implementation of the identity – including all of the examples here – is being carried out only by the Whitney’s in-house design team. “There are so many avenues we can explore with it that will help ensure its durability, longevity, and relevance as a brand. The materials we’ve designed so far are just the beginning.”

Experimental Jetset, having handed over the system and the manuals, are hoping the Whitney’s designers find a freedom within the graphic language “in the same way that we were able to find a sense of freedom within the specifications and demands of the Whitney”.

That said, the system will undeniably retain an Experimental Jetset flavour, or ‘tone of voice’.
“But this tone of voice is not something we are ashamed of,” say EJ. “It’s our natural voice, our authentic way of talking. We’re not like actors who need a wig and a funny voice for every different role. We’re more the sort of actors who use their own faces, and their own voices – but still know how to perform.”

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and Logotype (Laurence King). See evamy.co.uk and @michaelevamy

 

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