The Met and the maelstrom

Many major rebrands today are greeted with a storm of online snark but the row that ensued after New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed its new look hit a new high (or low, perhaps). Here, we trace the key moments in the debate, from initial horror through attempted justification and on to calm

Met Brand Press Images_031116_01

First out of the books, Justin Davidson, the classical music critic at New York magazine reveals his instant distaste for the Met’s new graphic identity.

“The whole ensemble looks like a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs.” (bit.ly/1MklSfx)

Mike Dempsey has his say in the Design Week comments section

“I am not normally one to criticise fellow designers but there are some occasions when I really feel the need. I have just read Wolff Olins’ rationale for their redesign of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s identity. Here are some of the things they say about it: “It’s about connections”, “Looking to the past and the future”, “Open and accessible”, “The mark is a unique drawing inspired by the idea of making ‘connections’.”

If I have heard that collection of statements once I have heard them a thousand times in my 50-odd years in the business. And their definitive view of the new logo, “The result is a crafted mark that looks to the past and to the future, or any place in between.” ‘Crafted’, really??? And apparently this whole thing took two-and-a-half years of collaboration between Wolff Olins and a cross-disciplinary team at the Met. Jesus give me strength.

I think it would be fitting to remove the distinguished Wolff name from Olins because Michael (who parted company with the firm many decades ago) would never have sanctioned work like this.

Design work for arts organisations by its very nature should be the pinnacle of creativity for any designer, they are part of our creative family. The result should shine and make us wish we had done it.” (bit.ly/1QV2WcB)

BELOW: Website pages featuring The Met’s new identity by Wolff Olins 

Erik Spiekermann attacks the typography on Brand New

“The new logo looks like a piece of 70s lettering. I know because I was there and got equally carried away with being able to overlap letters and parts of them. Using Letraset or headline typesetting – a Staromat from Berthold in my case. It looks like the person who drew the logo never used either of these and knows this type of work only from old issues of U&lc (they’re available as high-res PDF). If they’d been around they would know that certain design trends were brought about by technology and deserved to die with that technology. If you don’t know historical precedents, re-using them becomes a misquote. People may wear platform shoes again but everybody will regard them as a reference, possibly tongue-in-cheek. Quoting a stupid trend like giant overlapping serifs is not funny for a world-class institution.

When you have a combination of letters in front of you, it is a good exercise to analyse them: first their meaning and then their shape. As typographers, letterers, graphic or type designers, we give shape to words written by other people. We need to serve those words the best we can. Now then: THE is a definite article, not really a very meaningful word. But in this case, it has more meaning than normally. It designates the MET as the definitive one; as people have pointed out, in competition with the other Met in NYC, the Metropolitan Opera.
The ‘Th’ (caps & lc) ligature is quite common because the left arm of the ‘T’ overreaches and clashes with the top of the ‘h’. That makes the word ‘The’ a logo in itself. Even ‘TH’ could work as a ligature, but only if you took off some of the noise that happens when too many serifs meet, especially when they are such large appendages as in the case of the type chosen here.

In other words: conceptually this could work, but the execution sucks. The worst mistake, always, is to force given letter shapes into spaces not defined for them. A ‘T’ is narrower than an ‘M’, and if that ‘T’ has been made even narrower by crashing it into an ‘H’, then trying to make the two lines THE and MET be equally wide becomes impossible. Except when you then squeeze the proud ‘M’ into a straightjacket. While ‘THE’ here is more than just a definite article, ‘MET’ stands for a whole institution and doesn’t deserve to be manipulated into an arbitrary shape just to make it align with a word that should naturally be shorter. A common dilemma for us designers, but with some respect for language we can always find solutions that respect the words while giving them a unique appearance. This, unfortunately, is another example of a motto I normally associate with advertising: “It is not enough to have no ideas, you also have to be unable to express them.” (bit.ly/21tjiuG)

The Met's new brand identity as seen on printed material and the app
Various printed material and the phone app

Wolff Olins explain their approach in Design Week’s coverage of the project

“The mark is a unique drawing inspired by the idea of making ‘connections’ — helping users connect ideas across time and culture, across the collection, between themselves and the art they interact with.

“The letterforms are connected together in bespoke ways and combine both serif and sans-serif letterforms — a deliberate move to incorporate both classical and modern ideas, a nod to the fact that The Met spans 5,000 years of art.” (bit.ly/1QV2WcB)

Cynthia Round, senior VP of marketing at the museum, speaks to Wired about strategy

“The Met represents over 5,000 years of art, from over the world. At the Breuer we’ll be looking at more modern art, and at the Cloisters, the Medieval collection.This notion of trying to make the connections, it was one of the things that drove the look of the logo.” (bit.ly/21tn2MK)

A catalogue for the exhibition at The Met Breuer
A catalogue for the exhibition at The Met Breuer

A statement from the museum acknowledges the debate 

“The new logo no longer relies on symbols and is based on the commonly used name ‘The Met’, which has an immediacy that speaks to all audiences. It is an original drawing that combines and connects serif and sans serif, classical and modern letterforms…. It reflects the scope of the Museum’s collection and the connections that exist within it….There may be debate about the logo because it involves change, but the Museum chose it because it represents something simple, bold, and indisputable: The Met is here for everyone.” (bit.ly/1RkevWB)

Experimental Jetset warn of judging work too early, via Wired

“It’s only after a couple of months (or maybe years) that an identity can be really judged on its merits – if ever. In the case of that new identity of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this seems especially true. From what we understand, the actual identity will be launched in March. What is shown now … is just a sort of ‘leaked’ thumbnail. There’s no way you can say something worthwhile about such an isolated picture, without having seen the way it will be applied, how it will behave in the building, how it will endure, [and] how it will sustain.” (bit.ly/21tn2MK)

Family leaflets created as a part of the Met's rebranding
Family leaflets

Michael Bierut offers a more reflective take on Design Observer

“Okay: I admit it. I liked the new Met logo the first time I saw it, and the more I see it, the more I like it.

There are lots and lots of reasons that this is, if not a great logo, then certainly a better logo than the one it’s replacing. The old symbol, that beloved (albeit to my eyes kind of generic and clip-artsy) Pacioli M, needed to be captioned with the full name of the institution: five words, ten syllables, 26 letters, all in poor old Trajan. This was cumbersome in every sense, particularly as the institution prepares to open in the former Whitney Museum building on Madison Avenue (to be renamed The Met Breuer after its architect). That new site, along with the less-visited but utterly lovely Cloisters, makes the Met a citywide complex that demands not a monolithic identity, but a way to connect up all the pieces. The new logo, a self-reading wormark that acknowledges the institution’s two-syllable colloquial name, will serve effectively as the hinge for the whole system.

Typeface treatments for the Met's rebranding
Typeface treatments

The logo’s multiple ligatures are no doubt the new identity’s most polarising element. As an experienced design pitchman, I knew immediately these were meant to signify ‘connections’ well before its designers at Wolff Olins said as much. But more importantly, I’ll bet you that I could find half a dozen precedent examples of the same typographic conceit on medieval manuscripts and classical inscriptions within a five-minute walk from the Met’s front door. You want history? Here’s history. The Met, perhaps the world’s most overwhelmingly overstuffed encyclopedic museum, is nothing if not complex. The new logo’s refreshingly idiosyncratic typography is a perfect analog for that complexity. And red is the perfect colour.

But all of these thoughts came later. The first thing I thought when I saw the new identity was quite simple: If this thing was 45 years old, it would be the most beloved logo in New York.

All the fuss that’s made about logos camouflage an embarrassing secret: people are reluctant to admit how they actually work. Imagine it’s 1968, and you’re the head of marketing for a midwestern department store called Target. You go to the country’s most respected corporate identity consultants, Unimark International, and they give you a cleaned-up logo that’s … well, a target: a red dot with a red circle around it. Blessedly, social media hasn’t been invented yet, so you’re spared the now-inevitable Twitterstorm (“How much did they pay for this?” and “This is the best they could come up with?” and the mandatory “My five-year-old … “ etc.). Nonetheless, there must have been some doubtful whispers in the corporate hallways.

What you couldn’t have told anyone – what you couldn’t have even guessed – was what would happen over the next five decades: that the blank simplicity of the mark would enable an astonishing range of creative uses. There are many examples of symbols that might have been dismissed as underwhelming at their birth, from Chanel to Nike. What they have in common is what Paul Rand called “the pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning”. What everyone gets confused about is the difference between meaning and the promise of it; like the “pursuit of happiness”, what you’re guaranteed is not success but its potential.

Website pages

How do you design for potential meaning? How do you convince a client to view a new identity not as a purchase, but as an investment?

I have been increasingly fascinated by this process in recent years. When my team was working on a new logo for a major telecommunications company last year, I felt we had arrived at a solution that solved every problem but one: it didn’t demonstrate how creative we were. After many attempts, I came to feel that all these gestures were self-indulgent and, in fact, interfered with the communication of clarity and simplicity. We went with the simple solution and took the consequences.

Along the course of my career I became addicted to something I’ve come to think of as preemptive cleverness, delivering logo systems that appear to be fully articulated on day one. Like moving into a fully furnished house, this can be reassuring and convenient. But at the same time, it makes it much harder to make the place your own. Something more open ended allows, and even invites, participation. I remain haunted by a great example, those Nick Fasciano’s logos for Chicago I loved when I was 13: one design, endlessly inventive variations. They may even have led me to wonder if a presidential campaign could use the same strategy.

The Met maps in various languages

Most design disciplines think in the long term. Architects design buildings to last for generations; industrial designers create products that will withstand endless hours, if not years, of use. Graphic designers, whether we admit it or not, are trained for the short term. Most of the things we design have to discharge their function immediately, whether it’s a design for a book or a poster, a website or an infographic, a sign system, or a business card. In school critiques, architecture and industrial design students produce models. Graphic designers produce finished prototypes. As a result, the idea that we create things that are unfinished, that can only accrue value over time, is foreign to us. It’s so easy for us to visualise the future, and so hard to admit that we really can’t. That’s what we face every time we unveil a new logo.

And so every time a major identity is introduced today, it’s subjected to immediate scrutiny. Why not? It’s fun. It’s risk free. Every client wants to have an audience ‘connect on an emotional level with their brand’. And then when they do, it’s not always what they hoped for. People love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Naturally they take it personally when the Met decides to change its logo.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, anyone evaluating a brand new logo at first glance is – to paraphrase my partner Paula Scher – reviewing a three-act play based on what they see the moment the curtain goes up. Or, to put it differently, they think they’re judging a diving competition when in fact they’re judging a swimming competition. The question isn’t what kind of splash you make. It’s how long you can keep your head above water. (bit.ly/1UdFWYF)

This article was published in The Health Issues, April 2016. You can subscribe to Creative Review here

Lead image features various identities as previously used by The Met. 

The Wolff Olins core team: Lisa Smith, creative director and head of design; Nick O Flaherty, global principle;  Amy Lee, strategy director director; Allison Busch, programme manager. Logo design, Gareth Hague

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