…if a double-decker bus crashes into us.

 (or a very incomplete reaction to a new visual identity system)

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New logotype for the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Wolff Olins alongside the older identity mark.

Perhaps most interesting is that it is a topic of conversation at all: I’m talking about last week’s incomplete reveal of a new visual branding system for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The system, designed by the New York office of Wolff Olins, is part of a two-year project with the Met to rethink the museum’s approach to the public. The new system was supposed to have been announced on March 1 — with the press preview of the Met Breuer in the former Whitney Museum building on Madison Avenue — but the logotype was inadvertently revealed as it leaked out on the museum’s posters and mailings.

Soon the image of the new logo along with immediate criticism began to leak out on blogs and then on Under Consideration, Vulture (New York Magazine) and The New York Times. New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson called the new logo “a typographic bus crash.” (hence my borrowing of The Smiths’ lyric for the title)

“In its logo, the Met is now THE MET, the two short words printed in scarlet letters, stacked and squashed together. The whole ensemble looks like a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs. Worse, the entire top half of the new logo consists of the word the,” wrote Davidson.

Soon the comments were flying.  Some positive and many negative but all passionate. Only in New York I thought with a smile, would the leak of a possible logo, the rest of the system unseen, cause such excited response. Over the weekend, I posted the Times article on Facebook and was surprised by the number of comments from designer and non-designer friends alike.

My first reaction to the logo was neither tempered or quiet. I screamed “What!” and knocked my iPad to the floor. Like some of the critics, my first response was hatred.  The letters looked like an off-kilter gothic warning sign. The stacked type, sharp serifs and edges and bizarrely tight letter spacing looked like a dangerous appliance buried in a kitchen drawer: the kind that lurks under the ice cream scoop, ready to fillet my distracted and unsuspecting fingers when I reach in without looking, attempting to locate the microplane.

Worst of all the logo violates this type-lover’s most important tenet of typography: What is not there may be more important than what is seen. When used well, negative space is sacred.

It is easy to look at letters in isolation: the swoop of an R, the swirl of the Q. The beauty of any letterform relies on the type designer’s analysis and careful use of the negative space: the open space surrounding the letter. It is this space that literally hold the letter in space. That is what makes typefaces as varied as Helvetica, Baskerville and Garamond such arresting classics.

In the new Met logo, what is gained by squashing the letters so tightly together? Why force and invent so many dagger pointed ligatures? Both of the three letter words—THE MET—share two similar characters, and yet there is no attempt at symmetry or to draw attention to this harmony. To my subjective eye, the new mark is ugly and jarring. Is it a bad pastiche of 1970’s typographic styling?  What is the point (pun intended)?

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Herb Lubalin, Avant Garde typeface, early 1970’s alongside the new logotype. 

Then I decided to step back and take a wider view starting with the museum itself: a treasured destination sitting gracefully above Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. According to the museum’ s website:

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, and the world’s most encyclopedic art museum under one roof. Founded in 1870, its permanent collections, housed in 17 curatorial departments, embrace more than two million works of art spanning 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present, from every part of the globe, in all artistic media, and at the highest levels of creative excellence. “

The Met is the very first art museum I can remember visiting as a child. I grew up on a small barrier island off of South Jersey, yet my family visited New York several times a year. I have fond memories of some of the big exhibits of the 1970s and 80s—The Treasures of Tutankhamun, a Degas exhibit and the vast collections: too much to take in at once. So there were many visits through the years.

The museum is the first “grown up space” I was permitted to navigate on my own. I just had to promise to meet my dad, brother and sister at a decided upon time. It is hard to put into words how much I loved wandering this massive beaux arts building on my own: stopping where I wished then moving along to encounter unexpected discoveries.

Around tScreen Shot 2016-02-23 at 12.57.46 PMhe same time I must have read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In this Newberry Medal winning book, Twelve-year-old Claudia decides to run away from home because she thinks her parents do not appreciate her and she doesn’t like it. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City, with her brother Jamie. Jamie is companion partly because he has saved all his money. With one unused adult fare that she found in a wastebasket, Claudia found a way to get there for free. The early chapters are particularly indelible in my mind, when Claudia and her brother settle in at the museum. They hide from the staff in the bathroom, standing on the toilet so their feet don’t show in a sweep. The children bathe in the fountain and live on the wishing change that visitors toss. They sleep in a very old bed at night and blend in with school tour groups during the day. How I longed to run away and live in the Met! 

So this museum means more to me than the many others I visited as a child and later, as an adult. It stands above other museums, indeed other places. If the museum means this much to me, it is not surprising that it raised passions among New Yorkers and the design community.

As a designer and teacher, I know that a logo is only one part of a vibrant identity system. It may act as a fingerprint, but looking at an isolated logo tells us little about how the designer’s plans for the overall system. A second and larger caveat: I do not have access to the design brief for the re-branding system or the designers’ strategy. Without that background, I cannot know the intent, the audience, how the system will function in space to navigate visitors through three very different physical spaces (the museum on fifth, the Cloisters, and the soon to open Met Breuer.) I have no idea how the system will operate online, on mobile, as an app or through signage and print and motion. Is the museum trying to attract a new audience? Keep an existing audience engaged? Without this knowledge, it is hard to offer any but a superficial and subjective critique of the mark itself. So realize that the criticism is limited to the mark at hand: the system could operate well enough, I suppose, to overcome my initial resistance to the change.
Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 3.44.24 PMSome additional pieces of the new Met identity system by Wolff Olins and the Met.

While I have fond memories of the small metal buttons : a souvenir of a visit to the museum, I admit I never really studied the old logo, which was adopted in 1971.  The new stacked logo will replace the mark that has defined the museum for the last 40 plus years. That logo features an M standing proudly in a solid-colored circle. On closer look, the M sits at the center of a delicately drawn circle-in-a-square, cut by diagonals and ringed with six smaller circles. It is based on an original is from a woodcut by Luca Pacioli, a collaborator of Leonardo da Vinci’s.Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 5.24.44 PMThe Met has had a variety of logotypes and marks during its history.

I am not adverse to thoughtful changes in visual identities to meet current or new needs. Two beautiful systems come immediately to mind. First is the stunning re-brand of the Jewish Museum in New York by Sagmeister & Walsh. The system works beautifully across many platforms: promotions, packaging, stationary, advertising and web.

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Sagmeister & Walsh identity system for the Jewish Museum in New York City.

In their words: “Our goal in rebranding the museum was to connect the historic and contemporary, and engage multiple visitor generations. The new identity system we created is founded on ‘sacred geometry’, an ancient geometric system from which the Star of David was formed. The entire branding system is drawn on this grid, from the word and logo mark, to dozens of patterns, icons, typography, and illustrations. To address photography as part of the system, we built a processing app that turns a photo or webcam stream into a Jewish Museum illustration.”

Another example of a branding and identity system that reaches into the future yet appreciates the past to create an identity that is fresh is the Delft City Marketing identity by Studio Dunbar. 

“The logo unites traditional typographic elements with new, custom-designed characters, while the dynamic slashes historically signify an abbreviation. This typographic language is supported by a palette of pictograms based on silhouettes of landmarks and products from the city’s past and present. Employed across the city’s marketing activities, the identity succeeds in celebrating a proud heritage whilst identifying Delft as a modern, forward-thinking city.”

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Studio Dunbar, Delft City Marketing 

Without the design brief or strategy in hand or a more complete introduction to the entire scope of the new identity, it remains impossible to experience or fairly evaluate the new system for The Met. As a graphic designer with a special love for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am hoping that the whole of this visual system works far better than the isolated part we have glimpsed.


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