The Best & Wurst Grids: Visual Identity in Cultural Organisations
I’ve been asked to write this essay on the occasion of the launch of Artbank’s new visual identity, a gridded system of points and lines that serves to organise and reorganise the letters of the organisation’s name dynamically across multiple applications. This new identity demonstrates a sobriety that befits a respected cultural organisation, but one might also say that the new identity is more enjoyable than the organisation’s old logotype.
This article will take the geometry of the new identity as a starting point for a discussion of identity design in the cultural sector broadly. Specifically, I’d like to focus upon these themes of enjoyment and sobriety, or better, of richness and austerity in relation to design in this sector.
"Of course, one rarely thinks or speaks today about ‘identity design’ — one speaks instead about ‘branding’."
Of course, one rarely thinks or speaks today about ‘identity design’ — one speaks instead about ‘branding’. In his book Brand Warfare (2002), David D’Alessandro bluntly posits that “it’s the brand, stupid” — this is an ostensibly concise but essentially imprecise version of his argument that, in an era of apparently limitless choice, strong brands are important because they “are simply more enjoyable to buy.” (14) Underpinning this is the slightly more nuanced claim that it is “simply human nature for people to prefer the richer experience to the more austere.”(14) D’Alessandro’s position is cogent enough if one is speaking about consumer goods, but his conception of human nature stumbles in relation to branding in the cultural sector, since, in the case of galleries, museums and other cultural organisations, the more austere may in fact be the more desirable experience.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky upended the system of geometry proposed by Euclid in ancient Greece, circa 300 BC. The fifth postulate of Euclid’s geometry, the so-called ‘parallel postulate’, presumes a perfectly straight line, theoretically infinite in length, and a point that is not on that line. The postulate states that only one line can be drawn that would pass through the point but never meet the first line. This second line would necessarily be perfectly straight, and perfectly parallel to the first. In contrast, Lobachevskian geometry proposes a hyperbolic line, which would pass through the point but curve away from the first line in all directions. Lobachevskian geometry allows an infinite variety of such lines to be drawn, yet, importantly, Euclid’s other postulates still hold. The point of this line of thinking is this: sets of rules may not be so internally correlated as they would first appear. D’Alessandro’s exclamation that “it’s the brand, stupid” is his first rule of branding — the subtitle of Brand Warfare is “10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand.” If we contest his first postulate, do the others still hold?
Lobachevskian geometry is also known as ‘hyperbolic’ geometry, which is fitting because much writing about branding is characterised by hyperbole, and D’Alessandro does not disappoint. His fifth rule, for example, states that, “when it comes to sponsorships, there’s a sucker born every 30 seconds.” (viii) I am dishonouring Lobachevsky by failing to interrogate all of D’Alessandro’s rules, but, given the scope of the present article, I will focus on just two, namely numbers two and three.
D’Alessandro’s second rule maintains that “codependency can be beautiful — consumers need good brands as much as good brands need them.” (viii) Let’s consider the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On the one hand, MoMA would be nothing without its constituency; on the other, the museum is an internationally influential authority on modern art, but this reputation is not due to the avant-gardism of its logotype. The visual identity of the museum is today centred on an eponymous typeface, MoMA Gothic, designed by Matthew Carter in 2003, but Carter’s face is an almost imperceptibly subtle redrawing of its predecessor, Franklin Gothic. Morris Fuller Benton designed Franklin Gothic in 1902, 27 years before the museum opened its doors, and the face was used by the museum from the 1930s onward. (Consuegra, 66) The visual identity of MoMA does not cater to fickle pleasures; the museum’s octogenarian application of a centenarian face is the picture of typographic austerity. Nevertheless, the value of the MoMA brand is indisputable. Incidentally, the Museum of Modern Art is today an authority not only on modern art but on contemporary art also, through its stewardship of PS1, which notably shares its elder sibling’s typography.
D’Alessandro’s third rule states: “a great brand message is like a bucking bronco — once you’re on, don’t let go.”(viii) October, the quarterly journal of art theory and criticism, has been published continuously since 1976, making it nearly 50 years younger than MoMA, but the typeface in which its masthead has been set since its inception is a version of Garamond, named after the Parisian punchcutter Claude Garamond, who cut such a type in the sixteenth century. The typeface in which the text of October has been unwaveringly set is a version of Baskerville, based on the mid-eighteenth century types of an Englishman of the same name. The conservatism of this typographic palette is compounded by the austerity of the journal’s layout, but October is seemingly onto a good thing, and it’s riding it.
You may be thinking — correctly — that it’s easy to argue that strong brands and austere visual identities are not mutually exclusive if one appeals to titans of the American art world, so let’s look to a younger organisation on the other side of the world for a possible exception. The Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen was founded in 1985 in the Swiss city of St Gallen. The city is best known for its eighth-century Abbey, but the visual identity of its kunsthalle is squarely contemporary: it features bright but inconsistently coloured titling, usually centred, in a chiselled serif typeface, which is variously interspersed with pop illustrations of a pipe, a magnifying glass, a smiling sausage, and some other things that I don’t recognise. This identity, designed by Laurenz Brunner and Cornel Windlin in 2007, draws upon the visual vernacular of St Gallen: the illustrations are redrawings of signs and symbols found in the city, including the signage of local vendors. I have sought in the previous examples to demonstrate that the polarisation of ‘richness’ and ‘austerity’ in branding is a false and unhelpful distinction, but the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen is clearly unique amongst these illustrations: this visual identity is certainly not austere, yet it is also undoubtedly rich.
Despite many well-founded criticisms of its purported neutrality, the white cube remains the dominant paradigm for gallery architecture. The white cube prevails because its apparent neutrality remains an excellent platform for the presentation and reception of works of art: galleries and museums are sites of rich experiences not in spite of but because of this architectural austerity. Austere typography and layouts perhaps prevail amongst visual identities within the cultural sector for the same reason: sober typography does not compete with the images of works that it must invariably accompany. Indeed, this tendency is discernible even in the most radical of identity programs: despite its otherwise unconventional character, the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen identity is underpinned by relatively austere typography with clear modernist roots. A multi-column grid and a sans-serif text face, in black and ranged left, anchor the Kunst Halle’s fluorescent titling and its persistently blissful wurst. That is to say, even in the most contextually responsive, formally mutable visual identities, something like an Euclidean order remains.
D’Alessandro, David. Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Consuegra, David. American Type Design and Designers. New York: Allworth Press, 2004.