Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why have museum brands become commodities?

Recently two major art museums in America presented their new and exciting visual identities: SFMOMA, under a major renovation (re-opening day as May 14, 2016) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Both projects bring a lot of buzz for the museum sector and, at the same time, reminds us of the challenges from the standpoint of strategic brand management. 

As a design project, the SFMOMA is great. A coherent change for a 20 year old logo. Fit for an open platform approach, is best used when it’s in the “expanded” version that pushes the three parts of the logo to the edges of any layout. And yet you can also relate it to the "frame" graphic trend that envelopes whatever is inside.

"Just as our new building is much more open to the city, the new logo is deliberately porous, providing multiple points of access. The organic configuration of the three parts echoes the idiosyncratic, free-thinking culture of the Bay Area, which is known for its nonconformity and diversity", said the SFMOMA in-house design team, "In short, the logo is designed to be as versatile and dynamic as the program of the institution".

The same could be said about the brand new MCA Chicago new identity, a powerful typography and grid oriented design, from Mevis & Van Deursen studio. It's a game that opens up a conversation (with a friendly HI and GO upfront) and also keeps a direct relationship with the contemporary art they display. As posted of the new museum website: "The identity features a grid, which refers both to the city grid of Chicago and the limestone and cast-aluminum squares that form the facade of the MCA; a color palette of black, white, yellow, and blue; and a new logo. Keeping the concept of a grid in mind, French designer Karl Nawrot created the typefaces by combining squares to form a series of fonts that range from playful to classical and evoke our institutional values and our diverse programs".

Both projects are just a starting point. The institutional practice will show if all the associated metaphors will come to life or if they are just visually cool. Considering the museum's recent history, there is a lot to expect.

And that always makes me think how much we, in the museum business, are aware of creating create sleek, unique, even name-free logos that are still instantly recognizable. And more: that not only "evoke" or represent the values and dynamics but also push those institutions forward. In Dec 2014, Damian Borchok, CEO of the Interbrand Australia, presented the talk I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it on the Communicating the Museum conference. Check the video where Borchok argues that contemporary brands, whether in retail or culture, ended up falling into the trap of becoming "commodities". 

That’s a good point to discuss. Cultural organizations have gradually adopted a series of those market conventions where the visual dominance in any medium should only be attributed to the content. The museum that is presenting should be hidden - except for the presence of that little logo on the corner that your boss always asks you to make bigger. But size is not the matter. That means a missed opportunity to show the connection the organization have to content. The logo is there but it do not speak out. In most cases you can easily swap the logo from an institution to another and that could give the same result. You won’t even notice it.

This is especially true for cultural organizations that have done branding programs following a design trend type that does not necessarily reflect something of the nature of these organizations, their views or the causes they support.

To Borchok, the way of building strong brands in museums begins by having something to say and actually saying it ("put on display").
What are your thoughts about this? Has your museum brand also fallen in the same trap? How does the print and digital work you do for your museum authentically speak up in context of the organization's mission?

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