Can the identity of a museum be a piece of conceptual art itself? That seems to be the road that Experimental Jetset has taken with the design system they’ve created for the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2015, the Whitney will be moving to a beautiful new building which is bordered by The High Line on one side and the Hudson Riveer on the other. Designed by Renzo Piano, it’s a big step for the museum, and thus, a new identity was crafted for the monumental occasion.
If you’re unfamiliar with Experimental Jetset they’re a small design studio in Amsterdam made up of just three members: Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dungen. You’ve probably seen their work, or an iteration of their work, in the shirt they made for 2K/Gingham called John & Paul & Ringo & George back in 2001. Since then it’s been ripped off to high heaven (you can read more about that here).
For The Whitney, they’ve created what they’re calling the “responsive W”, a flexible but infelxible identity system.
The ‘Responsive W’ can also be seen as a flexible typographic grid. The W-shaped construction is an excellent platform for all kinds of text – in this case the name ‘Whitney’. A thin, fragile line perfectly symbolizes this ambiguous, seemingly paradoxical state of being ‘open’ and ‘closed’ at the same time. On top of that, a thin line invites activity and interactivity – it represents an area that needs to be signed, that needs to filled-in (or filled-out). In other words, it symbolizes a place to interact, to engage, to connect. In that sense, a flexible W, consisting of a thin line (and in some of our early sketches, we even played with the idea of a dotted or dashed line), represents the idea of the Whitney as an blank canvas, for the artist to put his/her signature on.
The “responsive W” is interesting as a concept. Experimental Jetset started out with the idea of a line, “It would be much easier to present the history of art as a simplistic line – but that’s not the Whitney”. So the line was bent and called it a zig-zag. “The zig-zag being a metaphor for a non-simplistic, more complicated (and thus more interesting) history of art”, as their brief says. The zig-zag is then paired with a version of Neue Haas Grotesk which had been recently redrawn by Christian Schwartz, a type designer from New York. This where the idea of conceptual art and identity design starts to show itself.
On it’s face, the identity is a bent line, some words and some photos of old art. But Experimental Jetset has created a compelling backstory, a journey to follow if you will. As with most pieces of conceptual art there’s a story that goes along with it that helps you understand why the piece of art is important. For example, Dan Flavin’s work looks like a bunch of fluorescent light bulbs in an empty space, but if you learn that his intention is to change the environment of the space with his lighting installations, you start to see the beauty in his work. So, my question is, is this the same as that?
My gut tells me that this system is a little bit conceptual art, a little bit one-trick pony, and I’m sad to say, a little boring. I have a lot of respect for the Experimental Jetset team and their work in the past, but this feels like they’ve done what they always do: big Helvetica on a tight grid. The use of Neue Haas Grotesk instead of Helvetica seems to me like they didn’t want folks saying they only use Helvetica, but c’mon, as designers we know the subtle differences between are exactly that – SUBTLE. As you can see in the brochure below though, the execution (this piece was done by the Whitney staff using the Experimental Jetset templates) falls quite flat. Is it organized and clean and snapped cleanly to a grid? Yes. But does it have any soul? Not particularly.
I think the “responsive W” has a lot of potential, but I’m not sure it always works. I really like what the design staff at the Whitney has done in some of the pieces of paraphernalia, like the notepad and tote bag below, which start to give the identity system a bit of personality. Does a museum’s identity system technically need personality? Maybe not, but if you have to walk around New York and see flat, rigid branding everywhere, well, that doesn’t sound very appealing to me.
Time will tell how this experiment turns out, that and the talent of the design team at the Whitney. Perhaps Experimental Jetset have done their jobs correctly and have delivered an identity system that allows others to create many beautiful things from it? Browse through the images below and you can start to see the beginnings of this new journey.