New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has commissioned a new graphic identity from design house Experimental Jetset. The new look ditches the former logo, and uses instead the "Responsive W."

The new identity is part of a larger branding, synced with the museum’s upcoming move in 2015, from the Whitney’s longtime home on New York’s upper east side, to a Renzo Piano-designed building at the south end of the High Line.

The spider-leggy "W" will appear in hundreds of iterations, including on the Whitney’s home page, on tickets and pamphlets, and on the exit and restroom signs, but it’s slightly different each time, because the "W" stretched into different proportions to wrap around any given text.

Hilary Greenbaum, Design Director at the Whitney, describes the new logo as akin to conceptual art: “No one visit to the museum is exactly like the last, and the dynamic nature of the new mark evokes that sentiment. That said, while the mark may be infinitely evolving, it also follows very particular constraints regarding its construction; I’m not worried that people won’t recognize it.”

This is the first time the Whitney has worked with Amsterdam-based Experimental Jetset, who designed the popular and much-aped "John & Paul & Ringo & George" T-shirts.

In Experimental Jetset’s design memo, they explain the myriad things the new "W" represents: industrial nature of the new architecture, the shape of both the current and the new Whitney building, roofs of factories, fire escape stairs of New York…

…train track graffiti, the artist’s signature of the artist, or the waves on the Hudson, or the sound and vision waves.

Since its Tuesday release, the identity has met with mixed criticism: it’s been described as looking like a sales report graph that isn’t hefty enough to stand up as a logo, and as a dead giveaway that Experimental Jetset doesn’t want people saying that they only use Helvetica.

Or perhaps it just looks like the hair over Homer Simpson’s ear.

Graphic redesigns have a common problem, in that they come off as attempts to signal a new brand to consumers, when it’s really just a fresh coat of paint. It’s worth noting that the Whitney already has that: a new product on the horizon, in the form of a new building in downtown New York.

Read more about the Experimental Jetset’s rationale for the new graphic identity program for the Whitney here.

Co.Design

The Whitney Museum Of American Art Unveils Its New, Elastic Logo

It’s a zigzag.

“It would be much easier to present the history of art as a simplistic line—but that’s not the Whitney."

That was the guiding statement Whitney Museum of American Art’s Chief Curator Donna De Salvo gave for her organization’s new graphic identity. As part of preparations for an upcoming move in 2015, from the Whitney’s longtime home on New York’s Upper East Side to a Renzo Piano-designed building at the south end of the High Line, the institution cast about for a new look to marry the museum’s history with its future. The group chosen to deliver the new look is Experimental Jetset, the Helvetica-happy design house based in Amsterdam. In a departure from their well-known "John & Paul & Ringo & George" T-shirts, the studio settled on a zigzag as the backbone of the Whitney’s identity, instead of “a simplistic line" that, not coincidentally, also depicts the letter "W."

The spider-leggy "W" will appear in hundreds of iterations, from the Whitney’s homepage to the exit and restroom signs, but with one major twist: The zigzag is stretched into different proportions each time. The "Responsive W," as its called, breaks a cardinal rule in logo design, which is to make the logo instantly recognized, and easily adopted.

“The new identity speaks more directly to the current values of the institution; especially our flexibility when it comes to working with artists,” the Whitney’s design director, Hilary Greenbaum, tells Co.Design. “Our new mark adjusts itself to fit around images of artworks in any given composition, allowing for each piece to retain its unique proportions. In that sense, the mark allows for the most respectful use of images in all applications.”

The old Whitney logo, contrasted against the new "Responsive W."

And, as Greenbaum points out, the fluid visual presentation befits an ever-changing art institution: “No one visit to the museum is exactly like the last, and the dynamic nature of the new mark evokes that sentiment. That said, while the mark may be infinitely evolving, it also follows very particular constraints regarding its construction; I’m not worried that people won’t recognize it.”

The symbolism continues. According to Experimental Jetset’s design memo:

Obviously, the zig-zag also refers to the industrial nature of the new architecture, the ziggurat-like shapes of both the current and the future Whitney building, the archetypical roofs of factories, and the iconic exterior fire escape stairs of New York.

The sign of the zig-zag could resemble one of these hidden hobo symbols, graffitied near the train tracks (in this case, the High Line). The shape could also represent the ‘dérive’-like journey of the Whitney through Manhattan, moving from one location to the other. It could also symbolize the signature of the artist; or the waves of the nearby Hudson; or the waves produced by sound and vision.

Prior to the Responsive W, the Whitney used a block-y word mark created by Pentagram. The rectangular logo, while futuristic in aesthetic, is unforgiving when compared to the new skinny grid of the Responsive W, which acts more like conceptual art by shape-shifting and wrapping around text on museum materials. It’s a more elastic solution, to be sure, but since its Tuesday release has also been flagged as resembling a sales report graph that isn’t hefty enough to stand up as a logo, and as a dead giveaway that Experimental Jetset doesn’t want people saying that they only use Helvetica. Or, it just looks like the hair over Homer Simpson’s ear.

The Whitney has been in the stages of a long, drawn out overhaul for the last two decades, most surrounding architectural plans. In 2006, they abandoned all ideas of an expansion (proposals came in from Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas), and announced the downtown move, into a building twice the size of its Madison Avenue location. Many graphic redesigns come off as attempts to signal a new brand to consumers, when it’s ultimately just a coat of paint. It’s worth noting that the Whitney already has that in the form of an entirely new building.

Read more about how Experimental Jetset crafted the new graphic identity program for the Whitney here.

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18 Comments

  • michael0250

    Ok,
    I can't leave this alone... I'm over 60 and have earned the right to be
    grumpy. If you are a designer and this new Whitney ID doesn't make you
    grumpy, incensed or at least befuddled, either you're not breathing or
    you need to drop your design gig and
    go into real estate. A logo for a museum that's an American
    Institution, designed by a firm in Amsterdam whose claim to fame–as
    mentioned in the article– is the Helvetica John,Paul,George&Ringo
    tee-shirt.Really?
    Serious? Really? Not to mention the logo itself. It's a "C" in an intro
    to Graphic Design class at best. The art world does things that are
    controversial of course–which is a good thing, but only if the idea is
    brilliant–even if it's ahead of its
    time. The Eiffel Tower was very controversial when built, but it
    remains a genius piece of architecture. This new Whitney logo is dumb
    and ugly and will stay that way. Actual quotes: "The spider-leggy "W" will appear in hundreds of iterations..."{now that will certainly build brand recognition.} and  "The sign of the zig-zag could resemble one of these hobo symbols..." and "it just looks like the hair over Homer Simpson’s ear."  What? What? What??? Where have I been? What language is this?

    This is the most asinine justification for a design I have ever heard:
    "Obviously, the zig-zag also refers to the industrial nature of the new
    architecture, the ziggurat-like shapes of both the current and the
    future Whitney building, the archetypical roofs of factories, and the
    iconic exterior fire escape stairs of New York." Experimental Jetset must be laughing up and down Manhattan.

  • pulpink

    In one way, I see an aerial view of a gallery wall in the W. I think this will appeal to visitors of all ages. Kids will be able to draw it. It'll be fun implementing it—imagine the possibilities! Animated, drawn in light, 3D… I can see it opening up a plethora of creative ways it can help grow the brand of the museum. It's certainly flying above the radar.

  • Jon

    The problem with this identity is that it's not about The Whitney - it's about Experimental Jetset. One look at their portfolio and you see that all their work looks the same. This is just another application of their design sensibilities instead of being a truly unique approach to an identity.

    Such a wasted opportunity here... Nipples will be added on the "W" all over the subways, I'm sure.

  • Barrett

    "Too easy"? 

    Since when is restraint a bad thing?
    Why use ten strokes when five will do?

    Seems awfully narrow to pan something for being incredibly simplified—it offers a flexibility and sustainability that few brandmarks can manage in application.

    It also plays a background role to what it's all about in the first place—i.e. modern American fine arts.

    Unobtrusive, sustainable, as little design as possible—sounds like good design by all accounts.

  • Clussman

    Tom, I'm torn here. It's an interesting application and the interactive use cases they're showing off are compelling. But I have a hard time imagining the iconic coke bottle symbol becoming iconic if it morphed between half a dozen different bottle and can shapes. I also wonder how you legally protect 300 variations of a mark?

    Few designers are going to work on an identity package for a Coca-Cola sized company so that concern might be a moot point. Dilution of a mark is probably a more valid concern. I like that they kept a consistent logotype throughout their applications.

    Looking at this, I'm inclined to call the logotype the mark and treat the zig-zag W variations as a separate part of the identity system. That gives the mark consistency and makes it easy to protect while still leaving the system open to the creative uses they're showcasing.

    Then again, maybe I'm just set in my ways and trying to justify that. ;)

    (This is an unedited stream of consciousness response. It may or may not make sense.)

  • tberno

    Hi CC,

    I think the bigger question is: what is it about an identity program that makes it iconic, as in memorable and aspirational. It's a fine line to balance flexibility and consistency. This is still a fairly new idea in corporate identity to have this much variation, yet there's no denying the family resemblance when the applications are seen in context, as they are here.

    There are some specifics about this client that make this approach particularly appropriate. One is that their name had more equity than their previous identity. Another is that as cultural institution focused on contemporary art, they have a license to experiment. Yet another is the idea (observed in a different comment here) that any identity for this type of institution needs to be subservient to the art in the collections.

    Coke definitely has an iconic package and brand, but close examination of their current approach to identity based on the bottle shape, script logo, wave, and red color shows a versatile, adaptive system, not just the classic bottle package we all know (see: "Pop Artist: David Butler" in Fast Company for more on this).

    Trademarking this type of approach is undoubtedly tricky from a legal standpoint. But legal protections aren't limited to trademarked logos.

    These are great questions for discussion in any light. And as an experienced brand designer, I too would be much more comfortable with the traditional approach. But the new media environment demands a much more vital and dynamic approach than 20th century corporate identity best practices can manage.

  • tberno

    This isn't a case of the rules of corporate identity being broken, but rather a case that the rules are being rewritten. While there's nothing wrong with a symbol or monogram which explains the business or entity as a fixed icon, the fact is that we live in an RGB world; video, animation and interactivity are as much a part of the face of corporate identity as business cards, letterheads, or brochures. Concepts such as fluidity and elasticity can and should be considered as a part of the designer's approach in creating contemporary identity programs. I believe that truly effective contemporary identity requires variation within a range of application possibilities, rather than a fixed approach.

    Most of the rules cited as evidence of the Whitney's new identity as a failure were pioneered in the 1960s by firms such as Unimark or Chermayeff & Geismar. While not totally invalid, to state that these fixed concepts remain state of the art makes about as much sense as saying that "Mad Men" constitutes a case study of how to build a 21st century ad agency.

  • rmintzes

    I admire Helvetica when it's used well, and I find myself having a hard time with this one.  Like others here, I like the flexibility of the morphing W, but it feels like they used the Blend tool in Illustrator (for the notepad at least), slapped an all caps Helvetica in there, and called it a day.  Obviously there were more iterations, but it feels a bit undeveloped for what I can only imagine was paid out for the work.  And the way the WHITNEY rests inside the line W feels very off-putting.  That and the MEMBER text feel so cramped and unable to breathe, while the address information feels shunned and isolated.

  • John Patrick

    Incredible how many narrow minded people are reading Co.Design... Modernism may not be your taste, you're not alone there, but good graphic design rises above taste; it's smart, versatile, fitting, unique, recognizable, innovative. 

    If you don't get that, it's a pitty you're trashing it instead of just shutting the f**k up.

  • Sabrtooth

    Ah, but good design also recognizes taste just as a good re-brand must recognize the brand image already in people's minds (fitting, as you put it). It, at least, nods to it, and doesn't slap folks in the face out of pompous contempt for an audience that "doesn't get it".

    Smart, versatile, unique, recognizable, and innovative can indeed make it great, but only after meeting the first requirement.

    To put it simply, a modernist turd is still a turd.

  • CJB 360

    I'm not even on the fence here.

    This logo is a disservice to the Museum. It misses the mark on so many crucial levels. Were I the designer, I would honestly be embarrassed to include this in my portfolio.

    Really a shame.

  • Erik

    I tend to agree. I review lots of student portfolios and this looks like student work. Hesitant, awkward and lacking refinement. And I think implementation will be a nightmare

  • monirom

    I'm not particularly fond of Pentagram's old Whitney logo, primarily because of the kerning - but at least it had more presence than the solution provided by Experimental Jetset.

    If you read the case study on their site, you'll realize that the Whitney themselves drove Experimental Jetset to a solution outside the normal realms of identity design - to arrive at the current solution. While flexible, it doesn't lend itself to iconic / instant recognition and will instead require much repetition before the public recognizes the use of the W as the Whitney.

    The Whitney's own designers will run across the limitations of this solution when they are asked to render it in digital form for websites, apps and mobile icons. Working within this context - the elastic W will prove to be a challenge to reproduce without stair stepping, especially in smaller sizes.

  • Shnoodlepuss

    I was going to unleash a tirade of negative feedback, stating that no matter how much reasoning and logic you provide to support this, it was rubbish.

    But you know, I've looked through the application and flexibility of the 'W' device, and it's growing on me.

    It still isn't pretty, or beautiful or very clever at all. It's just versatile. Just.

  • Warre Buysse

    A logo needs to be self explanatory without any further notice. I admire the experimental value of this, but let's face it. This logo is build out of 5 strokes, nothing special or even beautiful about it. Don't get me wrong, I admire minimalistic logo's, but this? Too easy.

  • Reza Bassiri

    They weren't fond of Adobe's Creative Cloud, so they decided to create their logo with Word Art. Such rubbish...