"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."
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.