• 09.30.11

A Bold New Look For SF Art Museum, In Jittery Economic Times

The new visual identity ditches the old mark, a red square with “Asian” at the bottom, in favor of a simple letter “A.”

A Bold New Look For SF Art Museum, In Jittery Economic Times

It’s been a rough few years for museums. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is no exception. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last year that the museum was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Desperate to survive into the 21st century, the 45-year-old organization–which has one of the largest collections of Asian art in the world–ushered in a massive institutional overhaul. First, it restructured its long-term debt. Now, it’s restructuring its look, with the help of branding giant Wolff Olins, in hopes of broadening its appeal.


The new visual identity ditches the old mark, a red square with “Asian” at the bottom, in favor of a simple letter “A” written upside-down with “Asian” to the right. “The upturned A says the Asian Art Museum is approaching Asian art from a new perspective,” explains Nick O’Flattery, strategy director at Wolff Olins. “It’s meant to be an attention-catching invitation to people, from art lovers to art newbies, to visit the museum and engage in this new perspective on Asian art. We discovered this later, but it’s fitting: in mathematics, an upside down A denotes ‘for all.’ This reflects the museum’s desire to open to a wider community.”

“[D]esire to open to a wider community,” of course, is a gentle way of saying that the museum wants your money. And the thinking goes that the more visible the brand, the more likely it’ll attract patrons and donations and sponsorships. (Hint, hint to all those sweatshirt-clad billionaires in the South Bay.)

So the logo is conceived to deliver big impact across a range of media: to look just as powerful on a billboard or the side of the museum’s building as on a shopping bag or a coffee cup. To that end, Wolff Olins helped redesign pretty much every inch of the museum, including the visitors’ center, the audio aids, the programming, and the store merchandise. A perk of the upside-down “A” is that it’s such a simple gesture, it can be modified here and there–in size and color and shading–to suit the particulars of various media without looking like a drastically different logo each time.

This isn’t a novel concept. Stripped-down logos are soaring to the fore now that brands have to be able to travel from the street to the web, and hit a slew of marketing marks in between. Look to companies like PWC and Comedy Central. Minimal design is how forward-thinking brands try to maximize their visibility.

Branding, of course, doesn’t work in isolation, and it’s worth asking if marketing and self-presentation alone can coax the visitors and sponsorships that the Asian Art Museum needs to thrive. It’s a niche museum. A logo that promises all the novelty in the world won’t change that. But who knows? Maybe it’ll end up being something of a self-fulfilling prophesy: Just by advertising itself in broader terms, the museum really will become an art institution “for all.”

[Images courtesy of Wolff Olins]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.