Ahead Of Its Reopening, SFMOMA Releases A Buoyant New Logo

The museum’s undulating visual identity mirrors its new Snohetta-designed building and the topography of San Francisco.

Next month, the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will open to the public after nearly three years of renovations. Designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to house the massive art collection of the Gap founders Don and Doris Fisher, the new building’s undulating beige facade couldn’t be further from the stocky brick fortress Mario Botta designed more than 20 years prior.


With the new building, the museum is also launching a new identity system, designed by its internal design department. The new logo–which the museum has been quietly rolling out since October–reimagines the boxy black logo that SFMOMA designed in 1995 with a buoyant red word mark that mirrors the wavy features of the new building.

“It literally just needed to be broken free,” says Jennifer Sonderby, SFMOMA’s design director, about the logo the museum had been using previously. “With the old logo, its strength is that it was this brick, this block. But that was also its weakness in that if you made it too large it just killed everything around it. There were size restrictions based on just how thick and heavy it was. So we wanted, from a formal standpoint, to lighten that up and make something that we could use in a more versatile way.”

Sonderby and her team embarked on the redesign in June 2013, just after the museum had closed for renovations. For the duration it was closed, SFMOMA chose not to open an auxiliary space, instead opting to partner with other institutions on shows using parts of its extensive collection. So for the past three years, the design department has reviewed other institutions’ exhibition designs but hasn’t had to create its own. That gave it the luxury to focus almost exclusively on creating the new visual identity.

To begin with, the designers set aside three to four months for in-depth research. They set up a giant “mood wall” of identities to discuss what would and wouldn’t work, not just with their museum colleagues but with the museum’s stakeholders, constituent groups, board of trustees. Most designers are loathe to invite that many opinions into the design process. But Sonderby makes a good case for doing so–at least in the very beginning stages. “We were able to have everyone starting on the same page,” she says. “So that when we moved into the formal explorations everyone already had this knowledge of what we wanted to achieve.”

What that ended up being, primarily, was a logo with lightness, adaptability, and versatility. The border around the earlier logo was removed and the letters rearranged into the shape of wave to mimic the undulating topology of the new building as well as the city’s hilly terrain. They swapped out the two institutional typefaces–the museum used Futura for signage and Franklin Gothic on print materials–for a geometric sans serif designed by Christoph Koeberlin of Berlin-based FontShop Inc.. And they traded in the heavy black color for a sunny, 1970s orange-tinted red.

Central to this new identity are the two different states that the logo alternatively inhabits: contracted and expanded. In the first, which Sonderby describes as “kinetic,” is calmly arranged in a dense wave, but poised with energy waiting to burst. In the second, it actually does burst: the pairs of letters explode into a frame that surrounds whatever is inside. This creates a chance to showcase the programming central to the museum’s operations. “There’s a delicate balance of supporting the program but not overwhelming it,” says Sonderby. “Which is what you want to do if you’re a cultural institution that works with such visually rich material.”


The new logo is versatile enough to be used across a variety of applications–anything from museum brochures to massive signage to the range of products at the gift shop. It’s also a fresh conceptual identity for a museum whose physical structure has also just undergone a major change. “What we wanted to communicate is that we have moved forward into a more open space,” she says. “So we are opening our arms in a different kind of way and welcoming people to a new kind of experience.”

All Images: courtesy SFMOMA

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.