Capturing the Essence

logoWriting about why a logo captures the essence of an institution always strikes me as a little bit like online dating. You can find someone who meets all of your requirements (tall, handsome, addicted to The Wire…) without finding that special spark. But once you’ve found that special someone, can you really put the elusive spark into words? There are some parallels to the design process that can be applied here as well.

Rather than list the attributes (nimble but bold, graceful, playful, flexible, with a strong presence… oops, couldn’t help myself!) of the graphic identity system designed for the North Carolina Museum of Art by Michael Beirut and team at Pentagram, I’d rather start with an insider’s view of the experience. We can talk more about implementation later.

How could anyone who was described as the design world’s Don Draper not be a pompous a**?

I’m not saying Michael Beirut doesn’t have chutzpah or the encyclopedic knowledge to back it up but surprisingly, the typography nerd you saw in the movie “Helvetica” is the real thing. Darned if he hasn’t read every book, seen every play, visited every museum, and lived to tell all about it on the ambitious blog about design that he cofounded. He’s a creative force…but he’s also a disarmingly approachable guy. Is it a coincidence that the current designers whose work I most like to look at, from Beirut to Bantjes to Niemann to Sagmeister, all sound a lot more like my favorite soft-spoken geek from physics class than a designer from on high? Michael and his team captured the distinctive and spirited nature of the people of North Carolina’s art museum with intelligence and grace.

How do these Pentagram partners keep getting all the good work?

I recently saw Malcolm Gladwell give a talk about his theory that there are two kinds of creative thinkers, the conceptual and the experimental. He thinks that today, most creative thinkers have to be experimental. They go down blind alleys, they start and stop, they try new things and then, voila! His example was the fact that Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” album became the biggest thing on the musical planet only after sixteen previous Fleetwood Mac records. Practice, practice, practice. This makes me wonder when Dale Watson will make the Billboard list, but that’s another story.

Both Michael and Yve Ludwig, the designer from Pentagram who worked on this project with him, never stop designing. Listen to them talk with Dave Rainey and me about the process of developing our custom alphabet. You’ll hear that they did their homework. They listened, asked questions, studied our Museum, sketched ideas, and worked to create an identity that reflects the richness of our collection, the transformative nature of our new building and grounds, the enlightening experiences visitors can have in our Park and our amphitheater. You don’t find good design projects. You make them. But capturing the versatility of the North Carolina Museum of Art experience was a good project.

What’s next?

For over a year, Dave Rainey, Jennifer Blackman and I (the in-house graphics team) have been working closely with the rest of our marketing/communications department and the exhibit design group to implement the Museum’s brand architecture. We’ve started the transformation in anticipation of our April 2010 re-opening. We’re working hard to build something lasting. Every detail counts, from case label to letterhead, postcard to catalogue. Our goal is to communicate consistently while using the flexibility of our system in exciting new ways. Long after the excitement of our spring 2010 opening, we’ll continue to grow and evolve with the Museum, doing our best to capture the Museum experience in a visual way.


  1. Kate
    Posted December 8, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Nice Dale Watson shout-out!

    Too bad the new logo looks both dated and unreadable. Seriously, it’s hideous. It’s nice as a piece of art but terrible as a logo, which is supposed to actually communicate something in a way people can understand, not look like it maybe says “NORTH CAROLINA MECONIUM OF ART.”

    I am not saying this as a representative of my agency of course ;-) Love you guys and will continue to support and be proud of the NCMA.

  2. Frank Sutton
    Posted December 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm and Barbara here have zero clue about Fleetwood Mac and their “practice.” Sure there were 16 previous Fleetwood Mac albums – but what made Rumours different that at least 15 of the earlier albums was that it had Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as members of the band. Their first record “Fleetwood Mac” had quite a few hits including “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Landslide.” Does someone have have to go Allen Iverson on these people with a “practice?” You’re calling that first record practice?

    What truly made Rumours work is the fact that everyone in the band was cheating with everyone else in the band. That’s not practice that made that record great. Practice? Nicks and Buckingham brought a one-two punch on their first two Fleetwood Mac albums.

  3. Posted December 9, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I am actually enjoying the comments more than the article itself!

    It’s good to see some knowledgeable posters take the writer to task about some spurious analogies she is making.

    Take note, if you want to get an opinion on how a designer works or what makes them successful, then ask them directly, not Gladwell and certainly not the author of this piece.

    Its a shame as there are some other good points here. Firstly, the collaborative and rigourous nature of working that the design team engaged in with the project.

    And also, this gem of a line ‘ You don’t find good design projects. You make them. ‘ In this case (and no doubt all other cases) proper acknowledgement must be given to the client in letting the design team do their job correctly too!

  4. Posted December 10, 2009 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Trying to apply some general principles of branding to the new NCMA logo… “Is it unique?”- not really in my opinion- my first thought was that it looked like a bad 1980′s display font. “Is it memorable?”- I suppose so- if only because it is not visually appealing. “Does it capture the essence of the museum?”- well the author commented on incorporating the look of the new edition exterior…yes, I certainly get the point: the new addition exterior features metal components that are narrow in width and tall in vertical- hey just like the components of the logo. In the end, if I was part of a focus group and was asked the question “Based on your perception of the logo alone- would you want to visit the museum?” – no.

  5. JJ
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Really? You’re going to use this blog comment space as an arena to criticize the author of this piece and to give us all a lesson in pop music history?

    I understand any comments made in regards to personal opinion about the new NCMA logo design– that’s warranted– but being rude to the author and critiquing useful analogies is not helpful.

  6. Brack
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Okay. I am going to comment.

    Hideous. Unreadable. And certainly to be part of the NCMA history for a long time as I seriously doubt anyone will take it down and start again.

    I can appreciate going through the process of design, the creative spirit, and the attempt to capture something of NCMA.

    I can and I do highly respect and have admired Pentagram for over 30+ years.

    Yet, to read all I have read on this subject since its unveiling is meaningless and rather infuriating everytime I get another piece of NCMA literature promoting an event – only to see it having to be translated for the “uneducated eye.”

    Not just my design eye which holds the opinion expressed here, but the many “common” folk with a legitimate and invested interest in the flagship museum for our State of North Carolina. So far it has not passed my surveys for those I have shown it to so far.

    I have not found many, if any, where this work of art meets any criteria for being read or serve any useful purpose than at times – visual noise.

    Let some of us NCMA supporters in on this kind of surprise next time. This is neither a “logo” or “communication” or “identity” I can stomach, so my current solution is just a fat sharpie marker. We can all do better, as I am sure we have paid for it.


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