The New

by Keir Winesmith, October 2015

The new homepage, featuring an expanded red logo with the letters S F M O M A

The website has many more visitors than SFMOMA does. And even the people who do visit our museum generally visit our website first. The site isn’t just a digital brochure; it is critically important to our visitors’ experience of, and relationship with, SFMOMA. This is especially true while the physical museum is closed.

To reflect SFMOMA’s transformation as we prepare for the new museum to open on May 14, 2016, and to complement our new visual identity, we have redesigned, rebuilt, and relaunched the institutional website. With input from staff across the museum and the artists we collaborate with — and drawing inspiration from the artworks in our collection and the city of San Francisco — we’ve developed a truly contemporary site that showcases and celebrates SFMOMA’s incredible diversity of exhibitions, events, artworks, scholarship, research projects, artist videos, and staff perspectives.

A large piece of paper covered with drawings and written ideas about the website design is taped up to a window

A Plan of Attack

Like most web projects of this scale, we followed a familiar pattern:

  • Research + Discovery (Who is it for? What will it include? What do we want to say?)
  • Information Architecture + User Experience (What goes where? What’s most important?)
  • Design (What does it look and feel like?)
  • Build (How are we going to make these heady dreams a reality?)

Each of these phases was collaborative, and in most cases they overlapped — after all, we are a consensus-driven organization full of passionate, articulate people.

In the summer of 2014, we engaged the local digital agency Cibo to facilitate the research and discovery phase of the project. Working with them, we amassed about eighty hours of interviews, meetings, and workshops with museum staff and sector peers. This provided the foundation for the subsequent phases and, ultimately, institution-wide consensus on the direction we wanted the new site to take: one that is radically different from the old

People read an add post-it notes to a brainstorming wall

In early 2015 we selected the Interaction Consortium from Sydney, Australia, to work with us on the information architecture, user experience, and build, and SFMOMA’s in-house Design Studio created the visual design. This led to another ninety-seven hours of meetings and workshops as we delved into the details of each section, thinking about user flow, storytelling models, and commercial transactions.

A group of people standing around a table listen to a man gesturing at papers on the table

Points of Comparison

Throughout this process, I’ve often been asked, “What museum sites did you look at for inspiration?” The answer: not many, as most museum sites follow the same format. That is to say, their navigation is based on their internal organizational structure rather than what visitors want and need, and they’ve got a confusing array of different content modules all shouting for attention, especially on the home page. The old was no different.

To combat this org-chart-navigation reflex, we created two types of navigations:

  • A navigation for exploring: Exhibitions + Events, Artists + Artworks, Projects + Perspectives
  • And a navigation for doing: Visit, Buy Tickets (coming soon), Become a Member, Make a Difference, For Educators, Shop menu

We also knew that each year, fewer and fewer people begin their visit to on the home page. More than 75 percent of visitors parachute deep into the site via Google and other search engines, so we doubled down on search engine optimization (SEO).

The new search bar

With a carefully selected a color palette, immersive images, and generous text sizes, the program and the stories now take center stage. We bring different types of content in and out of focus, and they appear at different visual depths or levels throughout the site. We’ve also introduced the idea of marginalia, which shows related content only when it’s immediately relevant. All of this is in support of the user experience, which mirrors being inside the museum by presenting content in stages, and allowing the visitor to fully focus. It’s all intended to be a sort of cinematic experience.

Launch Date

On October 21, 2015, we launched the new We also launched the jobs portal; Open Space, SFMOMA’s online community writing platform; and our new visual identity. Simultaneously, we rebranded our social media platforms and internally launched new email signatures, business cards, stationery, letterhead, and Museum Store products.

All of this is to help us (and you!) prepare for the new SFMOMA, opening May 14, 2016. See you there!

Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith is the head of Web + Digital Platforms at SFMOMA.

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