The Story of the New Visual Identity

by , November 2015

See how the landscape of San Francisco and the architecture of the new SFMOMA building inspired the museum’s revamped visual identity.

As cranes and bulldozers began to transform SFMOMA’s physical appearance two and half years ago, the institution also embarked on a profound reexamination of its values, its experience principles, and its relationship to its audiences. The program was expanded and changed, the brand repositioned.

We asked ourselves: How can our look and feel better express the institution’s mission at this pivotal milestone in its history? How can we give visual shape to SFMOMA’s major shifts in thinking and approach? The result was the first redesign of the logo and visual identity in two decades, undertaken by SFMOMA’s own Design Studio. This is a look at how we got there.

The New Logo and Colors

The logo developed in 1995 was inspired by the rigorously geometric, muscular design of the Mario Botta building then under construction. The fortresslike qualities of the architecture were reflected in a distinctive box enclosing the letters “SFMOMA.” Twenty years later, we wondered if this logo, which had so effectively projected strength and stability, might now be perceived as closed and unwelcoming.

The Mario Botta–designed building on Third Street and the logo that it inspired

A list of seven descriptors served as a launching point for our explorations: Welcoming, Surprising, Illuminating, For Our Time, Participatory, Boundaryless, and Open. These adjectives became the core principles of a new brand platform that emerged from months of discussions with the museum’s leadership and our colleagues in Marketing + Communications.

“We really want the museum to be much more outward looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in.”

Neal Benezra, Helen and Charles Schwab Director
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

From these initial terms, several key concepts emerged, most importantly that SFMOMA is distinguished by its Bay Area roots and an outward-looking, risk-taking mindset. This mindset has served as a defining characteristic of the museum since its founding in 1935, when our innovative first director, Grace McCann Morley, led the charge. Current director Neal Benezra felt that the museum needed to be even more welcoming: “We really want the museum to be much more outward looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in.”

For inspiration, we looked at the physical attributes of the city, such as the rolling hills, the ebb and flow of the surrounding water, and the distinctive fog patterns. These same elements inspired the architects building the new expansion: “It’s hard to ignore the beauty of the hills and how they sometimes clash with the grid of the city,” principal architect Craig Dykers said. “The fog rolling in and out creates a feeling of change.”

Our visual explorations served as a litmus test for the institution’s tolerance for change. Endless conversations with the leadership, staff, trustees, and audiences gave us a variety of perspectives on the vision for the new museum—yet all pointed toward an approach that would capitalize on our institutional history while asserting a bold new vision for the future.

“The fog rolling in and out creates a feeling of change.”

Craig Dykers, Snøhetta Principal Architect

Armed with this knowledge, we trusted our instincts and got down to work. We also sought outside perspectives in the early stages of our explorations, in particular from the San Francisco–based firm Public Design, to provide additional breadth to our ideas.

The shape of the final logo came together after months of thinking, rethinking, and then thinking some more. Just as our new building is much more open to the city, the new logo is deliberately porous, providing multiple points of access. The organic configuration of the three parts echoes the idiosyncratic, free-thinking culture of the Bay Area, which is known for its nonconformity and diversity.

The letters oscillate between a contracted and an expanded version. The two states actively respond to different formats and content, allowing the identity to become a conceptual lens through which the program of the museum is experienced. In short, the logo is designed to be as versatile and dynamic as the program of the institution.

The front and backside of the institutional business cards, illustrating the dynamic logo in a print application

The positioning of the letters echoes the shape of the surrounding hills, reflecting the diverse perspectives within the institution and among its audiences, and the Bay Area mindset. On a functional level, the arrangement is more space efficient than the previous logo, allowing greater scale and legibility everywhere, from small digital screens to street-pole banners. The design of the new logo also addresses a few lingering questions among audiences less familiar with us: Is SFMOMA an acronym or a word? How is it spoken out loud? How important is the “San Francisco” in “San Francisco Museum of Modern Art”? Are you somehow related to New York MoMA? (Answer: we’re not.)

Photo: © Henrik Kam

The primary color palette, consisting of warm red, white, and black, draws inspiration from the warm red tones of the Mario Botta brick and the cool white facade of the Snøhetta building. Warm red also happens to be one of the most visible colors through fog.

The New SFMOMA Typeface

An essential ingredient of a cohesive visual identity is the typeface. It serves as the glue, providing distinctiveness and cohesion throughout the entire program. Commissioning a custom typeface provides the opportunity to address specific needs—in our case, a wide range of contexts and requirements, from architectural signage to long-form reading in books to legibility on digital screens.

Rather than one institutional typeface, SFMOMA historically has had two: Futura and a gothic typeface. Futura, a geometric sans typeface, appeared in the old SFMOMA logo and was used for the permanent signage in the building. Although distinctive when used in headers, Futura is less than ideal for reading continuous text. Its near-perfect circles are distracting in the context of whole paragraphs.

Geometric sans was a typographic style born at the onset of Modernism in the late 1920s. From the commemorative plaque left on the moon (above) in 1969 to its use thirty-five years later in the SFMOMA logo and signage, the typeface Futura demonstrates that geometric sans typefaces were still the epitome of modernity decades after their invention.

Whereas Futura conveyed formality and individuality, a gothic-style typeface served as the workhorse, functioning as both body copy and display type. First used by SFMOMA in the early 2000s, Franklin Gothic was contemporary and straightforward, able to tackle the daily demands of a modern and contemporary art museum. The two typefaces coexisted: Futura on the signage, and Franklin Gothic (later updated to Benton Gothic in 2004) on ephemeral materials such as object labels and brochures.

We were eager to create our own distinctive typeface—one that would not only accomplish all of our functional goals but also work seamlessly with our new logo. We approached Christoph Koeberlin, a type designer at FontShop Inc., to design it. Koeberlin is one of the designers of FF Mark, a newish geometric sans typeface that inspired much discussion in the typography community. We admired how well it integrated the best parts of geometric sans in a fresh new face. Our challenge to Koeberlin was to create a typeface, based on the letterforms present in our new logo, that was versatile enough to use in all of our applications, from running text to large-scale signage.

We were uncertain whether we could achieve the desired ease of reading with a geometric sans typeface, since visual distractions are built into it. For instance the near-perfect circles found in the lowercase a, b, d, g , p, o, and c create distractions that make reading slower and more difficult.

To accomplish our goals, two variations of one typeface were designed. FF Mark served as a starting point for both.

SFMOMA Text Bold, set in solid red, is designed to be space efficient and easier to read in paragraphs. SFMOMA Display, set in black outline, has fuller forms that are ideal for headlines.

To create SFMOMA Text, Koeberlin increased the height of the lowercase letters (the x-height) in relation to that of the capital letters. By elongating the letters and eliminating their perfectly rounded circles, some of the pronounced distractions were removed. A double-story a was introduced to provide a distinctive letterform that wouldn’t be confused with o or c and would allow for faster ingestion of text. We were elated.

SFMOMA Text Bold

The letters in our logo served as the inspiration for SFMOMA Display, which adopts their open shapes and gracious curves. SFMOMA Display is distinguished by the splayed legs of its M, the lower counter of the A, and the sinuous curves of the capital S. And be sure not to miss the sleekly modern Q!

SFMOMA Display Bold

The new typeface will be used throughout the building on wayfinding and donor signage, object labels, and printed communications. The museum’s exhibition identities, aside from our upcoming opening set, will continue to use an eclectic range of typefaces to represent the range of experiences found in the different galleries.

Graphic Patterns

The textures and patterns of the architecture of the two buildings inspired a formal exploration of lines. The horizontal stripes that define the oculus, wrap the columns, and stretch across the marble floors are a defining graphic element of the Mario Botta building. These stripes served as inspiration for invitations, stationery systems, and a whole range of communications when the building opened in 1995.

These stripes, along with the grid of red brick found on the exterior of the Botta building, contrast with the fluid, sinuous lines of the Snøhetta building. To celebrate the architectural joining of the two systems, we turned the horizontal stripes on their heads and introduced an undulating ripple, echoing the dance and contrast of line and form found throughout the two buildings to create a graphic pattern to compliment our new visual identity.

Working in collaboration with SFMOMA’s Digital team, a digital pattern generator was created—a tool with which we can create and modify the pattern allowing us to create endlessly new combinations which we can use on products and communications.

In a sense, this ever-changing pattern has become a metaphor for the way we see SFMOMA’s new visual identity: contemporary, yet evocative of the museum’s past, dynamic yet easily legible, familiar and welcoming but also surprising. For a team of designers, there is no greater privilege than to create a new visual language that reflects the energy and complexity of an institution such as SFMOMA. And this is only the beginning; we look forward to experimenting with and evolving that language as the museum grows and changes over time.

Jennifer Sonderby

Jennifer Sonderby; photo: Don Ross

Jennifer Sonderby

Jennifer Sonderby, Design Director, leads the SFMOMA Design Studio, providing creative leadership and strategic direction to SFMOMA’s visual brand. Her team is responsible for the design of the museum’s new visual identity — implementing it throughout every facet of the visitor’s experience. Her work is included in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Architecture + Design permanent collection.
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