On the South bank of London’s River Thames, a great, twisting pyramid has been slowly climbing the horizon for almost decade, growing behind the former power station turned iconic art museum that is the Tate Modern. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the new Switch House has opened its doors this month, a new extension that earns Tate Modern the honor of being biggest art museum in the world.
The Tate family, which houses the UK’s national collection of art across four museums, is entering a new chapter, and a new chapter for a global institution means a newly defined brand vision. London’s design studio North, which has been behind other major UK gallery identity systems like the Barbican, has been preparing Tate’s brand refresh while the Switch House has been under construction. Since its doors have now opened, North’s new vision has also been released onto UK sidewalks on posters, staff uniforms, merchandise, and everything else one would expect to be plastered in Tate branding. The change isn’t a complete overhaul—it’s being described as a “refresh”—but it’s one that suits the demands and technological changes of the times.
It was 16 years ago that Wolff Ollins’ introduced its striking Tate identity, comprised of a range of logotypes that moved in and out of focus, suggesting the dynamic, ever-evolving nature of Tate. It was a flexible system, and despite its many iterations was still instantly recognizable and unified. Today though, North asserts that the guidelines created by Wolff Olins don’t fit in with the Tate of the 21st Century.
“After carrying out 32 interviews and an in-depth visual audit it was clear that the 16-year-old identity was starting to look a bit tired and dated,” says North’s director, Sean Perkins.
North’s first major rethink was the logo. The existing identity had 70 possible versions, which North saw as impractical and confusing for the in-house team. “We redrew just one new version, which can be reproduced effectively in any medium; physical, digital, and at any size,” Perkins explains. This new logo, an energetic array of half-tone dots that hazily spell out the Tate name, is more suited to digital use, and works on a multiplicity of screens.
“Before North was appointed to work on the brand refresh, we had a lot of creative freedom, which meant that while each exhibition campaign had a very distinctive identity, there was not much coherence between them, and they were less successful as a family of designs,” says one of Tate’s in-house designers, Nina Klein. For Klein, a main ambition behind the brand refresh is that posters work well alongside each other, while still expressing the essence of the exhibitions they promote. Certain typographic rules (like now only using two weights of the Tate font, where it used to be a free-for-all, and keeping headers in widely-spaced caps) mean that stronger coherence can be achieved.
“So far I have found the new guidelines great to work with. A few new parameters have been set, but within them there is still potential for a lot of creative freedom,” Klein concludes.
Freeing the four Tate locations from logo lock-ups has been the most radical change implemented by North. “These lock-ups did not work,” says Perkins. Releasing them has strengthened the recognition of Tate Britain, Modern, Liverpool, and St. Ives as a family of galleries.
“We decided not to corporatize the Tate color strategy, so we are now also working with colors from a collaboration between Tate and the artist Martin Creed,” says Perkins. This new collaboration will be applied to the identity system over the next 18 months, and it’ll fold Creed’s own dynamic vision into the brand, applying an artist’s impressionistic vision of the Tate into the museum’s identity. Artist, design, and brand will vividly collapse and collide—blurring boundaries much like Wolff Olins’ original blurred logo.
“The strengthened identity has added an edge, a revitalizing ‘Tateness’ back into the communications,” says Perkins. “In an extremely digital world, the Tate identity now has a strong voice and expression, with all the potential to grow and adapt to its positive future.”