As a Chicagoan of recent vintage, I’ll say this: Chicago’s at its worst when comparing itself to L.A. or NYC. The city shines when it forgets those irrelevant comparisons and strides confidently—even insouciantly—forward. It charms with its odd status as a dauntingly large metropolis with a surprisingly small-town feel that’s peerless within its region, yet shrunken from the previous century’s glories. Transplants acclimatize with startling quickness. Creative scenes—from design, to sound art, to dance—are sizable, but welcoming. You buy a down coat, stop bitching about winter, discover amazing eats from Devon Avenue to Alinea, settle into your roomy and affordable apartment. Chicago deserves reckoning by its own standards, not pointless comparisons. Of Chicago’s two nicknames (and attitudes), I’ll take Third Coast over Second City any day.
All of which explains why I greeted the brand new logo redesign for The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) with particular zeal. It embraces the city’s personality aptly: it’s genial, effortlessly cross-disciplinary, playful yet world-class, and much cooler than it seems to realize. Its previous identity was ultra-light and easy to spoil with over-tinkering, yet the new design by Dutch studio Mevis & Van Deursen (MVD) brings a clever, lively, even humorous sensibility to the institution.
Built around squares and grids that echo both the MCA’s boxy floor plan and the city’s gridded layout, the new identity uses a stark black-and-white palette with Klein Blue and highlighter-yellow accents. Most inventively, it relies on a custom typeface in multiple versions, or “cuts.” Letterforms are constructed like bits of tape, lending the typefaces a kinetic, almost pixelated liveliness and an astonishing range within a united look.
Like me, MCA design director Dylan Fracareta recently transplanted here from New York City and found the city irresistible for reasons similar to mine. In his estimation, NYC is “more business-oriented, slicker, more put-together somehow, but also less willing to take risks.” Whereas “Chicago is almost vulnerable in its proximity to nothing [bigger], but that also gives the city a carefree feeling, a confidence. It doesn’t worry too much about itself.”
A central element of the new identity is “exposing the grid,” but Fracareta is quick to dispel any notions of cool abstraction. “It does feel a bit scientific at first, this Josef Müller-Brockmann way of pulling things together. But we’re not using the grid in a Swiss fashion, strictly containing content… There’s humor in grids, actually. In its excessive repetition, that’s where the humor is achieved.” He likens the repeating grid to a John Cage quote:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Fracareta continues, “The more [the grid] gets elaborated and you see it in different permutations, it gains an attitude, a playfulness. It becomes the identity of the MCA without saying ‘MCA’.” He and his team aspire to build equity in the MCA similar to that of NPR: you may not know every show, but you can feel reasonably confident you’ll like whatever’s on.
Fracareta’s biggest challenges in applying the identity were simplification and balance, so they limited themselves to maximum of two typefaces in any project and created an outline or inverted version for “more of a club feel on event posters. We never wanted the design to overwhelm the subject matter or exhibition. You never feel disoriented as a reader; it should always feel purposeful.”
The website played a role, too. The two accent colors—Klein Blue and highlighter yellow—were inspired by hyperlinks. “The primary colors are black and white, and the secondary colors are derived from a digital environment,” Fracareta explains. “If you highlight that blue in InDesign, you wind up with its obverse. In a non-screen environment, that’d be orange. But in a screen-based environment it’s yellow.”
The redesigned mcachicago.org takes important strides towards transparency and inclusiveness, bringing the entire MCA collection online for the first time since the institution’s 1967 launch. Visitors with screen-readers can navigate the entire site with a keyboard and, with Coyote, MCA’s open-source platform, hear detailed description of visual images. Future collaborations with local institutions like The Poetry Foundation and Experimental Sound Studio will consider how to enhance the experience of learning about an art object aurally.
As a veteran of minimalist architecture magazine PIN-UP for nine years (which exclusively used Arial), Fracareta is hooked on singularity. “I love focusing on a single attribute and becoming MacGyver-like with it,” he says. “PIN-UP is a good example of my practice: wanting to find something that’s a little bit restrictive, and allowing that restriction to become a positive. Working within a singular concept, you can get much more inventive outcomes.”