The best, most holistic, and organic identity systems are often the ones where a design team and a client have a long-standing relationship, allowing an initial concept to strengthen and become more immersive over time. For Amsterdam’s Main Studio, an agency with consistently strong work for the architecture industry that we’ve championed on Eye on Design many times before, systems become even more powerful and effective when they have the chance to mature.
Main Studio’s relationship with the School of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology started in 2013 when the Dutch architect and theorist Wiel Arets became the school’s Dean and invited Main Studio founder, Edwin van Gelder, to work on the college’s first ever print publication.
This commission laid the crucial groundwork for a complete rebrand and an array of communication tools including lecture posters, publications, and most recently a website, all of which have now come to palpably define the School of Architecture brand.
Evocatively called Nowness, the first publication set the tone for the institute’s new focus under the guidance of Arets. Gelder went to Chicago to speak with the dean and draw from the structure of the canonical building by Mies van der Rohe that houses the University; he used its shape and Arets’ theories to inform the editorial layout.
“The starting point was the fact that 60% of the students come from outside the U.S.,” explains Gelder, “which surprised me—and Wiel’s vision of the future, which is that the world will shrink in size and eventually become one big city, with individual cities as neighborhoods.”
A combination of languages are used on the cover, alongside a photograph pinpointing Mies’ S. R. Crown Hall with a circle on a zoomed-out map. Four different grids and colors invoke the hall’s structure, and these concepts are translated into a visual vocabulary. The publication’s design quickly garnered attention and was nominated for London’s prestigious D&AD Awards.
After this success, Gelder expanded the concept into a system for posters and other forms of visual communication. A grid of four divides posters into four distinct “information zones” so that each different content layer can be placed in a different type size—the grid refers to the shape of the S.R. Crown Hall.
“The event and year are always in extra-extra large type, and then the background information is always small, corresponding to the grids,” says Gelder. Theinhardt, a classic Grotesque designed by Francois Rappo with a modernistic character and squared forms, also reflects the rigid systems favored by Mies.
Dots dynamically emphasize and illustrate a certain message or topic within each communication tool, and engage with the idea of the school’s building being “a dot on the map when seen from above. The modular grid of the template for these posters can be varied for all future communications,” continues Gelder. “In this way, all communications remain cohesive.”
After three years applying this grid to the design of various ephemera, finding ways to experiment within its constraints so that it powerfully communicates the brand while still reflecting the individual needs of each separate item, Gelder has now translated the system into a website and digital publishing tool. Protocol is a new platform that allows students and professors to communicate with each other, as well as present work online. Its design continues to make use of that same underlying grid.
“The website’s grid was translated from the print works, though in a more dynamic way, in that its format is flexible due to the digital interactions of the users,” says Gelder. “When a student graduates, a book will automatically be printed from the website, which will serve as their portfolio. It is therefore an expanded digital log of each student and teacher’s time at the school.
“Our trust has now grown over the years. I’ve visited Wiel in Chicago quite a few times for these IIT projects, and he is regularly in Amsterdam. The face-to-face interaction is important.” The relationship grows and continues, and now the studio is working on a series of publications for MCHAP, the Mies van der Rohe Crown Hall America’s Prize.
“All these projects are also part of IIT Architecture’s identity,” adds Gelder. “But in this case, we’re using a serif font instead. Each element of this identity needs and receives its own identity.” This is where Main Studio’s strength ultimately lies: in devising flexible structures that allow sufficient room to live, breathe, and grow with time.