Let’s pretend for a moment that the logo for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was perfectly fine—that it didn’t appear to be gripped in a thick black vise, that it didn’t seem like an offshoot of that better-known MoMA, and that it didn’t prompt unwitting visitors to mispronounce the acronym like an Italian dessert.
But SFMOMA, which is linked both in style and ethos with its brutalist building designed by Mario Botta in the early ’90s, has kept the same identity design since some of you were born. Its many limitations pay no heed to smart phones, street-pole banners, or animated video. “If you weren’t familiar with it,” says design director Jennifer Sonderby, “it was challenging to read, especially from a distance.”
Now the new, amorphous, blinding-white extension to the museum, designed by Norwegian practice Snøhetta, has provided the momentum to start over. As a launching point, museum director Neal Benezra offered the architects seven descriptors: welcoming, surprising, illuminating, “for our time,” participatory, boundary-less, and open. The identity would have to follow suit, and a limiting black box just wouldn’t do.
Snøhetta responded with an open, accessible design with a huge, glass public foyer, slated to open next spring. And the internal SFMOMA design team encapsulated that ethos in their design. “Our identity mirrors the physical and emotional experience of visiting the museum,” says Sonderby. “It’s able to breathe.”
This wasn’t simply a matter of freeing the letters from their “brick.” The team wanted them to be responsive in both the digital and physical realms. Breaking the letterforms up into three units reflected the surrounding hills, the ebb and flow of the ocean, and the famous San Francisco fog while also giving the letterforms a more nuanced flow. On mobile screens, the units can disperse to the corners to frame the textual content. Just as practically, says Sonderby, “The logo can be larger in smaller spaces.” On outdoor banners, the new logo is 15% bigger than its predecessor.
The striking red-and-white palette was a relatively easy choice. It references the orange-red of the historic building and the white of the new. Besides which, “red is the most visible color through fog. It’s also very close to ‘international orange,’” a.k.a. the color of the Golden Gate Bridge.
But finding the right typeface was more of a challenge. Sonderby interviewed several designers, none of whom wished to redesign it completely, “knowing how difficult the process can be.” She ultimately targeted Berlin-based Christoph Koeberlin, designers of the beloved FF Mark, a contemporary cut of geometric sans. Koeberlin’s SFMOMA Display is an elongated, streamlined iteration of FF Mark. It’s more accessible to the eye, and it adheres to Benezra’s brief in other ways, too.
“It’s not for sale yet, but it will go live in three years,” says Sonderby. “That’s part of our strategy. We want others to have it.”