In an art museum, graphic design usually takes a back seat. It’s the practical cousin to the main attraction; the wayfinding arrow that points you towards the sculptures, the block of text that helps you understand what you’re looking at. Design can be utilitarian, sure, but it also plays a bigger role. “We always want the art to be the star, but design can help with that,” says Damien Saatdjian, an art director at the Museum of Modern Art’s graphic design department, where he and a team of seven other designers create and maintain all of the museum’s graphic communication. This includes more than you’d think: from pamphlets and websites to mugs, totes, and exhibition wall text.
The studio, which is sandwiched between the conservation science lab and digital media team, is just a few rows of cubicles. Compared to the soaring ceilings of the neighboring galleries, the space is small and modest. The walls are scattered with potential designs, color palettes, type options, and layouts for upcoming exhibitions.
At any given moment you can find the team at work on up to eight different exhibition displays, while simultaneously handling marketing materials, retail goods, and any random piece of design ephemera that’s thrown their way. “We do anything and everything,” says Ingrid Chou, the department’s creative director. To some, this might be overwhelming, but to Chou and her team it means they can have an impact on nearly every department at MoMA. “We actually have a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening in the museum,” she says.
On the day I visit, the team shows me a long-term project they’ve been working on to redesign the museum’s retail items. On the back wall of the studio, sheets of paper printed with ideas form a grid of MoMA-branded goods. One printout shows a tote with MoMA’s logo crumbled haphazardly at the bottom. “It’s reflecting the clutter inside the tote bag,” says senior designer Danielle Hall. Another mock-up shows a T-shirt with half the MoMA logo peeking out playfully behind the pocket.
Most of MoMA’s graphics are constrained by its branding (in this case Paula Scher refreshed the identity template, and the logo was redrawn by Matthew Carter), but designers get to experiment when it comes to special exhibition designs. Every year, MoMA hosts around 12 special exhibitions—major shows from artists like Picasso, Cindy Sherman, and the upcoming Robert Rauschenberg. “That’s where we get to be a lot more expressive,” says senior designer Eva Bochem-Shur.
Designing for the exhibitions begins with research. First the curators share their thesis, then it’s up to the designers to translate that vision clearly and effectively. Sometimes that means keeping the design understated and letting the graphics act as a quiet backdrop for the art. Other times that means creating a bespoke typeface (like the one inspired by the handwriting of filmmaker Tim Burton, for his MoMA retrospective) and figuring out how to creatively present information on the walls. “Ideally it’s a collaboration,” Saatdjian says of working with curators.
Designers start their work on computers and finish in the galleries, which means the museum itself is often an extension of the team’s studio. The spatial aspect of exhibition design—how colors, type, and size work at scale—often means a designer will have to totally retool their design once it’s on a wall. “We’ve all gotten really good with tape measures,” Bochem-Shur says. It’s physical work, too—a departure for most of the staff, which has spent their careers working on screen.
The majority of the designers are agency transplants from firms like Interbrand, Pentagram, Mother, and Bruce Mau Design. The switch to the art world, for the most part, was a deliberate effort; instead of clients the designers here work with curators, and instead of fractured teams, they tend to work together to solve problems. The small group lends itself to open discussions about creativity, art, and what’s working and what’s not. “It’s not as competitive,” Hall says. “I think it leads to better work in the end because you can bounce ideas off each other.”
Ultimately, the appeal of working at MoMA comes down to the purity of designing for art. It’s the notion that they’re making something that isn’t just about selling an object (though that’s part of the job), but selling ideas and education, too. “We’d rather sell Picasso tickets than Nike shoes,” says Saatdjian.