In 2005 The Museum of Modern Art store began a promotional series known as Destination:Design. An extension of the Museum’s educational mission, the series introduced customers to designed objects from around the world — many for the first time in the United States. And as the series progressed, the Museum began to turn to local colleges from each destination for that year’s visual identity.
In the fall of 2012, New York City was selected as the eleventh destination in the series, and the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts was asked to create the branding and marketing materials. Department chair Debbie Millman then asked me to lead the students through, what was for some, their first large-scale, inclusive branding project.
The strength of the program is that it attracts students from a wide range of professional, academic and cultural backgrounds; and it is short enough (one intense calendar year) that the group doesn’t have time to establish ruts. Thus, there weren’t any overriding methods or orthodoxies to burden the process.
But we did need a point of departure. So I offered a simple exercise from Francis Ford Coppola: come up with a one or two word theme.
In interviews, Coppola describes how even the smallest decisions can be based on the overall theme. For example, the theme of The Conversation was privacy. So when it came time to choose the raincoat for Gene Hackman, they chose the translucent one. And the theme of The Godfather, succession, determined the location (two homes close together) where the film was shot.
The 30 students of the program were broken up into five smaller groups and given the initial task of developing their short theme and an initial creative brief.
After several rounds of strategic development, creative exploration and feedback, we had our five directions and were ready for the first client workshop. The work covered the spectrum from highly strategic to overtly decorative, from verbal to visual, from fully realized to rough, and from aspirational to realistic. And while there was great potential in each, we needed to focus our efforts into a tighter presentation to the Museum’s “design jury,” headed by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design — i.e. a tough audience. So three directions were selected…
The theme for this direction came from the primordial compulsions which draw everything from insects to light bulbs, immigrants to New York City, to crowds around Marina Abramović at MoMA. Earlier steps investigated the visual metaphor of magnetic fields described in the arrangement of iron filings, but it was only when the work became looser did the work become more powerful.
This direction began with the observation that New York, and New Yorkers, operate on their own frequency. While accurate, it remains a general platitude. And the early development of the direction suffered by its generality, with numerous variations on wavy shapes.
But after a good week or so of stalled progress, the group had a major breakthrough… New Yorkers famously spend huge sums of money for crappy apartments and liters of milk, travel to sketchy neighborhoods in search of the best dining experiences, and allow beloved music venues to close — only to reopen as a corner deli. So why not celebrate the things that would repel most “rational” people?
The visual inspiration came from the rather ugly four-color ink-jet printing, flat photography and amateur typography found across small shops, street vendors and subway ads. Especially the ads for (board certified) dermatologist Dr. Jonathan Zizmor.
Coming to this revelation was one of those moments which all creatives hope for: when everything comes together in such a way it challenges your preconceptions and taste. It can be a frightening experience, but that’s the kind of fear which usually indicates that you’re on the right path.
The client loved it right away, but unfortunately, the hip and ironic tone didn’t speak to their wider audience.
Our third direction was the winner, with a theme based on the contrasts, collisions and combinations seen in New York. The name Mixage, appropriated from the French word for sound editing, was a representation of several aspects of the city’s artistic culture: the mixmasters of rap, collage technique in the visual arts, and words you might see in a foreign film. The holding angle was a stand in for a typical New York City corner: the place “where disparate elements, from all corners of the world, collide, contrast and combine into a vibrant whole.” The corner is also a destination in the sense of “Meet me at the corner of…” or “It’s at the corner of…”
And its shape also gave the identity a real New York expression of value:
Everywhere else < NYC.
Once this direction was established, we had four months to create a collection of logo variations and develop applications for printed material, photography standards, brand voice, motion graphics and in-store environments. One of the great resources available to us was the School of Visual Arts Visible Futures Lab, where we were able to manufacture some of the environmental elements with a ShopBot CNC (computer numerical control) Router.
While the project as a whole was wildly successful for everyone involved — MoMA, the Masters in Branding program, and the students — we also were able to affect the Museum’s communication policy. Previously, all retail items were photographed in a classic modernist style: evenly lit in a white seamless environment, then silhouetted and given a minimal shadow. But this project, and the logical move of photographing objects in the very city they were designed in, came with its own kind of permission. And after our involvement, our clients established a MoMAStore feed on Instagram which has become a different kind of narrative altogether.
School of Visual Arts, Masters in Branding Program
Lead instructor: Mark Kingsley
Department chair: Debbie Millman
Director of operations: J’aime Cohen
Studio manager: Katie Scott
School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding Students:
Nourah Alammary, Hannah Baker, Archie Bell, Lary Bismuth,Tom Calabrese, David Carofano, Sergio Castro, Sarah Conroy,Richard Gordon-Smith, Randy Gregory, Janavi Kothari, Lauren Martiello, Andrew McGrath, Jeremy Miller, Karen Morvan, Daniela Novaes,Daniyil Onufrishyn, Christina Bou Raad, Tyler Smith, Amy Speck,Greg Tatum, Kimberley Thomas, Catalina Torres, Bill Vesce, Shantie Villada, Lauren Zaleski, Vickie Zhao
The Museum of Modern Art:
Assistant Creative Director, Retail Division: Brian Bergeron
Image Production Manager: Erin Holland
Digital Design Manager: Nicole Collins
Visual Merchandising Manager: Joshua Casey
Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design: Paola Antonelli