I’ve always been a bit suspicious of branding. Important for selling things, perhaps, but museums aren’t in the selling business. And university museums are even further removed from the market. We’ve got a sophisticated audience, fairly narrowly defined; we’re not after numbers, but after a quality relationship; and we don’t want to come off as too slick. We’re academics, after all.
But I’ve changed my mind about branding. All of the reasons that we don’t need to worry about add up, ironically, to reasons why we should. Because we have a narrow audience, with a peculiar relationship to them, a relationship that differs with each faculty member or student, we can seem incoherent. Because we’re more about process – student learning – than about final product, our projects can come across as incomplete or unfinished. Because we aren’t slick – we’re happy to do a range of different kinds of projects, each of which looks different, with a different audience – it might be hard for visitors, or faculty or students, and especially for administrators, to add it all together.
So, we need to brand because we want to be able to keep our wide focus. Using a few consistent elements in our presentations can allow us to do many different things and still have them hang together.
Erin Wells and Mark Foster of Erin Wells Design are the designers that allowed me to see this. The Haffenreffer hired them to help us think about how to use our image and our space in a more coherent way.
First, our space. It is small, and we want to show off three or four unrelated exhibits at once, without completely confusing the visitor. Erin and Mark suggested that we have a repeating element that made the space coherent – a series of three-foot walls that defined the exterior of the exhibits.
Here’s the floor plan that shows the short walls – they’re highlighted in red here. They help define the space, give visitors a place to look for exhibit titles, let visitors know what’s exhibit space and what’s public space. You can get a good sense of this in the 3-D view, too.
Next, some graphic elements that we could use when we wanted to refer to the museum as a whole. This isn’t easy. Look at anthropology museum logos and you’ll see the problem. They’re either a single object (like the Logan Museum), a logotype (like the Penn Museum) or purely abstract (like the UBC MOA). A single object doesn’t capture the range of cultures that the museum covers; the abstract logo doesn’t really say what the museum does.
And so we went for a logotype – we’ve got a distinctive name, and we might as well play it up! – and rather than a single object, a type of object: masks. We’ve got hundreds of masks; they’re from many cultures; and by their nature, they are about performing culture, just like the museum. They’re also representations of people, and anthropology museums, to my mind, are first and foremost about people.
We started off with a selection of them – we spent too much time trying to be representative of the collections of the museum in the grouping, which is impossible – on a poster for the outside of the building.
And with the masks, Erin came up with a distinctive font for our name. Nothing fancy here: she found a font that had some wonderful f’s, and played with spacing and the use of upper and lower case letters. Designers charge more for custom fonts; we got a distinctive logo with a very clever use of a standard font. Along with this, Erin provided a set of standard logos for use in our publications. A set, because we have a long name, and sometimes we need to mention Brown, and sometimes not.
So far, this is pretty standard. Visitors might start to think of the museum as a coherent place (with interesting objects).
But then, as we started to think about the visitor experience, the flexibility of the logotype with masks became clearer. The CultureLab is our hands-on open storage area. Erin’s logotype for that space built on our branding:
The museum has a complicated entrance problem; we’re inside of a building that has other uses, and on the main green, and so we can’t put signs in the places that would get the most attention. How to use our interior doors in a way that attract attention? Again, a scheme that takes advantage of our distinctive logotype, and a mask as a symbol of the museum.
On one side, we’ve got a door, on the other a wall:
These should go up in the next few weeks, and at the very least, will attract attention!