How do you use typography and graphic design to convey the stature and historical legacy of the 300-year-old auction powerhouse that is Sotheby’s, while still maintaining a modern sensibility? That was the challenge Pentagram partner Abbott Miller faced when he was tasked with redesigning the company’s entire brand identity, from the website, magazine, and catalog down to its bidding paddles and stationery.
The results of Miller’s redesign, unveiled this week after two years of work, are not so much a drastic rebrand, but feel “more like how Sotheby’s should’ve looked all along,” Miller tells Co.Design. “We wanted a kind of click moment, when suddenly Sotheby’s just felt more like itself.”
Sotheby’s visual identity last saw a drastic overhaul 12 years ago in the wake of a scandal. CEO Alfred Taubman had been indicted for engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy with archrival Christie’s, and in an attempt to present a new face to the world, Sotheby’s changed its logo’s typeface from a historic serif to a clean, modern Gill Sans-based sans serif. “The idea was that they were turning over a new leaf, establishing a new transparency as a publicly traded company,” Miller says, “but what happened was they kind of severed their connection to this really historic lineage.”
The company was founded in 1744 and has since grown into one of the world’s largest auction houses, with salesrooms in Paris, Zurich, Milan, Geneva, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Doha. “The font felt neutral and not very elegant, cold and disconnected, and didn’t conjure the sense of the stature of the organization,” Miller says.
Miller was hired in 2011 to redesign Sotheby’s website–which he describes as being “crazy and chaotic”–but he found that he was getting all kinds of other feedback about how the company’s identity just didn’t feel like Sotheby’s. The website redesign suddenly expanded into an entire brand identity redesign. “We got a mandate to reconnect with the history of Sotheby’s,” he says.
Miller replaced the 12-year-old logo with a new one that uses the elegant Mercury typeface, designed by Jonathan Hoeffler. “This font in particular was really effective for us–it has this great new/old sensibility to it stylistically. It’s chiseled, classic, and refined.” And it scales well, maintaining its beauty as it gets bigger in signage, something the old wordmark had trouble doing. The use of upper and lower case construction maintains a modern sensibility, because “all caps is a little clunky and not useful,” Miller says. Benton Sans is used as a secondary font across communication channels, and Freight is a tertiary typeface used for display and headlines.
The catalogs and the magazine, along with the website, were overhauled from what Miller calls “this complicated four-part structure of weirdly cropped images.” The website now presents dramatic full-bleed photographs of Sotheby’s art. For the first time, the company is making a concerted effort to shoot contextual images of works, presenting them with more environmental cues to better reflect how the art might look in a buyer’s home. The curation of the rotating homepage slide show led the company to hire its first-ever full-time photo editor. Now, when you visit the site, “it feels like a portal to a world of art,” Miller says. In the magazine and catalog (vital tools for art buyers) a clean, minimal layout presents images silhouetted against a white background–how the art would appear in galleries and museums. To pique buyers’ interest, Miller added full-bleed shots of details.
The redesign is meant to create a sense of cohesion throughout the brand’s many communication channels, right down to the invoice form. “An invoice is actually a really important brand expression,” Miller says, particularly when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of art. “Frankly, the old invoice form wasn’t very nice,” he says. “It seemed like it came from the accounting office and not the brand itself. It should feel as cared for as the catalog that you saw that led you to bid on the object.”
Browse the redesigned Sotheby’s website here.