New York City-based graphic design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, infamous for posing nude in promotional photos, know how to engage. That’s why The Jewish Museum‘s director Claudia Gould, appointed in 2011, tapped the irreverent firm to create a branding that was striking and contemporary, but which would still embody its Jewish heritage.
The museum turned 110th this year. Their exhibits range from the contemporary to the traditional. In the past year, for example, shows included a retrospective of comic artist Art Spiegelman and Marc Chagall’s fantastical paintings. But the museum has a millennia of Jewish history to showcase, as evidenced in the museum’s collection of 30,000 art objects, from a first-century BCE bronze jug to Maira Kalman’s whimsical watercolors.
What happens, then, when you try to design a graphic identity for such a place? How do you honor its ancient roots while expressing its continued relevance?
That was the challenge that Sagmeister & Walsh faced. “Over time, it had gotten a little dusty around the edges,” designer Stefan Sagmeister tells Co.Design of the museum’s former identity. “The existing red logo box appeared a little bit, well, unengaged.”
The Jewish Museum didn’t want just a tweak. They asked Sagmeister & Walsh to rebrand the museum’s entire graphic identity, from its website to its logo to its giftwrap. Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, Sagmeister & Walsh settled on the principles of sacred geometry, an ancient visual system related to Jewish symbolism, as guidelines for every aspect of the branding. The identity is rendered mainly in Jewish colors: bright blue and gold.
The team discovered sacred geometry when studying the origins of the Star of David, the widely recognized symbol of Jewish identity. Sacred geometry relates back to the belief that the universe was created according to a geometric plan. Historically, the system was used in the planning and construction of many religious structures, architecture, and art. “There are a number of symbols and forms we looked to for inspiration that all fall under this geometry: the flower of life, Metatron’s Cube, Platonic solids, among many others,” Jessica Walsh says. “We drew every thing in the branding on these grids: the logo, patterns, icons, illustrations, and typefaces.”
“We wanted to create a flexible system that could adapt based on audience or event, yet always felt unified in visual language,” Walsh says. In collaboration with the museum’s staff and leadership, the duo settled on four brand attributes they wanted the identity to reflect: Engaging (relevant), Desirable (sought out, sophisticated, elegant), Unexpected (playful, innovative, history viewed through a new lens), and Inclusive (open, diverse, inter-generational).
For a high-tech touch, the pair built a Processing app that turns a photograph or a webcam stream into an illustration based on a tetrahedron pattern derived from sacred geometry. “We noticed there were many instances where the museum was using poor-quality photographs in their materials,” Walsh says. “This application is a way for the museum to take low-quality photographs and turn them into illustrations that can be used at any scale–and fit conceptually with the branding.”