The MIT Media Lab moves fast. From shapeshifting displays to technology that could 3-D print Eames chairs and self-lacing McFlys, the Media Lab reinvents the way we think about the future every single day. Now the Media Lab is reinventing its visual identity with the help of Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. The new logo is an abstract set of pixel-art hieroglyphics that marry two distinctly different eras in MIT’s rich graphic design history.
Three years ago, MIT Media Lab celebrated its 25th birthday by unveiling its first ever logo: a colorful and dynamic identity designed by Brooklyn-based designers E. Roon Kang and Richard The. In keeping with the Lab’s spirit of invention, it had a custom algorithm that coughed out over 40,000 permutations of the logo, enough to provide the Media Lab with unique business card designs for the next 40 years.
But the logo’s randomness ended up working against the Media Lab. “They were always getting calls, asking to provide their logo, and they just didn’t have a fixed one,” Bierut says. And it had another issue, too. The Media Lab isn’t really a single entity. It’s an umbrella. It spreads itself over 23 very different departments, from Macro Connections to the Tangible Media Group, each trying to forge the future in its own different way. And MIT holds the handle. The 25th-anniversary logo was a beautiful reflection of the Media Lab as a colorful, spinning umbrella, but it didn’t reflect the unique identities of the individual departments it sheltered, nor did it reflect MIT as a whole.
For the redesign, Bierut was tasked with creating a more static identity that reflected every aspect of the Media Lab. “We were looking for a graphic identity that would allow us to express multiple groups in the lab,” MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte tells me. “Something that reflected this hierarchy where MIT was the parent, and the Media Lab itself was a subsidiary, but still had these other groups with their own unique identities under them.”
Bierut started by ripping out everything but the fixings: the underlying 7×7-unit grid which the 25th-anniversary logo used to algorithmically generate its designs. “Even though we were asked to come up something more fixed, the theme of variability still seemed meaningful to me,” Bierut tells me. “It’s an acknowledgement that the Media Lab is not fixed in time or purpose, but can accommodate so many different ideas and directions in terms of what passes through it.”
Using this grid as a base, Bierut looked to MIT’s graphic design history for inspiration. Both Bierut and Negroponte were particularly drawn to the MIT Press logo. A masterful visual identity designed for the university’s publishing arm by Muriel Cooper in 1962, the MIT Press logo is a straightforward representation of the organization’s name, but can also be decoded as a series of book spines, computer digits, and more.
“There was something about Cooper’s logo for MIT Press that contained much of the simplicity and irreducibility that had eluded the Media Lab in its quest for an identity over the years,” Bierut says. And since Cooper was also a moving spirit of the Media Lab in its earliest days, coming up with a logo that reflected her influence seemed fitting.
What Bierut ended up with for the finished identity was essentially a typeface, masquerading as a logo. Using the same 7×7 unit grid that figured in the 25th-anniversary logo, Bierut calculated all the possible ways a maximum of three different letters could fit into 49 pixels, yet still be readable. The Media Lab itself has its own logo, denoted by a low-res “ML,” where as Media Lab departments each have their own sibling identities, represented by their initials. A plus? It’s a design that still looks pretty good on a tote.
“The best compliment I can give the new identity is that it’s almost as good as the MIT Press logo, which is a masterpiece,” Negroponte told me. So it’s almost a masterpiece? “Well, to be almost as good as the MIT Press logo is to be extraordinarily good,” he laughs. “And anyway, I don’t want to declare any living person to be the next Michelangelo. But Bierut’s every bit the designer that Cooper was.”