The Whitney’s “Responsive W” quietly and cleverly conveys the museum’s nature, Jessica Walsh points out to Inspire.
We asked the world’s most potent creatives what they’d seen in 2013 that made them think ‘I wish I’d done that’?
To discuss design, we spoke to Designer and Art Director Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh and Foreman of the D&AD 2014 Graphic Design Jury. Here’s what she chose as her stand-out design of 2013.
Following Jessica’s choice, we caught up with Experimental Jetset, the team behind the Whitney Museum identity. Experimental Jetset is a small, independent, Amsterdam-based graphic design studio, founded in 1997 by (and still consisting of) Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dungen.
The ‘Responsive W’ reacts to the available space, why was that important in this context?
In a way, the whole concept of the ‘Responsive W’ has a lot to do with the notion of institutional space.
In our view, a museum is not a neutral, invisible space, but a very specific environment, one that has quite a complex relationship with the works of art that are contained within this environment. And when you think about it, objects such a posters, invitations and banners are institutional spaces as well – material environments that have a very specific, spatial relationship with the reproduced artworks that are printed on them.
So we thought it would be interesting to somehow make this relationship visible, to make it material – or better said, to make it graphic.
Chart displaying a selection of possible variations of the ‘Responsive W’. (Folded A2-sized poster, as inserted in the 220-page graphic manual that EJ created for the in-house design team of the Whitney). Experimental Jetset, 2012
The underlying principle is quite basic – it’s a game of proportions. A poster is a sheet of paper that comes in certain proportions, while the proportions of the reproduced artwork are usually given as well. So when you print this reproduction on a given piece of paper, there will always be a certain amount of remaining space. And this remaining space will always be different, as almost every artwork will have different proportions.
So the ‘Responsive W’ is basically a zigzag-shaped line measuring (or mapping) the remaining space, and by doing so, making visible the institutional space.
So we think it’s a very honest and open gesture – instead of pretending the institutional environment to be neutral and invisible, the zigzag reveals the material dimensions of this space.
Does it feel empowering to design a scheme to be used by others, rather than a specific set of executions? Do you enjoy seeing what people do with it?
We regard the graphic identity basically as a set of instructions, or notations. The designer in charge of executing these instructions (the ‘performer’, so to speak) first has to define a certain space, in which she then has to draw a series of four connected lines, in such a way that the result resembles a zigzag (or the letter W, depending on the way you choose to look at it).
In many ways, it can be compared to the rules of a instruction-based artwork, musical notation or a theatre script – the rules seem quite strict, but are at the same time quite open to interpretation. In other words, the shape won’t be determined in an algorithmic way, but is fully dependent on a human interpretation – the decisions made by the individual designer.
Early sketch (photomontage/simulation), showing a Whitney poster installed in the streets of New York. Experimental Jetset, 2012
In that sense, we think the graphic identity is not so much about empowering us, but more about empowering the designers who are currently working with the graphic identity. We really developed this whole graphic system for them, so that it could serve as a sort of stage, or platform, for their creativity.
In fact, the moment we saw the items produced by the Whitney’s in-house design team (headed by the brilliant Hilary Greenbaum) was the moment we felt the whole graphic identity really came together.
We have been working on this assignment from November 2011 to May 2013. We gave all we could in this project, and we designed hundreds of templates, manuals, models and examples; but all these items make up only half of the story. The other half of the story is the actual application, and we really think the Whitney designers excelled themselves. You can see they really put their heart in it, coming up with results we never even dreamed of. So yeah, we absolutely enjoy seeing what they are currently doing with it.
If we can give two examples of these results (coming from the Whitney Tumblr) – first of all, here’s a subway poster announcing a Hopper exhibition. And secondly, here’s a newspaper advertisement, as appeared last September in the New York Times.
Do you feel the Whitney identity is a synthesis of European and American cultures?
The Whitney Museum, as an institute, is in itself a synthesis of European and American cultures – or at least, when seen from a historical perspective. The Museum came into existence during a very interesting time in art history – the period in which Paris stopped being the center of modern art, and New York became the capital of it (a really interesting book in this regard is How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Serge Guilbaut).
So this was a time when, especially in New York, there existed a certain dialectical tension between American art and European art. In fact, at that time, the Whitney was founded specifically as an ‘pro-American’, emancipatory reaction to the ‘pro-European’ policies of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. And even though the Whitney specifically defined itself as a museum for American artists, there have always been these hidden European undercurrents in its history – think for example of the fact that the Whitney building on Madison Avenue was designed by an European architect (Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer).
In fact, that was one of the (many) reasons why we decided to choose, as a typeface for this project, for a version of an European typeface (Neue Haas Grotesk), as redrawn by an American type-designer (Christian Schwartz). In short, we tried to detect, in this redrawn typeface, the same sort of tension between American and European cultures as can be found in the history of the Whitney Museum. An European typeface, with hidden American undercurrents – that was more or less what we had in mind when we chose the typeface.
We don’t know whether we actually managed to convey this idea – but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It turned out to be very good typeface for the Whitney either way.
Yours is a very philosophical approach to design. How do you ensure that this is always a consideration during the design process?
You know, it’s actually more the other way around – it is our graphic design practice that has informed (and keeps informing) our ‘philosophical’ approach. We actually don’t have a proper theoretical or academic background – it really is through our daily practice that we keep coming across all these more theoretical concepts (and then we piece them together, in a rather ‘savage’ way, we have to admit).
For example, in 2007 we were working on the graphic identity of Le Cent Quatre (104), a French cultural institute that was situated in a large, roofed street – basically a ‘passage’, or ‘gallery’. Doing research for this project, we automatically came across Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ – which immediately had a huge impact on our way of working and thinking, and keeps on inspiring us ever since.
A similar thing happened when we were working on the graphic identity of the Whitney. Thinking about instructions and notations, we remembered an essay by the Welsh New Left scholar Raymond Williams, in which he basically describes art as a form of notation. And this idea (of art-as-notation) then immediately became part of the design process, amplifying ideas we already had, but were (until then) unable to articulate.
So we wouldn’t say that theory is something we try to impose on our practice from the outside. It really is the other way around – while designing, we discover all these theoretical principles that are already buried within the practice of the graphic design itself, almost like treasures. Or at least, that’s how we experience it.
And finally, is there an example of some creative work you’ve seen in the past year that made you think “I Wish I’d Done That”?
Without doubt, the new graphic identity of the Stedelijk Museum, designed by Mevis & Van Deursen. It’s a visual language that seems very light and casual, but comes fully loaded (at least to us) with all kinds of interesting associations (Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Concrete Poetry, etc.). When we first saw it, it literally took our breath away.
In a recent interview, Armand Mevis (of Mevis & Van Deursen) actually mentioned that one of their inspirations (for the Stedelijk Museum project) was the graphic identity that we designed in 2004 for SMCS (Stedelijk Museum CS, which was, at that time, the temporary location of the Stedelijk Museum). So that was quite flattering to hear…
Almost as flattering as Jessica Walsh choosing the Whitney project as an example of a project she wished she’d done. So Jessica, if you read this – thanks!
You can enter your work in the D&AD Awards 2014 now.