Opinion

The Meh-tropolitan Museum of Art’s Rebranding

Front cover of the official membership mailer from THE MET Breuer
Front cover of the official membership mailer from THE MET Breuer (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On Friday I opened my mailbox and saw something odd staring back at me. I’d received the official membership invitation to the opening of the new “THE MET Breuer.” It was in a plain white envelope, with the new, red THE MET logo in the upper left corner. Inside was a single-fold brochure — poorly printed. The kind of print collateral I refuse to design anymore, because it will undoubtedly go directly into the trash.

Back cover of the official membership mailer from THE MET Breuer (click to enlarge)
Back cover of the official membership mailer from THE MET Breuer (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Nominally, this was a wholly unremarkable piece of mail. But I was excited to see it because, as far as I can tell, it was the first official, printed unveiling of THE MET’s new brand. While a lot has already been written about the logo as an isolated image, this poorly printed little mailer was my first real look at the brand system, the context within which that logo fits. And while I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of heaping hate on the new logo, I’m sorry to say that the system feels wrong. It looks like THE MET has made a really unfortunate mistake not only on the logo, but on the entire surrounding brand system.

Based on that mailer, here’s what I imagine their core brand guidelines to include as elements for the new system:

1) THE MET logo

On a white background or on a red background. Seems to be always tucked in the corner.

2) A new serif custom font for headlines

The font feels really heavy — almost like they’re yelling — and the letter spacing is very inconsistent.

3) Helvetica-ish bespoke sans serif font as a secondary typeface

This is used as a secondary font, mainly for body copy.

4) A series of dotted lines made up of diamond marks referred to as “ornaments”

These seem to relate to the sub-branding system (see #7) and are used as decorative dividers of levels of information.

5) Primary colors of red, black, and white

They seem to be trying to highlight certain words or phrases by alternating between red, black, and white. There are other colors proposed in the new brand, but they were not evident in the initial mailer I received.

6) An awkwardly cropped color photograph of a beautiful building (the new THE MET Breuer)

There doesn’t seem to be a distinct photography style; it’s just a very straightforward photo of the new THE MET Breuer. In other samples, they use art from the galleries cropped as they lay in the frames on a wall. So not a lot of unique photographic moments displayed in the system.

7) A sub-branding lockup system for all THE MET locations

A sub-brand is a secondary brand that locks up with the primary brand. In this case, THE MET is primary, and the locations acts as sub-brands. To convey this visually, the name of each THE MET branch (Breuer, Fifth Avenue, Cloisters) is placed underneath the new logo, separated by a dotted line. It is left-aligned, which further reinforces the lack of symmetry in the logo. (Can someone please fix the symmetry?)

The new sub-branding system to differentiate THE MET locations (image via Wired)
The new sub-branding system to differentiate THE MET locations (images courtesy the Met, via Wired)

So, what are we being told? What does this all mean? What heritage of a 140-year-old museum does this convey? Not much — but maybe judging a brand system on the merits of one disposable mailer is unfair?

Evidently not.

The brand system around the new logo (image courtesy the Met, via Wired)
The brand system around the new logo (image courtesy the Met, via Wired)

The museum released another sample of print collateral pieces on Friday (as a result of the logo backlash), to show the breadth of the brand. The photo showcases a series of small print maps and guides, and an app splash screen with the logo on a red background. None of these examples is unique, and overall they feel corporate and dull. There’s nothing smart or witty here, nothing hidden to discover (like the FedEx logo arrow). There’s no lingering idea or story you walk away with and remember. It all feels nice and clean — everything is neatly aligned to a classic grid — but we’re not left with anything of substance. There’s no voice. There’s no New York attitude. The sample website is also very confusing. On the homepage, they refer to the THE MET, The Met, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — three different voices (i.e. how the museum’s name is visually spoken) on a single page.

A confusing concept for the new homepage, with three difference references to the name of the museum (original image courtesy the Met, via Wired)
A confusing concept for the new homepage, with three difference references to the name of the museum (original image courtesy the Met, via Wired) (click to enlarge)

One aspect of the redesign was to create a new wayfinding system for the museum: maps, directional signage, an app — all of which we have yet to see. Getting lost in THE MET is something we’ve all experienced. A few well-designed signs, a better app to help you find your way around the museum — these are definitely needed. But you don’t need to scrap an entire brand just to help visitors find their way around.

The old logo featured the letter M and was based on a woodcut by Fra Luca Pacioli, who taught mathematics to Leonardo da Vinci; it had been in use since 1971. Because it was featured for decades on every admission button, the symbol became visually identified with the Met. The old logo worked. It had a rich heritage. It felt dated in the right way. It meant something. It looked good on a T-shirt. The system around it could have been modernized without jettisoning a logo that had a well-earned place in New York life, an icon that adorned millions of lapels. But perhaps that happened because the design wasn’t created by a New Yorker.

The old Met logo vs. the new one
The old Met logo vs. the new one

Wolff Olins is a UK-based design firm. Sure, they have an office in NYC, blah blah, but basically, Gareth Hague, the London-based designer in charge of reenvisioning THE MET’s logo, is not attached to New York. I don’t mean to be parochial, but a museum is an expression of place, of a city. Our city.

According to Wolff Olin’s website, they claim to “help organisations shake off their corporate camouflage.” Ironically, there was nothing “corporate” about the old Metropolitan Museum of Art logo. It was hand drawn, imperfect. The new brand for the museum feels entirely corporate. THE MET suggests a financial institution, not a place featuring the history of creativity.

There are aspects of the new logo that I do like. It draws on more classical design and typography, a tendency I appreciate. It has echoes of Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture, which was originally created for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. It has a typographic connection to brands like the Economist and New York Life Insurance Company, and even reflects religious illuminated manuscripts and Gothic architecture. It also has a very 1970s vibe, with the large all-cap letters squished together, complete with groovy bell-bottom serifs. In fact, it looks quite similar to the Metropolitan Opera logo from the ’70s. But the execution is lousy. It feels forced and contrived. More importantly, the system around it doesn’t allow the brand to shine.

1970s Metropolitan Opera House logo (image via Etsy)
1970s Metropolitan Opera House logo (image via Etsy)
New York Life Insurance Company logo (via newyorklife.com)
New York Life Insurance Company logo (via newyorklife.com)
American Ballet Theatre Logo, with a similar squished typography (image via Wikipedia)
American Ballet Theatre Logo, with a similar squished typography (image via Wikipedia)

With the new Uber logo, I felt the company had gotten exactly what it had paid for (the logo was done in-house; Uber refused to work with an outside agency). But in the case of THE MET, I have wonder how much the institution spent on this failed attempt to rebrand. Strengthening a great logo with a fresh system is a less muscular process — it requires subtle shifts rather than bombast. It involves less ego. Redesigning from the ground up is clearly an effort to make one’s mark (pun intended). Reworking or evolving a system, rather than doing a total redesign, is also more frugal; it generally costs a lot less.

The problems with the new logo are real. The ligatures (when two letters connect) make no sense — they make a simple, six-letter name quite difficult to read. The tight spacing between the letters doesn’t visually relate to the space between the words. It doesn’t reflect the huge architectural spaces within THE MET. It doesn’t feel centered or grounded. As a New Yorker I want to see the full name: The Metropolitan Museum of Fucking Art. How beautiful would that be set in a simple typeface? Why was it distilled to a ligature, not worthy of its full breadth of letters and words? What happened to the attitude, the formality, the eloquence?

Instead, all we’re left with is THE MEH.

(image by the author)
(image by the author)
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