MoMA’s Julia Hoffmann on Why Branding's Future Is In-house
By Andy Epstein December 7, 2011
Header Image
MoMA’s Julia Hoffmann on Why Branding's Future Is In-house
By Andy Epstein December 7, 2011
MoMA’s Julia Hoffmann on Why Branding's Future Is In-house
By Andy Epstein December 7, 2011
Header Image

At Pentagram Julia Hoffmann was the lead designer on the award-winning bestseller The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book). Then she became art director for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, where she worked on interactive for powerhouses like Burger King. Still, since joining MoMA in 2008 as its creative director of advertising and graphic design, she believes that “in-house design studios are the future of successful branding.” In this interview, Julia talks to Andy Epstein about why.

You’ve worked at both agencies and within in-house groups. What differences have you noticed between the two?

A few things.  

Working in-house eliminates the individual ego. You are suddenly part of a group and, as a result, must take into consideration the bigger picture. To some extent, you are your own client, whom you truly care about—at MoMA, we’re both working for and at a museum we love. Conversely, working at an agency, you quickly dive in and out of a project, it’s fast and intense, and then you move on to other projects and clients, whether that first project failed or succeeded. You’re always competing with your peers and wanting to be the winner. On an in-house team, everyone is in the same boat for the long run; other departments become your clients and your collaborators. This lack of competition is maybe a letdown for young in-house designers, because the early stage of a designer’s career is all about experimenting and figuring out their own style, flexing different kinds of muscles, not necessarily following one brand’s guidelines and speaking the same language every day. That’s why it’s so important to keep things fresh in-house, to keep evolving our language and tackling new challenges.

The working hours are another difference. You can plan ahead better since you know what’s coming months and years ahead of time. There are not as many last-minute pitches that force you to stay late and come in on weekends. On the flip side, the budget always stays the same, and there is rarely downtime.

An on an in-house team, most of the projects you work on actually get made. 

You’re also the vice president of the AIGA/NY chapter. Based on that role, what’s your perspective on how in-house design and designers are perceived by the greater design community, and what opportunities do you see for in-house designers within that larger community?

Since I began working for MoMA in 2008, my opinion about in-house design studios has done a 180. I now believe in-house design studios are the future of successful branding. Working on identity designs at Pentagram, I witnessed all too often how the redesign wasn’t as well implemented by the in-house design team, or how it would start to fall apart after a year. The key for a strong brand is not only about hiring a great outside agency, but also about having a strong in-house team who knows and cares about the brand and won’t leave it hanging out to dry after the real work begins. It’s a pity that in-house design studios are still mistakenly regarded as boring. As the VP of the AIGA/NY chapter, I’m trying to change this perception. We started an annual in-house design event where we invite three successful design teams onstage to show the audience what they’re working on (and inevitably wow them). At MoMA, we launched a website to show off what we do (obviously, not to attract new clients). A great amount of the feedback we’ve received has been very positive, with many people expressing how they had no idea what a wide scope of work we do. I hope other in-house design studios follow suit, showing other designers, and the design community, how their studios also produce lots of great work they’re very proud of.

What are some of the design and strategic opportunities you’re currently exploring at MoMA? 

Having established a strong visual voice for MoMA over the past three years, I am now seeking to define MoMA’s general voice. As a non-native English speaker, I am always more comfortable with visuals than words, which makes this mission a challenge for me, but we have a great copywriter on staff as well as several designers who are also terrific wordsmiths, so I am very confident we can tackle it in-house as well.

I am also very interested in how we can re-package MoMA’s amazing, and amazingly vast, content across different kinds of platforms without watering down our visual brand. What comes to mind is the MoMA iPad app we created with the interactive marketing agency Deep Focus for the Abstract Expressionist exhibition last year, and a new kids’ app based on an educational lab that will be launching in 2012. I deeply enjoy seeing our graphics extend across different mediums. One of our goals is to create a more cohesive and integrated brand identity that can work across many different platforms.

What should we be on the lookout for?

We just launched, with the help of the digital media company Makeable, the interactive version of our “I went to MoMA and...” campaign.

How do you stay inspired working for a single client, and how do you keep your team inspired and creatively challenged?

I had the fear of possibly growing tired of the MoMA brand before I started, but fortunately, the diversity of almost every project keeps things fresh. We have approximately 40 different exhibitions a year, so it rarely feels like Groundhog Day around here. The curators and artists are incredibly different from each other. It’s impossible not to be inspired by all the amazing artists and their work. However, we did start some self-initiated projects to keep us on our toes. There is nothing worse than feeling repetitive.

And as all in-house creative directors do, you sometimes partner with outside firms on projects. How has that gone and can you share some insights on that type of partnership?

Working for and with art is a slippery slope. There is a very fine line between art and commerce that some outside agencies don’t know how to deal with when working with us at first. That said, it’s important for us to get an outside perspective once in a while, to see the full picture and to stay fresh. It’s challenging for both us and them because MoMA has very high standards. Usually creatives want to be the creative ones, and don’t realize how at MoMA they can start to compete with the art itself; they’re quickly forced to realize outdoing Picasso just isn’t going to happen, and rather, dialing back and letting the art speak for itself is the answer.

At MoMA most of your design peers are women, but I’m guessing that hasn’t always been the case. To wrap up, I’m curious to know if, based on your experience working closely with both men and women, as colleagues and clients, do you see a difference in their collaborative and management styles?

I think it’s mainly a question of personality, culture and style. I’ve worked with both women and men whom I could easily apply opposite stereotypes to. I have noticed a slight, perhaps more traditionally stereotypical difference, though: Women tend to be more sensitive and cautious, and often take things to heart, while men often stay more focused on a project and can detach themselves from the sometimes tumultuous creative process more easily. Each of these qualities have their pros and cons, and are equally important traits for members of a team to have. Growing up with three brothers, I always considered myself more comfortable collaborating with men, but that’s changed over time, especially at MoMA, where I work closely with terrific women I look up to.

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