An outsider’s toolkit sparks Whitney’s in-house creativity

In the world of museums, there have been few moves more hotly anticipated than that of New York City stalwart the Whitney Museum of American Art, from its former uptown home to a new location downtown near Chelsea’s High Line. With a new building and a new identity, the Whitney’s in-house graphic designers have shepherded the transition, creating a cohesive visual system that’s bringing the museum into its new phase of life.

One of the foundational elements of the Whitney’s visual presence is the design identity created by much beloved Experimental Jetset, which approached the project with the goal of creating a “graphic toolbox” which the in-house team could use for future designs. Experimental Jetset actually began work on the identity back in 2012 and released it in 2013, far before the museum was set to reopen, in order to slowly integrate the new Whitney into people’s minds and avoid a sense of design whiplash with so many changes happening all at once.

Architecture plays a major role in the Whitney’s visual presence. Just as the blocky former logo was inspired by the museum’s old Breuer building, the current design teams working out of the the new space by Renzo Piano created a “responsive W” that “can be seen as a typographic grid… it symbolizes a place to interact, to engage, to connect,” said the Jetset team in its project archives.

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Clear wayfinding within the museum’s somewhat awkward layout is essential, photo courtesy of the Whitney

“They are such strong designers,” says the Whitney’s design director Hilary Greenbaum. “Coming into this I didn’t really know what our working relationship was going to be like, but they were incredibly down to earth. It was three people from Holland and three girls from New Jersey. It was a weird combo but it worked.”

Similar to Pentagram’s identity for Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the most satisfying elements created by Experimental Jetset was the toolbox of graphic design elements that the Whitney’s in-house team could then use across all the museum’s communications. “They created a structure that empowers designers and allows for decisions to be made on the design level—it’s a holistic enterprise,” says Greenbaum. “You can’t create a template that removes the designer. Their design allows us to have a constant conversation about how the content interacts.”

Greenbaum acknowledges that one of the benefits of the rebranding has been integrating the Whitney’s visuals under one umbrella—making sure her team is engaged with the museum’s graphics at every stage. This creates a level of communication and dialogue amongst her team and the rest of the departments at the Whitney that Greenbaum feels is a particular benefit to working in an in-house team versus an agency or studio. “In a studio setting you might be given a piece of a puzzle,” she points out. “Here, we’re so small that all the designers manage their relationship with the ‘client,’ who are our colleagues; they have a sense of autonomy. It’s not about the hot new typeface or what’s trendy. Instead we have this toolkit, and it’s our job to figure out how to apply it to various situations.”

Greenbaum keeps her team of four engaged by rotating assignments between various departments of the museum. “As an in-house manager, it can be difficult to make sure your team is constantly feeling creative and inspired by what they’re working on, and I feel like if you’re working on just one system it’s important to get different facets to that system.” Luckily for Greenbaum, the world of museums contains ample opportunities for variety. Designers might find themselves tasked with anything from exhibition graphics, a marketing campaign, branded retail products, or museum signage. The team even worked with Union Square Hospitality Group to design menus for the Whitney’s cafe.

As the Whitney continues to embrace its identity as a world class modern art museum, the opportunities to define how the public sees the institution will continue to keep Greenbaum and her team busy for years to come (the Experimental Jetset identity isn’t going anywhere for at least a decade). And for visitors, the team’s footprint on the space is at once seamless and undeniable—precisely what good design should be.

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Signage around New York City, photo courtesy of the Whitney