Logos are a tricky thing to get right. Designed to distill the values of a brand or institution down to a single image, they serve as a powerful marketing tool or a bullseye for critics. For venerable institutions like museums, it’s not uncommon for a change of brand to spark the latter, at least at first—just look at last week’s kerfuffle over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new logo.
For 45 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was represented by the iconic "M" logo, where the design of interlocking circles and lines centered around the letter "M" evoked Leonardo da Vinci’s "Vitruvian Man." As of March 1, however the museum will adopt a brand new logo to represent itself: a stack of red capital letters tightly kerned, that spells out "THE MET."
When the news first broke last week, the reaction was quick and heated, to say the least. New York Magazine's architecture critic Justin Davidson fired off a piece calling the Met’s new logo “a typographic bus crash,” and graphic designers across the Internet took it upon themselves to make their own improvements to the logo, Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News. At the same time, others welcomed the new logo, with Gothamist’s Jen Carlson comparing the stacked design to pop artist Robert Indiana’s iconic “Love” sculpture. Wherever you stand on this debate, one thing is for certain: the Met isn’t the first museum to face this kind of symbolic controversy, and it likely won’t be the last.
Whether a logo symbolizes a museum or a company, new logos tend to bring controversy. When Pepsi unveiled a new logo in 2008, many saw it as a blatant ripoff of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign logo. In 2013, another New York museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, drew sharp criticism for its own logo change from a block-y, all-caps "WHITNEY" to a minimalistic, movable "W." Only a year later, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled a redesigned logo that places heavy emphasis on the word “Art” but makes no reference to the stone stairs the museum is most iconic for, which Sylvester Stalone trained on in Rocky. But controversy fades over time, and all three logos are still around.
What makes the Met different from these, though, is the scale. The museum holds a juggernaut of art spanning time and continents, with its collections including 1.5 million individual artworks (including an ancient Egyptian temple) housed in 400 galleries. There are also satellite outposts: the Cloisters in upper Manhattan and a soon-to-be-opened museum on the Upper East Side in the building that housed the Whitney until it moved to Lower Manhattan’s Meatpacking District last year. The reason for the change in logo is that while the “Vitruvian M” may have been iconic, it was never used to unify the museum’s identity, Margaret Rhodes writes for Wired.
“The way we spoke to the public was very fractured,” Susan Sellers, the museum’s head of design, tells Rhodes. “There was no single way The Met represented itself. There were just a lot of legacy systems that were overlapping and oftentimes contradictory.”
So far, the Met has cast its new logo as a breath of fresh air, a rebranding that will revitalize and unify the museum’s various projects in the eyes of the public (and, of course, its promotional materials). Critics may grumble about it now, but it’s impossible to know how it will be received once it has been around for a few years. By then, chances are it will be absorbed into the background, a nearly invisible symbol people don’t even think twice about – the sign that a design has done its job.