One Under the Sun

With a newly refurbished logo, the Smithsonian reaffirms its unity of purpose

If a "swoosh" emblazons your athletic shoes, everybody knows what brand you are wearing. If you are carrying a bag with golden arches printed on it, it's clear where you have just picked up a hamburger and french fries.

A logo is a powerful symbol. It immediately defines an association between a product and its corporation. The Nike swoosh and McDonald's golden arches, for example, have become so recognizable on the consumer landscape that the companies' products can be identified in a single glance. At the Smithsonian, our goal, too, is instant recognition.

Throughout the Institution's 152 years, several logos or seals have represented the Smithsonian's mandate, starting with benefactor James Smithson's profile in 1847. During the late 19th century, a globe flanked by torches of knowledge was printed on annual reports and publications; it endured until 1966, when the sunburst, also a reference to enlightenment, came into use. Many other symbols, however, have proliferated among our museums, research institutes and offices. Almost every Smithsonian organization has its own emblem or logo. The brink of a new century presents the right moment to reevaluate the spread of these graphically rich but often confusing symbols and to affirm the unity of the Smithsonian Institution in a single logo.

During our 150th-anniversary celebration two years ago, we reflected on how much this institution has grown since Smithson's bequest. We are now complex and far-flung, embracing a wide field of arts, sciences and humanities. As we seek to present our funding needs to Congress or to corporations, and to articulate our vital role in American society, we need a unifying symbol to graphically cement the relationship of our many parts to the whole.

We also learned from a 1995 market research survey that more than 80 percent of those polled nationwide knew of the Smithsonian. While general impressions of this vast institution were positive, they were also somewhat vague. Most respondents associated historical, environmental and technological pursuits with the Smithsonian and recognized that it is largely museum-based, with distinctively American collections. Few mentioned that it embraces African and Asian history and art, that research plays as important a role as museum exhibitions, that art is no second fiddle to science and history, or that the Smithsonian's physical presence extends beyond the National Mall.

These survey results, combined with the experiences of communicating the Smithsonian's programs and needs during our 150th anniversary, taught us how critical it is to be able to portray an organization's core identity quickly, gracefully and directly. Being an institution whose identity is so bound up with history, we chose as a symbol on which to build our future one that is also part of our past: the sunburst.

The updated sunburst and its accompanying logotype, shown here, were designed by the New York firm of Chermayeff & Geismar, Inc. This refreshed sunburst and typeface will replace the logos of all individual museums, research institutes and offices this month. The beauty of this design is that Smithsonian entities will be able to assert their individuality with their name appearing below that of the Institution.

In the business world, this is the concept of brand identity. Though the Smithsonian operates in what many think of as the nation's noncommercial cultural life, we are bound by many of the same pressures that weigh upon those in the corporate domain. We believe that knowing who we are and being able to communicate that identity clearly and confidently to the public is best achieved in a single graphic representing both our sum and our parts. If we are to be successful in attracting the support we need, now and into the next century, to sustain our multiple departments, activities and service to our audiences, the Smithsonian must express those needs with one voice, with one image. The span of our programs may be great, but we are bound together by one core identity and our mutual commitment to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

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