The Whitney Museum of American Art has been raising eyebrows and controversy with its recently unveiled visual identity. It has been called the ‘responsive W’ and a ‘flexible logo’, because rather than a static logo design which is used everywhere, the ‘Whitney W’ adapts to fit around text and fills the space available, creating a visual identity which looks different everywhere it appears.
There has been debate as to whether the ‘ responsive W’ works, and the key to answering that question is understanding that Experimental Jetset, the Dutch agency behind the design, have created a graphic system rather than a consistent word mark which is badged across everything, like the Whitney’s previous logo, designed by Pentagram. Experimental Jetset explain the concept behind the graphic identity as follows, “the position of the name ‘Whitney’ is always ‘locked’ in the left-hand upper corner of the sign; this ‘fixed’ position functions as the only static element in an otherwise completely flexible system”
The downside of the ‘responsive W’ is that, unlike a conventional logo, it isn’t instantly recognizable. But the positives of the new graphic identity far outweigh this one drawback.
The decision to move away from a fixed word mark has given the Whitney a versatile graphic identity, which has an unlimited number of different potential executions. When you take into account that the identity has been designed for an art museum with changing collections, it is clear that the artistic and unpredictable nature of the identity are a good match for the Whitney. According to the Whitney, the graphic identity produced by Experimental Jetset was selected because it ‘illustrates the Museum’s ever-changing nature’.
The Whitney are also in the process of developing a new site designed by architect Renzo Piano, and the graphic identity is intended to reflect the ‘strong and strikingly asymmetrical form’ of the new building.
The flexibility of the ‘responsive W’ means it lends itself to being widely used, and the Whitney are embracing this fully, using elements of the graphic identity on bags, badges and signage within the museum as well across their advertising and marketing material. Its use on merchandise is much more effective than a traditional logo, with the use of the new graphic identity turning each product into a design statement in its own right.
As well as adding an artistic element wherever it is used, the ‘responsive W’ also promotes engagement with the public, tying in nicely with the aims of the museum. The new graphic identity forces you to expect the unexpected and encourages you to pay it attention each time it is used in a different execution, something which just doesn’t happen with a conventional word mark. This perpetual reinvention and public engagement will ensure that the brand stays relevant and fresh for a long time to come.