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Work / Graphic Design

Behind Kellenberger-White’s process of participatory “non-design” for a museum identity

In a recent project with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), London-based design agency Kellenberger-White spent a year turning the process of creating a visual identity on its head. The agency – founded by Eva Kellenberger and Sebastian White – was approached by Alistair Hudson, director of MIMA, in 2016 who invited them to develop a new brand for the museum.

When Alistair became director of MIMA in 2014, he set about trying to initiate a new direction for museums altogether: a “Museum 3.0”. One that questions “what might a ‘useful museum’ look like?” Eva and Sebastian explain how “he wants to repurpose art as a tool for change, and at MIMA he was developing a programme that was people-centred, addressing urgent issues.”

In response to these bold goals, Kellenberger-White worked with Alistair to create an identity born out of a public process so that it would be part of MIMA’s artistic programme, rather than a more typical client/designer relationship. “One of Alistair’s key concepts was to make everything in the museum a project; he wanted to infect everything with a ‘learning through making’ mindset – whether that’s the cafe or the exhibition, the collection or the garden,” the pair explain. Together, they developed a long-term process of research and testing and over the course of a year, led workshops and developed exhibitions.

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

The identity is influenced by both the texture of the town and what they learnt by being there. On an early trip to Middlesborough, Eva and Sebastian were taken to visit the Tees Transporter Bridge. The bridge was built in 1911 to transport steel workers to and from work, after which the town’s steel industry flourished. While exploring the bridge, the pair stumbled across some buckets of International Marine paint, which is used to re-coat the bridge every seven years.

“Over the years, paint has dripped onto the visitor centre and road adjacent to it, showing the various colours the structure has been: yellow, green, red and (currently) blue. These found colours became our palette,” they explain. The motif of “splatters” was also incorporated into the identity as a typeface and a sporadically used visual element.

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

It’s in terms of process, however, that this project really stands out. Eva and Sebastian developed a form on “non-design”, with technology and content dictating the form of the identity. This was then shaped further by those involved. They describe it as “a kind of iterative process: one of making decisions, then losing control, of making decisions, and then losing control again.”

They held two workshops, out of which two typefaces were created. The first was a linocut font, developed alongside staff from the museum who were asked; “How do we represent ourselves?” Each person was given a lino matt and was asked to document their conversations and responses. At the end of the workshop, they printed all the designs and created a full linocut typeface which was later digitised.

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

The second workshop was more ambitious and a continuation of their communal “making and thinking” ethos. “We wanted to develop something which wouldn’t require our physical presence as conveyers or designers,” they say. They happened across the development of “plotters” in the 1930s (a machine used by architects and draftsmen, which held a pen that could render automated drawings) and decided to repurpose the machine as part of their design process.

In an exhibition entitled Print Room, they installed their hijacked plotter machine in the gallery and asked the public to respond to the questions; “What should MIMA be?”; “What is a useful museum?”; and “What is Middlesborough like?” Each answer was entered into a website and then written out by the plotter. Over a three month period, the responses were hung floor-to-ceiling, filling the space with “opinions, humorous thoughts, reminiscences and provocations.”

The result of this year-long process, which will be rolled out at the beginning of 2018, is an identity which truly reflects MIMA, its people and surroundings. It questions how authentic or successful a visual identity can be at embodying the character of an institution, if the people who make up said institution are not involved in its development.

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White

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Courtesy of Kellenberger-White