Morphing identity for MCASD separates type like a phone number to help you memorise its name

Taking a “far out” approach for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Happening Studio’s identity is a fluid shapeshifter.

17 March 2022


How do you make someone remember a five-letter acronym in a particular order? This is just one of the interesting questions Happening Studio is tackling with its newest identity for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), which reopens its La Jolla flagship location on 9 April (after receiving a $105 million expansion by Selldorf Architects). Delivering its first logo refresh in 15 years, the international design studio has gone curiously daring with a design that harnesses “in-betweens” – think shifting type, multiple, morphing colour palettes, and superfamily fonts.

Firstly, to help better brand MCASD, Happening Studio had to make sure people remember its name. In an inspired typographic decision, the studio turned to the work of Ladislav Sutnar, the graphic designer who added parentheses to telephone area-code numbers to improve memorisation and legibility. Reviving this technique, Happening has split up the name into MCA and SD, creating two sets of acronyms to improve legibility and offer “stronger ownership of San Diego as a destination of the museum”, Karen and Masato Nakada, partners of Happening Studio, tell us.

Taking this a step further, the identity plays off the “in-between” space between the M, C and A, drawing fascinatingly from the architecture of the La Jolla flagship itself. The wordmark’s open spacing mirrors the way the new architecture allows natural lighting into the location via skylights and vertical windows (“a rare feature for museums”, Karen and Masato add). “The identity draws a strong relationship between architectural space and people,” they continue. This letter spacing can increase or decrease depending on the application, much like a website changing its format between a smartphone and a laptop.


Happening Studio: MCASD identity (Copyright © MCASD, 2022)

Karen and Masato say this sort of adaptability is another key area on the work: “Once we understood the dynamic and the diverse role MCASD plays on a local level and on a bi-national level, it was very clear that the new identity should not be represented with an overly simplified, single, fixed wordmark, a singular colour, and one single typeface. This kind of singularity approach will not meet the criteria of the museum’s needs and will not sustain in the long run.”

Happening responded by creating colourways as sets; each set draws on MCASD’s two different locations – “one is located in a city and another is on the beach”, says Karen and Masato. The colourways combine ingredients from each of the museum’s surroundings, incorporating green for palm trees and beige and blue from the beach. In the same vein, superfamily fonts (serif, sans, extended, condensed) have been used to allow the museum to have a diverse range of voices for various events and exhibitions.

Robinson appears as the typeface for the MCASD acronym alone. In a brilliant final touch, the uppercase letters S and D have been redrawn to create a unicased MCASD moniker, with the proper stroke weight and structure to match the lowercase M, C and A. In its case study, Happening adds that this technique disables a “typographic hierarchy that uppercase letters have over lowercase”. Other fonts used throughout include Zin Sans and Zin Serif by CarnokyType.

Like each individual element on the project, Happening Studio concludes that the final identity can shift from brand-forward to content-forward, presenting an “invisible” container for exhibition content, or adopting a louder brand voice for public-facing uses.

GalleryHappening Studio: MCASD identity (Copyright © MCASD, 2022)

Hero Header

Happening Studio: MCASD identity (Copyright © MCASD, 2022)

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.