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How One Chicago Museum Is Getting Back On the Grid

We speak with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago about how to create a visual identity for an art institute.
November 18, 2015, 9:05pm
MCA Design Banner B. David Zarley

A photo posted by MCA Chicago (@mcachicago) on Nov 13, 2015 at 10:26am PST

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has a new visual identity, unrolled officially this November. Created by Dutch design firm Mevis & Van Deursen, it avails itself to the square-tinged structure of the museum itself, using the grid motif which serves as the visual skeleton of the MCA as the basis for the identity; type is composed of square units—the larger, rougher ones, wherein the grid is most visible, resembling space shuttle arms and a column of marching ants, or the wheeling trails of kinetic Bil Keane kids—and the grid, modular, easily scalable, provides a surprisingly robust toolkit for what is, by definition, built upon a set of rather specific strictures.


Mastery and implementation of the grid will fall to the museum's design team, headed by Design Director Dylan Fracareta. He is a well-rounded designer and adjunct teacher at RISD with experience designing for women's denim to PIN-UP Magazine, well suited to the myriad of challenges the MCA team faces.

“We all want to make the MCA much more of a destination based on the MCA, rather than saying 'oh, what exhibition is there? Ok I want to go see that exhibition,'” Fracareta says.

#MinimalMonday The grid inspires our new design and logo, and can be found all over the museum itself, inside and out. #MinimalistMonday #chigram #chitecture

A photo posted by MCA Chicago (@mcachicago) on Nov 16, 2015 at 1:23pm PST

He likens this design team goal to a brand like HBO; one may tune in simply because one trusts HBO, not to see a particular show. The MCA's unique construction—massive galleries flanking guests as they enter—and lack of a permanent exhibition anchoring the experience means that a strong, bold visual identity helps to tie everything together; to keep it all on grid, so to speak.

The translation of the new identity has had Fracareta and his design team—designers Bryce Wilner and Matt Tsang and senior designer Mollie Edgar—in a flurry; they have spent the past eight months or so workshopping and getting familiar with the design, while simultaneously continuing to work in the museum's then-current identity.


“The exposed grid was a real challenge,” Fracareta says. “When you're typesetting, you usually have a point size to leading ratio,” Fracareta says. This refers to the spacing between lines of type; using the coffee cup before him as an example, he explains how the size of the font affects the spacing of the lines.

“In order for us to accommodate the grid being always visible, we had to come up with a system that the line of the grid always falls within the line of the typography, no matter what point size we use and what setting. So that was like a real typographic … hurdle.”

Excited by the prospect of pushing the limits of the surprisingly flexible design, he and his team seem eager to finally unleash the new identity. “I feel like Linda and Armand [Van Deursen and Mevis] do a great job of being able to isolate one little particular component of almost every circumstance,” Fracareta says. “That sounds narrow, but it's actually not.”

For example, an upcoming surrealism exhibition would seem anathema to a rigid grid. However, if one takes the golden ratio spiral, extrapolates the rectangles born of that swirl, divides them into two squares, and applies this to the type, one can create a whimsically twisted font which still fits in to the grid. The sharp latticework on a merchandise display near the front door, Fracareta reveals, is made by simply transposing the grid at different angles atop each other. A similar effect can create stripes, which, used in conjunction with the blue and yellow accent colors—the main theme is, naturally, black and white—creates a visual hierarchy for events of special purpose, e.g. benefits or other illustrious occasions.


The design team of course does more than implement the new identity; they also create the labels for exhibitions, the layout of the member magazine and some of the museum's catalogues, the website and press materials, including releases and the exhibition-specific, often gorgeous folders they come in. The David Bowie Is design, created by Wilner, is particularly wonderful, brilliant red with an iconic blue thunderbolt crashing across its front, screaming down from glam empyrean; think Hephaestus sloshed on Sherwin-Williams.

Exhibition-related design finds the team working with curators and artists, the briefs from curatorial gaining valuable input before presenting their interpretations of the show and how best to represent it.

Typographic Conventions Cheat Sheet Courtesy of Dylan Fracareta/MCA

“We are always looking at the core elements of each exhibition,” Fracareta says. For an exhibition which has a feeling of slowness, for example, Fracareta may stretch letterforms. “You just try to find one thing and exaggerate off of it,” he says.

The design team works closely with the MCA's digital media department as well. “It's very, very collaborative,” says Director of Digital Media Anna Lavatelli. “My team works closely with design on everything, and are definitely designers as well.” With digital media—including podcasts, videos, websites, and exhibition-specific micro sites—becoming ever more crucial to a museum's public outreach, consistency of tone cannot be limited to published materials and the interior designs of the museum itself. “It has become such a primary way of interfacing in museums,” Lavatelli says.


According to MCA Chief Content Officer Susan Chun, it is somewhat unusual in the museum space for so much design and digital media to be done in-house, although more common among contemporary art museums than their peers. The reason for keeping the identity within the MCA's massive white walls comes back to Fracareta's concerns about establishing a museum which stands as an institution, which must rely on the public's trust for, as Chun puts it, “thoughtful and provocative” content, as opposed to a marquee work.

Ensconced on the fifth floor of the MCA's rather cramped office space, the designers work in a spatial hierarchy. The designs on the wall—currently everything from security guard uniforms to shopping bags to billboards—eventually disseminate from this cramped cluster and define the museum to a greater audience.

“Everything that you see that is visual,” Fracareta says—aside from the art itself—comes from the design team.

MCA Design Grid Wall. Photo by B. David Zarley

To see more examples of the design relaunch, visit the musem site by clicking here.


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