Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Asian Art Museum 1: Upside Down Rebranding

A press and photo scrum was invited to the Asian Art Museum on Tuesday morning...

...along with a full roster of local dignitaries that included SF Chief of Protocol Charlotte Schultz (standing above), the three Asian-American San Francisco Supervisors (Chu, Mar, and Chiu), and the Asian-American San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee.

The event was the unveiling of a new rebranding initiative for the institution, and Museum Director Jay Xu gave a speech filled with a lot of marketing buzzwords to the accompaniment of a very plain, ugly PowerPoint presentation.

The moment finally arrived for the literal unveiling of the new logo that represents the "Asian For All" theme that is being newly embraced, with Jay Xu and Edwin Lee doing the honors (above).

The logo was fairly ghastly, an upside down A with the word "Asian" floating somewhere to its right, designed by the London branding company Wolff Olins.

This was the same company that was responsible for the almost universally loathed logo for next year's Olympics in London (above).

Nick O'Flaherty, the Strategy Director for Wolff Olins was in attendance, and told us that the upside down A symbolized "ALL" in mathematics, which seemed to be news to everyone in the room except for the people who had approved the design.

The real question is why the Asian Art Museum decided to hire a London firm for close to half a million dollars in the first place. The San Francisco Bay Area probably has as many great graphic designers per capita as any comparable spot on the globe, and there are even quite a few who are Asian-Americans who understand Pacific Rim cultures in a way that Wolff Olins is not going to be even close to mastering.

On a sheerly practical level, the logo looks like hell to work with. "Why are there different spaces on the various collateral pieces between the upside down A and Asian?" I asked a few museum employees, and the consensus seemed to be that having Asian too close to the upside down A which looks like a V makes it look like "Vasian," which could be extrapolated into (Asian) Invasion, not a happy branding message.

Mayor Lee gave a speech at one point and said, "Charlotte and I have discussed how important the museum is for our local economy and its international visitors. Soon there is going to be a huge show about Bali." Nobody corrected Mayor Lee, but just about everyone in the room knew that the Bali exhibit had come and gone over the last six months, and had just been shipped out in anticipation of a new show devoted to East Indian Royalty.

The whole exercise was sad, because the Asian Art Museum deserves to draw more visitors. Their special exhibits are hit and miss, but often spectacular, and the rotating permanent collection is probably the best of any museum in the Bay Area. Do consider becoming a member in spite of the silly new logo.


Nancy Ewart said...

I found myself thinking of all the things that will need to be redone and the cost - signs, letterhead, stationary and even the little placards that they use for jewelry in the gift shop. I was talking to a PR person for another museum today and she said that it's possible that the Asian was overridden by some on the Board of Directors or got conned into accepting the work "pro bono." They have make a big point about how the money did not come from the operating budget but was raised from "outside sources." Looks like those sources have a lot of money but no taste.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Wow. That's an incredibly dumb piece of design. I cannot think of a single positive connotation of a large upside down capital A. The most obvious idea it brings to mind is they are going in the wrong direction.

This is a shame. It's been an interesting museum for a long time, but we may be seeing the beginning of the end.

janinsanfran said...

That logo is dreadful! Is the place sinking into western ocean?


TK said...

I hate to just pile on, but that logo sucks ass. And you're right; there are some of the best and most creative designers in the world working right here in the Bay Area and they had to go to London to get this crap? It's like flying in Szechuan food from Iowa.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes to all that, and by the way a math teacher I know told me she had never heard of the upside-down A as a mathematical symbol meaning all. What a shame. And even if they got half a million in outside money, why is that money being spent on something so pointless and ugly (and is the outside money going to pay for all the necessary re-branding)? And how many people are going to make distinctions about where the money is coming from? Most people are going to figure that the Asian's much-discussed money problems are due to poor management. As you said, the whole thing is sad.

Chris E. said...

I hate to pile it on, too, but I agree. For having so much local talent, San Francisco produces some really ugly design and architecture (the new library, the De Young Museum, the aforementioned logo, etc.) that local critics always seem to fawn over, no matter how awful it is.

Axel Feldheim said...

Thanks for reporting on this. I was gob-smacked when I read about the logo and heard it was the same guys that did the London 2012 Olympics, whose logo I thought was a prank when I 1st saw it.

Also, I'm gonna be all nerdy & say I have encountered ∀ in that wildly popular field of symbolic logic, where it means "for all" elements in a given set. But in this particular context, all I see is an upside-down A.

sfphoneguy said...

That is one wierd new logo, but not wierd in a good way. Perhaps it's the second in a series of bad upside-down art, the first being the ambiguously suicidal bow and arrow on the Embarcadero.

TK said...

Unknown -

You may not know this, but the logo is actually an upside-down "O".

Civic Center said...

Tim Hallman, Director of Communications & Business Development at the Asian Art Museum, is one of my favorite people in San Francisco's museum world, and he sent me a detailed defense of the rebranding process, Part One of which is below:

I respect your opinions, but I need to clarify some misconceptions.

The project was a staff-led initiative. The board agreed that it was necessary, and helped fund the project. We weren’t “conned into it,” as an uninformed colleague may have suggested.

We invited more than 20 firms to respond to our RFP. Three of the top five who made the initial cut were from SF, including some big famous shops. We chose Wolff Olins because they had a wealth of experience in shepherding highly regarded art museums—including The Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the New Museum, and the Fine Arts Museums of SF, among others—through similar transformations. The project was comprehensive in scope—not just a logo--and included audience research, strategic analysis of our current offerings, and a review of the competitive landscape— plus some great creative thinking and design that we will use for years to come. Btw, we used their NY office, not London.

Also, sometimes good to go out of your comfort zone, and try working with folks with a different perspective than the neighbors. We hired WO because we knew they would challenge us--and vice versa.

But I can understand how you feel about the logo. I, frankly, disliked our previous logo. I found it to be a bit of a tired cliche with an overly East Asia feel to it. A stylish (though now dated) re-imagining of a scholar's seal (read 'elite') stamped at the bottom of a hanging scroll, completely ignoring the power and significance of other regions, cultures, and art forms that are represented in our collection. And I'm not the only one who felt that way.

Civic Center said...

Part Two of Tim Hallman's take on the Asian Art Museum's rebranding:

Though the new logo itself may not appeal to everyone (it is just a logo, after all), it reflects a bold new perspective. You recognize the symbol, but you're looking at in a new way—this is what our curators try to do when presenting the collection. “You may think you know this, but look at it this way.” That's why Holland Cotter of the NY Times started his 2003 review of our new home with this line:

''ASIA'' doesn't exist; it never did. It's a fantasy, a fiction, one of those words the ancient Greeks put on their maps to indicate everything ''out there'' to the East. Nor is there such a thing as ''Asian art,'' though San Francisco has just opened a $160.5 million museum devoted to it.

I especially like the neutral nature of the new logo--it doesn't play favorites--no stereotypical leanings toward Buddhas, bamboo, dragons or geishas. I like the 3-D aspect to it--the left side faded into the back, the right side jutting forward--a bit like past and present converging. Must of all, we LOVE the fact that an upside down A is the mathematical symbol signifying "for all." We want to be for everyone. For all.

Choosing that logo was definitely not the safe choice. But that's the point. Time for us to be a bit bolder.

What's more important than a logo, and most exciting, is our new vision and brand promise -- to spark connections across cultures and through time, igniting curiosity, conversation, and creativity. Engaging everyone is what it's all about, whether you're already an art lover, or new to the museum. We want to awaken and inspire. This is not a slogan or tag line--it's a guiding principle for our work.

The fact that the museum's staff, board, volunteers, supporters, and friends participated (as a member, you were invited to provide input through online surveys) in the very rigorous process in developing our promise convinces me that it was hardly a waste of time or energy. It was actually quite thrilling, and has given the institution a sharper focus--just what we needed to navigate these challenging times. Sitting around, letting other factors determine our destiny certainly wouldn't do. Again, it's about being bold.

Anyway, that's my opinion as a person on the inside.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wow - a rigorous process, resulting in a "bold new perspective." I'm sorry, I don't buy it. An upside-down A does not mean "bold new perspective." I mean, you paid a lot of money for a new logo that people will make fun of for years to come.

Let me put it another way. When I see that upside down A next to the right-side-up A, do you know the first thing I think of?

V & A, as in, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And that's exactly what you want viewers to think of, I'm sure.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, and "awaken and inspire"? That is a load of crap. What inspires me is the quality of the shows in the museum and the beauty of the art objects. It's not your logo or your image that gives you sharp focus; it's your curators and the art on display.

From Planting to Parenting said...

My first thought when i saw it.....

Is it a new logo another AIDS related campaign ? (this is afterall SF)

Second thought when I found out it's for the Asian Art Museum.....

A belly-up Asian Art Museum.......

Unknown said...

The emperor of the Asian Art Museum's new clothes. What visually and aesthetically-challenged simpletons. Whenever I see the upside-down "A", I'll envision it with the red circle backslash superimposed on it. Great post, Mike.