Evolution, not revolution!

Several months ago, the Museum of Modern Art (NY) decided to replace the mix of sans serifs they had been using by commissioning one cohesive family to cover their full range of their typographic needs. Commercial Type’s solution was MoMA Sans, drawn by Christian Schwartz under the direction of the MoMA in-house design team and London design consultancy Made Thought, with input from Matthew Carter. Greg Gazdowicz drew the italics and Ilya Ruderman added Cyrillic support. A few weeks ago, Ilya carried out a short interview with Christian, trying to find out a few more details on this project.

August 2, 2017

Several months ago, the Museum of Modern Art (NY) decided to replace the mix of sans serifs they had been using by commissioning one cohesive family to cover their full range of their typographic needs. Commercial Type’s solution was MoMA Sans, drawn by Christian Schwartz under the direction of the MoMA in-house design team and London design consultancy Made Thought, with input from Matthew Carter. Greg Gazdowicz drew the italics and Ilya Ruderman added Cyrillic support. A few weeks ago, Ilya carried out a short interview with Christian, trying to find out a few more details on this project.

IR: You’re probably now one of several people who know more about the history of typography at the MoMA than anyone else. Has Franklin Gothic been there forever?

CS: Yeah, it’s funny. It seems like there’s not actually that much to know. It’s Franklin Gothic. Matthew did a lot of research when he made his revival of Franklin Gothic around 2003. They went back in the archives and they found flyers from, I think 1934, already in Franklin Gothic and so it’s very much been the core of the museum’s typographic identity since the beginning.

nyt-moma-article Article in The New York Times about Matthew Ca MoMA Gothic. September 21, 2003

IR: Okay. Let’s talk about the project itself then. When this project started, how flexible were you? How strict was the brief about the new typeface?

CS: Well, the brief was basically evolution, not revolution. Maintaining the core voice of MoMA but making something that actually worked, because what they had was the beautiful revival of the original Franklin Gothic hand-set metal type by Matthew. To augment that they had some Trade Gothic, they had some ITC Franklin Gothic, and they had a News Gothic condensed. It’s funny; without really knowing that all of these things are based on the same schedule or same skeleton and structure, they had instinctively put all these together over the years. It was more cohesive than five different typefaces usually would be, but there were holes in it, it didn’t go bold enough for some of the things they wanted to do, and it didn’t go light enough. The condensed was narrower than they wanted and so they couldn’t use it for text really; and it was this hodgepodge system that needed a ton of rules to be useful, and needed constant policing by the creative director and deputy creative director. So what they wanted was essentially one cohesive system that would still look like the Franklin Trade News American Gothics, that would still be the recognizable force of MoMA, but which would work for all of these hundreds of different kinds of applications that they have.

IR: Did Matthew Carter somehow feature as part of this project?

CS: Yeah, Matthew was part of it since the very beginning. He reviewed the proposals, we spoke to him at every major step of the way, and got really helpful advice from him. There are very few people on Earth who are better at taking a look at a typeface and immediately finding three or four things that would make it better.

IR: Stylistically, what do you think about this little or big step between the previous version and the new? Actually, what is interesting is what Matthew Carter thought about it.

CS: Essentially, my pitch in one sentence to MoMA was basically the evolution from Akzidenz-Grotesk to Neue Haas Grotesk. I wanted to do that but with Franklin Gothic as the starting point. And then some just kind-of smoothing it out, a little bit bigger x-height, cleaner lines, a little bit warmer, less old looking. That was essentially the brief. And they found that very interesting. Matthew also said that that sounded like a good place to start, something like that. He was very gracious about his typeface being replaced, which was not of course guaranteed.

IR: It could be an evolution of his version, just extending it, correcting it a little bit, right?

CS: Yeah. We could’ve taken his version and added more weights to it.

IR: Is there a new identity coming?

CS: That’s a hard thing to say. They don’t want it to look like a new identity. They want it to look like an evolution. And so the marketing materials are going to be cleaned up and look a bit more contemporary. And they have a new system for designing posters and things like that. But inside the museum, basically the wall texts will look how they’ve looked, except they wanted them to be a little bit easier to read. Better spaced. We gave the typeface a bigger x-height because a lot of visitors to the museum are older; and so it will be the same point size, but a little bit easier for them to read. You see people wandering around the museum with magnifying glasses so that they can read the wall texts. I was there a couple of weeks ago and this very old man had a cane and a magnifying glass. And so hopefully he won’t need his magnifying glass as much now.

dsfe ITC Franklin Gothic, News Gothic, Trade Gothic и MoMA Sans

IR: Are you happy with the project?

CS: It’s still very early days, so there’s a couple of exhibitions using the typeface now and some upcoming things that they’re starting to show. I’m really happy with how it looks inside the building. It’s great to see that. But they’re also in the middle of a major construction project. And so not until that’s finished will the whole system be in place.

IR: Are you planning to release anything which fits some kind of new criteria founded in MoMA Sans?

CS: Well, with MoMA Sans, part of the agreement with them was that it was acquired like an art work. So it belongs to the museum. So we have no rights to release it, but we learned a lot about the American Gothic genre through this project; much like how I learned a lot about the European Grotesks from working on the Bosch Sans typeface with Erik Spiekermann. And then I took what I’d learned and drew Graphik. I could see us doing something like that in the future.

IR: Times New Franklin.

CS: In America, it’s hard because Franklin is sort of the default, the ubiquitous American Sans Serif. As Helvetica is to Switzerland and Gill Sans is to Britain. We have Franklin.

IR: All right. Anything else to add to that? Because that’s basically it.

CS: I don’t know if I want to address this or not: Someone on Twitter said “You could’ve been more brave with this project, but nice job anyway.” Something like that. And this was a job where there were so many cooks and so many people involved and so many competing needs that it was hard not to end up with something more generic than what we did. And for the client, such a large x-height was something they really had to get used to. It was a little shocking. And so, in the context of a big institution like this, what constitutes a big change is perhaps different from what you might think. But ultimately it’s really not about the typeface. The typeface is there to play a secondary role. If the typeface is catching your attention at all…

IR: In a museum of art.

CS: …in a museum of fine arts, then something is not right. So we didn’t want to have any funny shapes. We didn’t really want to have any shocking characters. So for us, I think it can also be brave to step back and let your work fade into the background. It’s there to convey information. There’s a very heavy weight, which they can use to add a bit of fun to things.

IR: It’s actually interesting because in the future… Imagine the Museum of Modern Art playing with several different typefaces, making a sort of pallet for some display usage. It sounds like a super interesting opportunity, but it probably needs some time.

CS: Well this was essentially to make that secondary, default typeface that the museum could use for everything and leave space for them to use all different typefaces, exhibition by exhibition. So the Rauschenberg show that’s up right now uses GT America Condensed, and the Louise Lawler show – which is so good – she uses a lot of defaults on her work; so everything’s in Helvetica.

IR: Was it part of the brief – to create a typeface which will work great with any other typeface? Did you check this somehow?

CS: For marketing, the plan is to just use MoMA Sans. For as long as the current programme’s in place.

IR: But for exhibitions?

CS: But for exhibitions, it’s really whatever suits the work. And so if MoMA Sans doesn’t have what they need for a Rothko show or a Frank Lloyd Wright show — then they’ll use something else. And MoMA Sans will be there to play the secondary role to whatever that other kind of hero-typeface is for any particular exhibition. I think that helps keep things fresh, but I also wonder how much they’ll actually do that because the Whitney for individual exhibitions, they’re free to use whatever typeface they want. But as Hilary Greenbaum said in her talk at Typographics, they do that 17% of the time. I think there’s enough in MoMA Sans that they’ll be able to use it for anything they want to.

IR: Perfect. Thanks a lot for this small interview and let’s see how it will go.

CS: Thanks to you, IR.