Written by Tessa Baty, Graphic Designer for Museums Wellington
After working for two years as graphic designer for Museums Wellington, I’m looking back on our brand story as I prepare for parental leave. This identity system really has been my design baby – complete with the colossal effort (and sometimes anguish) to get to launch day and the joys and challenges of raising it. It’s with sadness that I’m handing this project into the capable care of our next designer.
When I arrived the graphic design role was quite new. Before then design work was mostly contracted job-by-job without a lot of coherence. Even the logos seemed to look different whenever they appeared (can you hear the designers out there gasping?).
I came in midway through a major campaign for Wellington Museum, giving me the chance to see the brand at work – to feel out its limits and demands on it. I learnt that the brand needed to be bold, simple and versatile for use in many different contexts by different contributors.
I was then tasked with rebranding Museums Wellington as an umbrella organisation and the four museums under it: Wellington Museum (at the time the Museum of Wellington City and Sea); Nairn Street Cottage (then the Colonial Cottage Museum); Cable Car Museum; and Space Place (previously Carter Observatory).
We had just a couple of months to rebrand, including rolling out signage for all sites, promotional material, corporate stationery and a website. We were starting from scratch with new names and a totally new look. I don’t remember the brief being much more specific than ‘make it bright and fun and they need to all be connected in one brand family – but also reflect their different offerings’.
So most of my objectives for branding were self-imposed. I wanted the visual identity to be friendly, approachable and human. It needed to be flexible, agile and robust – but also vibrant, fun and a little bit surprising to reflect the quirkiness of our region. It needed to be clear, accessible and welcoming for everyone, meaning I wanted to keep it simple but not minimal to the point of being intimidating or exclusive. All of these ideas influenced my approach to type, colour, shape and graphic language.
I did a speedy reconnaissance of the unique and common offerings of our museums, looking into their most prominent collection pieces, the spaces themselves, the content, and the experiences – trying to understand the personality of each place.
Then I tried to reduce some of these characteristics into one unified visual system. I experimented graphically and typographically as far and wide as I could in the time I had. It was a relief to stumble upon the cross device that brought everything together, conceptually and aesthetically.
For Wellington Museum, the cross echoes the tukutuku panel, Māori woven wall art found on Level 2. It was made by the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet (Te Ati Awa) to represent the region and stories that the museum shares – making it one of our most significant taonga.
For Nairn Street Cottage, the cross represents stitches from an embroidery hanging in its front room. It is a sampler stitched by a daughter of the home (Clara) when she was 13 years old. To me it poetically embodies what the cottage does: tells the story of Wellington growing up through the story of one family. The shape of the stitches also mimics the cottage’s simple architectural structure.
For the Cable Car Museum, the cross is the start and end point of the cable car journey. It illustrates the physical working of the cable car and the location of the museum up the hill from the city.
For Space Place, the cross represents the stars of the Southern Cross, the most famous star pattern seen in our southern skies. Our unique perspective of the universe is our point of difference from other observatories around the world. This formation connects the name to space as well as our specific place in the world.
Getting the colours right was quite a process. Our desire to be dynamic led to using two complementary colours for each museum rather than one across all or one for each. Choosing them was partly symbolic and partly aesthetic: they needed a conceptual logic and to look good as a pair and part of the brand family.
I settled on the font Calibre by the New Zealand foundry Klim early on. I wanted to use the best of New Zealand type design because our purpose is around showcasing and encouraging local stories. Calibre is friendly, accessible and versatile – all characteristics we wanted to display.
It was easy to draw together the four museum brands into one logo for Museums Wellington. I simply took a cross from each institution, representing the organisation’s function of administering these museums.
After selling the idea to various stakeholders we had a quick design and production turnaround, creating a bit of pressure to line all our ducks up in a row for launch day! Being a council controlled organisation, there was the added element of media interest. Our brand’s first public appearance was in the newspaper with slightly disastrous results due to printing issues. But you live and you learn and I’m glad that our biggest mistake was the next day’s fish’n’chip wrappers instead of permanent signage!
Our brand development wasn’t exactly the model of good design process. I would have loved to do more research, exploration and refinement. It was definitely a case of ‘we’d like to do this, but we can afford to do this’, and ‘I know there will be better solutions out there, but we have to go to print today’. But maybe that’s every design job (or maybe life at large) to some degree: we throw the best of our creativity and craft into the parameters we have and something exciting comes out the other end.
Despite that, I don’t know what I would change. Over the last two years the brands have held their own and worked the way I hoped they would – they’ve coherently carried diverse messages and allowed for flexibility in style and content.
The project has taught me confidence in my design process, even if I’d like more time or resources. It’s also shown me that brands are a living and dynamic thing. You nurture them and they grow into themselves as you iterate, improve and adapt to changing needs.