An Interview with Abbott Miller
by Taylor Murrow
June 2012

Abbott Miller, a partner at the international design consultancy Pentagram, has been working over the last several months to create a new graphic identity for the museum, working with NOMA’s director Susan M. Taylor and other museum staff. The new design of Arts Quarterly is just one component of this identity; look for the ways in which NOMA will utilize its new identity in the coming months.

Miller and his team have designed numerous books, identities, and exhibitions, mostly focusing on the visual and performing arts. Miller is also the author of several books on design. He has collaborated with a number of contemporary artists, such as Matthew Barney, William Kentridge, and Yoko Ono, and has created identities for many museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art. Miller has also designed inventive exhibitions for a number of museums, and is known for his work in environmental graphics for buildings designed by prominent architects including Morphosis, Renzo Piano and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

Miller’s comprehensive identity, communications, and environmental graphics for the Barnes Foundation’s new home in Philadelphia debuted with the opening of the building in May.

Taylor Murrow: Obviously, NOMA isn’t the first museum you’ve created a graphic identity for. When designing a new identity, what is your brainstorming process? Where do you begin?
Abbott Miller: It begins as a research project: I am always interested in linking the graphic identity with the historical, geographical, and architectural context of the institution. Our research and interview process provides some of that, as well as deriving a sense of what the place feels like and people’s perceptions of the museum, both inside and out.

What were some of your impressions of New Orleans, and how did the city inform the design process for you?
More than any other project, the special character of this city played a huge role. I spent time understanding the visual signals of New Orleans and really fell in love with the city, especially the way it regards its own past and traditions, and all of the things that make it so unbelievably rich. It is a place unto itself: you don’t say, “New Orleans reminds me of…” because it is so distinctly its own thing.

Some people might interpret this project as simply creating a new logo. As this issue of Arts Quarterly shows, it is a complex, multilayered project. Can you briefly explain to our readers what a graphic identity includes?
A graphic identity provides a visual framework for how publications, the website, signage, and even more minor things like packaging are designed. It’s like you are establishing a language and an approach, but it’s a living organism because people have to work inside of it and do things in the spirit of the original proposals. That is why one of the end-products of our work are specific elements like the re-design of Arts Quarterly, but also a kind of playbook that establishes typefaces, colors, and recommendations. So we will create a number of specific elements, but in a year the program has to keep being implemented.

Why do you think it’s important for NOMA to have a graphic identity? What is the inspiration behind the logo’s design?
I think Susan’s priority with this new graphic identity was to give the “NOMA” acronym a specific visual character and encourage people who use it colloquially to see that the museum wants to be called “NOMA.” To make that happen you have to give people a visual hook to hang the phrase on. That was the strategy: to give a visual signifier to support the verbal habit, which in turn gives outsiders permission to call it NOMA too. The second part was to connect the visual identity to the extraordinary building that is its home, which has such a strong connection to a moment of New Orleans history. The forms within the lettering are derived from the ornamental motifs, visual character, and palette of the Delgado building. We conducted a wide range of studies for how to capture the spirit of the building in a way that was still modern and bold.

What were your goals for redesigning the Arts Quarterly? Why did you and Susan choose to use the magazine as a way to introduce the new identity to the public?
The Arts Quarterly project uses the language of the new identity—the same fonts and thinking about scale and color—to create a more easily navigated editorial structure, and to emphasize the beauty of the imagery. The calendar in particular has been simplified so it’s less overwhelming to find events. I think AQ, like other aspects of what we are doing such as the packaging and the merchandise, are trying to create fewer, stronger, clearer and more memorable visual impressions. It’s like creating a more dramatic stage for what the museum does by stripping away things that don’t contribute to the story.

We are looking forward to seeing more of this work as it starts to influence different parts of the visitor experience!