A Graphic Identity Made of and for SALT, the New Cultural Institution

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SALT's flexible identity system is not simply mutation for its own sake. It is change with the intention of creating an awareness about design.

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When is a logo not a logo? When it is made of SALT. Or, more precisely, when it is made for SALT, a new cultural institution in Istanbul combining a contemporary art space, an architecture and design gallery, and a scholarly archive. In 2010 the New York design firm Project Projects, one of this year's finalists for the Smithsonian's National Design Awards, was commissioned to design its comprehensive identity and graphic system. The letters S-A-L-T are not represented as a formal logo mark, but instead are embedded within a custom-designed typeface, Kraliçe, created by type designer Timo Gaessner. Using this typeface, the institution strategically deploys its name within the messages it sends out every day.

Since there is no fixed SALT mark, the letters of the name are embedded within the typeface itself.

"This mission prompted a meditation on the nature of institutional identity in a world of continuous cultural change," says Prem Krishnamurthy, one of the three Project Projects principals. "We see our role as designers as combining critical and self-reflective activities into the act of designing itself. Ideally, our work not only serves the institution or client whom we're working for in a strategic manner, but also pushes our own thinking around design further and contributes to a historical discourse around design's purposes and functions."

Put simply, Project Projects employs a branding strategy that takes identity to another level. The traditional logo is replaced by a mutable typeface similar to Matthew Carter's customized Walker Art Center face with detachable serifs. "Where his typeface swapped in serifs and letter elements," Krishnamurthy explains, "the SALT typeface replaces entire letterforms from iteration to iteration." Another inspiration was New York's Artists Space, which, in its early years, did not use a logo, but rather let the message of each individually-designed piece speak its own language.

Since there is no fixed SALT mark, the letters of the name are embedded within the typeface itself and, therefore, all of the language that the institution uses. "For us, 'embedded' also has an important, secondary meaning: The institution is inextricable from its cultural context. We see SALT's role as being part of society and commenting on it from within, rather than being an outsider that exists only in the lofty worlds of art, design, or academia," Krishnamurthy adds.

The SALT typeface was intentionally conceived as a piece of design that might find usages outside of its original institutional context. Krishnamurthy notes how today's designers can go to any number of illegal font-sharing sites and download the proprietary typefaces of nearly any corporation. "When the SALT typeface inevitably makes its way onto such sites," he says, "we hope that it will both be useful to other designers in their work while nevertheless signaling its origins through the S-A-L-T letters embedded within it."

Another conceit is the identity's mutability, made possible by guest designer contributions, which are then curated by Project Projects. The guests select a designer or design studio to create the next version of the S-A-L-T letters. How this works is designers make a proposal for a new set of S-A-L-T letters; the final characters are implemented in a new version of the typeface by Timo Gaessner. Each successive version of the typeface will be used over a four-month period for every piece of communication generated by the institution. In this manner, Krishnamurthy sees the identity as an exhibition program, with each invited designer creating an intervention within the venue that the identity system provides.

Story continues after the gallery.


The first new typeface version, which runs through December 2011, is by the Belgian designer Dries Wiewauters. "It both incorporates a level of subtle institutional critique while formally relating to local typographies of Istanbul in a sophisticated manner," Krishnamurty says. "We're excited to already see its use throughout SALT -- in communications, in digital displays, in the newly-launched website, and in the signage."

SALT's algorithmically-designed, randomized, and flexible identity system is not simply mutation or change for its own sake -- it is change that functions curatorially and with the intention of creating an awareness and dialogue about design, inside and outside of the institution. "The SALT identity is durable in the long term, if that is the institution's goal: The overall core of the system remains consistent and distinctive. How long the system continues in this manner will depend in no small part on SALT's desires and how they shift over time.

The response within SALT has been overwhelmingly positive, Krishnamurty proudly states. "The institution has wholeheartedly embraced the system, even down to pretty radical leaps of faith." And the response from the outside has also been positive with other designers welcoming the idea of how the system includes multiple voices. "More broadly," Krishnamurty concludes, "people have responded well to the idea that an identity system, rather than simply focusing on selling or branding an institution, can actually be an active site of production and questioning."

Images: SALT.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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