The developers behind The Palestinian Museum in the West Bank town of Birzeit have grand ambitions for the institution’s physical plant, which will be built in two stages over the next 10 years. The first, scheduled to open in 2016, will consist of a sprawling, 3,000-square-meter Heneghan Peng-designed building with climate-controlled gallery space, amphitheater, cafeteria, library, and classrooms. The second, slated for completion some time in the following 10 years, will expand the building another 7,000 square meters. The goal is to be a central events hub designed in the likeness of Palestine, particularly the hills of the West Bank, according to the chairman of the Palestinian Museum Task Force, Omar al-Qattan. Even the gardens will tell their own story about the region’s flora.
In the meantime, The Palestinian Museum has been focused on a more ideologically charged design concern: creating a logo. In 2012 the museum issued a typographic challenge asking designers to express the idea of the museum in a “Conversation Marque.” What is a Conversation Marque? According to al-Qattan, a “bold, confident symbol that could show off the museum’s unique content, whilst keeping the museum’s voice present” and express the institution’s identity as more than just a sprawling building symbolic of the country’s landscape.
That winner was a rectangular speech balloon shaped like the state of Connecticut, spacious enough to hold the museum’s name and all other relevant texts. Its conversational, bubble-like appeal is meant to express the openness to ideas that is in the museum’s mission. According to al-Qattan, that mission is to say, “We are a safe place for unsafe ideas, so very much a space for conversation and debate.”
Conversation bubbles are seen often in design works, but the museum wanted to transcend their usual comic-strip connotations. The challenge was given to Nadine Chahine, a renowned Lebanese-born type designer at Monotype GmbH in Bad Homburg, Germany who specializes in forging design links between Arabic and Latin scripts. Chahine collaborated with London-based branding firm venturethree for the end goal of, according to the company’s design director Grant Dickson, “engag[ing] with this wider community” across cultures. In addition, the commissioned logo and logotype was supposed to symbolize the museum’s identity as the flagship project of the Welfare Association, an independent nonprofit providing development and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, and to prove the new museum wouldn’t just be, as Dickson put it, “roomfuls of dusty artifacts.”
Creating a consistent brand identity is tricky, especially since the logo is bilingual, reading in both English and Arabic. To make matters more complex, while all communications in the Middle East today requires facility with both English and Arabic, Arabs or Palestinians living abroad might not be able to read the latter. The bilingual solution bridges the gap, even if it generally favors its Arabic side: According to Dr. Chahine, the driving idea was to capture an authentically Arabic feel. The essence of her design, she said, is that “the type needed to feel as part of the daily life, a connecting line that draws on the Arabic heritage but is crafted in a timeless fashion.”
The keystone of the museum’s identity is a typeface called Shilia, a Kufi face that is very clean, possessing elegance while also working harmoniously with its Latin counterpart. “The logo is a modification of Shilia, but it still captures the proportions and some of the characteristics so that they can all work in quite nicely as a set,” Chahine explained.
Of course, in Arabic the direction of the text is different, reading right to left. But there’s a bonus to that change of perspective. According to Dickson, the way the content flips between languages expresses a dialogue between Arabic and English. “The identity is not a static symbol but represents and enables conversations.”
While construction only just got underway, the logo has helped set the tone for a buzzy, attention-getting museum. Last month the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD) awarded The Palestinian Museum logo and type its Certificate of Excellence for high standards in design. Chahine’s ambitions, however, are more localized. She’s just happy, she says, to see Palestine become the beneficiary of such a sleek design project: “From a designer and also from an Arabic point of view, it’s quite nice to see something quite professional for the Palestinians. It’s not usual that we get that.”