From Pentagram’s blog:
Working with Peter Martins, marketing director Tom Michel and general manager Ken Tabachnick, Scher has created an identity that links the company’s legacy and location to a contemporary and dramatic new aesthetic. Set in the font DIN, the logotype appears stacked and layered, like buildings staggered in the skyline, with a degree of transparency that echoes the visual texture of the cityscape. The palette is composed of black, white and silvery grays, in the way that the buildings of New York can sometimes appear. The starkness of the identity is softened by its transparency and a subtle gradation of color that will include shades of blue blacks, green blacks and red blacks.
There are a number of visual elements at play here — a veritable kit of parts which is assembled into an overall look-and-feel for the NYCB. The potential with an approach of this kind is that within the right hands any one part could be shifted or changed slightly to inject new energy into the identity and still maintain a consistent brand appearance.
The stark photography of Nick Heavican is beautiful. While black and white photography is no stranger to the world of dance (from classic shots of Martha Graham to those of Mikhail Baryshnikov or the early work of Alvin Ailey) Heavican’s work is crisp and arresting in the way it captures the human form and forces us to read the subtle harmonies of black, white and grey.
Another of the identity’s main elements is the use of the typeface DIN. With its roots as the German industrial standard for technology, traffic, administration and business, DIN has more recently seen widespread usage in corporate identities and collateral material. In this fine arts/city context DIN is mechanical and cold enough to draw on its own history calling to mind city architecture, which is furthered by the way it’s handled in the wordmark.
Which brings us to the wordmark itself which we see in three lock-ups: stacked vertically (word for word), partially stacked (two words at a time) and a single-line version. To its advantage these different lock-ups offer some flexibility in respect to implementation, however the partially stacked version seems to be caught in a kind of visual purgatory. Where the vertically stacked version and single line version succeed in cramming words together (in a city-esque way) to give a sense of vertical or horizontal tightness respectively, the partially stacked version tries to do a little of both and not enough of either.
This identity has visual impact with its stark palette and asymmetrical compositions (especially when seen in context in the streets), it’s flexible enough to be applied to everything from environments to annual reports and it definitely is rather beautiful. So why does the result seem so conservative and un-energetic? Where is the ”contemporary and dramatic new aesthetic“ they’re talking about?
Is it the lack of manipulation or visual play in the typography? Is it the amount of white space being used? Is it the interplay between the image and the typography? Maybe it’s just the DIN letterforms or the overall compositions? Whatever the culprit, or combination of culprits is, the resulting identity lacks a contemporary vision and appears to emphasize the fixed and motionless aspects of the city more than the energy and movement of dance. The only sense of contemporary and dramatically new is in respect to the previous identity which will quickly become an irrelevant context as it is forgotten in the wake of its own revision. I’m reminded of the more than 40 year old poster work of Armin Hofmann — given the similar design elements (palette, typography and the human form) and performance subject matter — which seems more contemporary and energetic today than these new NYCB visuals.
Certainly Lincoln Center is a conservative institution and ballet has at its root a certain amount of tradition, conservation and reverence for its classical form. However does this mean that the identity needs to be less visually dynamic than for an organization like the San Francisco Ballet or Sydney Dance Company or even the Walker Art Center? I’m not contending that these other identities are better or worse than the NYCB, but they do seem less visually conservative. One could argue that the typography in the wordmark for the NYCB is anything but conservative, handled irreverently by being set tightly and overlaying itself — and they would be correct — though somehow the typography and its composition is still restrained enough to feel rather traditional and static, which seems far from the world of ballet (the stationary system, which does not feature any photography, is an especially strong example of this distance from the subject matter).
No one can argue that Pentagram has a distinguished track record and that Scher is a masterful designer, and while I truly admire the Hofmann-like restraint and avoidance of excess, this identity feels rather underdeveloped. That’s not to say that it’s not well executed, but it does seem to lack the inspiration of its inspired art form.