When it comes to the museum sector, it is difficult to consider graphic design in isolation. Visual communication and the ways in which ideas, opinions, and information are presented play a role in virtually all contexts.

At IWM (Imperial War Museums) we have a vibrant creative brand, which was first launched in 2011. It was developed following an extensive review of the existing IWM brand, in order to build a stronger and more focused identity. Audience research showed that, while there was a general loyalty and warmth for IWM, with high levels of visitor satisfaction, people sometimes found the Museum’s offer fragmented and confused, with mixed messages and a lack of consistency across the five museums.

The brand brings the Imperial War Museums family together under the initials IWM, enabling the group to have greater impact in the marketplace and a consistency across all its branches. Our Big Idea – the force of war – is the cornerstone of our brand and inspires all our messages.

These values are communicated not only by graphic devices such as logos, colour palettes and typography but also through overall design approach.

Design in museums is a strange animal, involving more ‘clients’ and ‘stakeholders’ than most other fields. This can make for lively conversations with various parties putting forward their ideas with passion and conviction. One of the key considerations when designing an exhibition, publication, product or event is the relationship between the museum’s voice and that of the subject. There are a number of key requirements that a graphic designer’s work must fulfill; important information should be presented clearly; the graphics should work in harmony with the objects, artworks, or performances on show without overshadowing them; design should be visually engaging but only if it complements and enhances the overall visitor experience. The challenge for the graphic designer is to balance these elements so that one does not overpower or work in opposition to another.

Museum audiences are spoilt for choice when it comes to the platforms through which they can access information; whether taking a virtual tour through a gallery, downloading an app that let’s you share your own stories, visiting a research facility to access archived materials, or reading a caption on a wall that contextualises a referenced work; the list goes on. Through these means visitors can create their own personal route through the objects and experiences that a museum has to offer. Well-considered graphic design is essential to helping visitors with their journey.

‘Together’, printed for HM Stationery Office (1939). Image © IWM Art.IWM PST 3158
‘Together’, printed for HM Stationery Office (1939). Image © IWM Art.IWM PST 3158

What brings a person to a museum and what keeps his/her attention once they are there? Whether it’s a magazine advert, poster on a train platform or the museum website, it is the graphic language of an event that is often the first point of contact for a prospective visitor. And once they have arrived at the museum it is the responsibility of the graphic language to guide them. When I visit a museum it is not only the exhibition interpretation, concepts, materials and environment of a show that I am engaging with, it is also the way finding throughout the building, the design of museum guides, tickets, promotional materials for future events and products in the shops.

With ever-increasing importance being placed on time, budget and sustainability, graphic designers must work hard to provide a service that is creative and astute.

What makes graphic design in museums so inspiring for me is that we are not just about creating beautifully kerned typeforms and dynamic fields of colour in the hope of getting our names in the design press – it is about reaching out to new audiences and communicating complex subject matters. The graphic designer together with curators, project managers, artists, brand marketing and production teams, play a part in bringing collections and personal stories to life in a way that will challenge our own and our visitors perspectives. As a design practitioner, I believe that graphic design thinking and processes should be placed at the heart of a museum – it is not a cog which fits into the machine at one specific moment – it is present throughout.


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