Rebecca Bartola

Designer | Etsy



Smithsonian Identity

Milestone 5 – Stretch your design and apply it to at least 3 other mediums. Post the final liquid identity system illustrating how it’s applied across mediums.

I will continue to update milestone five as I apply my design across other mediums.

As I said way back in Milestone 1, my design is only intended for the Smithsonian Institution. It is not meant to usurp the characters of the separate museums. The Smithsonian Institution oversees over a dozen museums and its brand is meant to only work alongside the brands of the individual museums. To see exactly how it works, check out this confusing diagram. My designs would be used for the Smithsonian Castle (the informational headquarters), pins, maps, signage, and internal communications. The individual museums would still be in control of the design of their exhibits, promotional materials, and website. Visitors would still be able to get a different experience in each museum but they might leave with a token that reminds them that the Smithsonian Institution promotes and supports everything they experienced on their trip.

The following are example badges for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. They are all based off of the acrylic paintings of Tom O'Hara that are housed in the museum and showcase astronauts, launches, and landings. The badges could change depending on what the museum wanted to promote for a certain season. Visitors might want to try to collect the badges. There have been rumors in recent years that the Institution may start charging for entry so these badge designs would be implemented for paying visitors.

Below is an example of a window treatment/signage for the National Air and Space Museum. The same treatment would be on the entry to all the different museums.

Here is an example of how the system could adapt for more conservative stationery. Each business card would have the photograph of its owner in a circle cutout.

Milestone 4 – Finalize and digitize your final kit-of-parts. Upload screenshots or final images of your logo and kit-of-parts.

Here is my finalized logo with multiple colour options. Typefaces used are Adelle and Adelle Sans. Each of the Smithsonian museums has the same vertical and horizontal logo design. 

The logo is based on a scale that relates to the size of the "S" in the circle. The red circles are half the height of the big "S." The type size and leading also relates to the scale.

I kept blue and yellow to reference the Smithsonian flag, though I changed the shade of each colour. Yellow is only used for accent.

To make the branding system adaptable, I enlarged the circle for a second logo version. This way, the logo can change to showcase the artifacts housed within each museum. Print and digital materials can incorporate the same image treatment whenever the Smithsonian Institute needs to promote one of its own museums.

Here is an example of just one museum, Cooper Hewitt in New York. All images are items from their collection. 

The second size is also formed using the scale based off the "S."

Milestone 3 – Sketch a series of design concepts in the form of a potential logo. Share scans or photographs of your sketches and share with the class.

After researching the museum I started to sketch out a few ideas for an adaptable identity for the Smithsonian. I created a word list in my sketchbook that would reflect my vision for the new identity. The strongest words I circled included "icon," "history," "circle," and "old/new."

My sketchbook.

After deciding upon descriptors that would provide some design guidelines, I set off into the land of typefaces and spent far too many hours wandering around on Adobe Typekit, The League of Moveable Type, Google Fonts, and the Lost Type Co-op. I wanted to choose a modern, fresh typeface that would still command the respect an institution such as the Smithsonian deserves. I tried a bunch of different typefaces out but it was only after I realized a related sans and serifed typeface would be the solution that I settled on the typefaces Adelle and Adelle Sans. They had the personalty I was searching for and could be used for both print and display purposes.

Some typefaces I tested out. Left column: Minion Pro, Proxima Nova, Proxima Nova Bold. Right column: Futura Bold, Futura, Lato.

As for the logo, I wanted something that would be simple and changeable.

I played around with a few ideas. I started off with a wheel-like logo that related to the Smithsonian flag. In my head I thought that later down the line I could do some animations with it to promote each separate museum. I kept playing with it (adding a stroke along the outside, adding more spokes) but it just didn’t work. The black and white version looked like a strange hourglass and the greyscale version was bland. The pointy spokes detracted from the smoothness of the circle. Finally, I admitted it wasn’t working and I let that idea die.

Wheel versions with some text options.

I thought about creating a set of icons to depict the architecture of each museum for a specialized but related logo. But, thinking back to my visit, I remembered that many of the buildings had similar classical architecture (think domes, domes, columns, and more domes). Also, many of the museums could be approached from more than one side, rendering the sole use of the icon without text a useless way-finding solution. 

I briefly thought of picking a single object to relate to each museum but at small sizes my test design (an elephant for the National Museum of Natural History) was rendered into a blob. Not very good for a favicon. Also, it wouldn’t be a very interesting identity if an entire museum was visually defined by just one of its objects.

Virtually impossible to determine shape at small sizes. 

It was around this point in the process when I settled upon Adelle and Adelle Sans as typefaces. 

I went back to the circled words in my sketchbook and came up with the following design that treats the Smithsonian itself as an icon, identifiable by a single letter, “S.” I tested the “S” at different sizes and finally settled on a circle size that was based upon the ratios found in the letter. It was still readable at small sizes and worked well with the different museum names. I tested out the logo in colour as well. I kept blue and yellow as the primary colours, but I changed the shades found in the flag and the current coloured logos. I also tested the circle with photography and found that it worked quite well. Each museum would be able to have a liquid identity that would photographically relate to the objects in its collection. 

Some of the tests for the “S” icon.

Milestone 2 – Share your research on the organization that you’ll use to define the brand’s identity. Share 1 sentence that encapsulates the organization and images of their current identity system.

I determined the Smithsonian’s full mission to be the following: 

The increase and diffusion of knowledge to people from all over the world.

I visited the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall twice this month (once before I began this project and once after). The first time I went I was lucky enough to have a friend show me around the National Museum of Natural History where she interns with the botany department studying the ancient medicinal properties of plants. When she showed me around it was the first time I got to see so many different parts of the one museum. The research center within the museum contained a series of labyrinthine corridors made of lockers filled with thousands of plant specimens from around the world. Scientists housed impressive personal libraries in smaller rooms. During my visit my friend and I also watched an IMAX movie produced by the Smithsonian Channel and wandered around some of the exhibits. 

When I was choosing a nonprofit to create a liquid identity for I immediately thought of the Smithsonian. However, one second later I remembered just how expansive the institution is. After thinking of a few more nonprofit organizations I could center my project around I circled back to the Smithsonian, deciding that I should choose the more difficult option that I was more interested in. Because of its size and the range of the institution there would be unique design challenges and it would really push me to create a liquid identity.

The Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846 and was named after the British scientist James Smithson who died and left his fortune to be used by Congress. In his will he stated that the money should be passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” Their current mission statement reflects this same goal. 

However, since 1846 the museum has drastically expanded and its museums have become very popular since the mid-20th century. Until then, it was more commonly known just as a research institution. Nicknamed “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institute currently holds 137 million objects. The institute comprises 19 different museums, nine research centers, and one zoo. Most of the museums, 11 in total, are located on the National Mall. Admission is free and travelers and tourists come from all over the world to be educated and inspired by its objects.

The second time I visited DC I took photos of signage on the Mall and I collected as many print materials as I could from Smithsonian museums. These included promotional cards, maps, exhibition schedules, tickets, and informational brochures. I visited the Smithsonian Castle (the information center for all of the museums) and the separate museums themselves. The signs varied drastically because the National Park Service is in charge of the Mall itself while the Smithsonian only has signs for the museums directly in front of the specific museum’s doors. It’s not cohesive and it takes much more time than it should to identify where you want to go and which direction you should go.

The print materials varied greatly in terms of quality. Of the museums I had time to visit, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery had the strongest identity. The same typefaces, colours, and types of images were used across exhibits and print materials. The National Museum of Natural History was by far the most confusing. Different typefaces and styles ran rampant across the museum and its materials. The Smithsonian Castle’s informational materials also used a mishmash of styles and typefaces. However, the Castle did have one bit of branding by Wolff Olins that stood out because it was fun, modern, and colourful. 

I’ve included some of the materials I collected below.

The Smithsonian Castle

Branding by Wolff Olins.

Branding by Wolff Olins.


Informational brochure and map.

English language guide and map.

Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art

Events calendar.

Collection guide.

Promotional mailer.

National Museum of Natural History

IMAX movie ticket.

IMAX informational handout.

National Gallery of Art

Collections and map handout.

Childrens' booklet.

Map and guide.


Milestone 1 – Choose the not-for-profit organization you’d like to create an identity for and explain why. Share 2 to 3 sentences on what organization you’re choosing and why.

The not-for-profit organization I've chosen is the Smithsonian Institution. I used to live in Washington, D.C., and during that time I never had a strong sense that all of the Smithsonians institutions were run by the same organization. To me, the current logo (designed in 1997 by Chermayeff & Geismar) looks a little dated and it doesn't work well at small sizes. I want to try to make it more contemporary while creating a system that would be liquid enough to be applied to the Smithsonian's art museums, science museums, and related publications.

However, I love that Smithsonian museums such as the Cooper Hewitt in New York and the Hirshhorn in D.C. have their own distinct identities (designed by Eddie Opara at Pentagram and Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv respectively), so the identity system I create would be in parallel with the separate identity systems for each museum.

Here is the website for the current identity program of the Smithsonian. I've included some images below.

Below are some of the separate identities for the Smithsonian's various institutions.


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