Grand Egyptian Museum Branding: The Design Process Beyond the Controversy

By Tarek Atrissi

One of our most recent completed project at Tarek Atrissi Design was the new visual identity design for the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The museum’s building, designed by Heneghan Peng Architects, is currently being built near the pyramids of Giza and will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. Our design approach for this identity has followed our typical design philosophy at Tarek Atrissi Design: a conceptual, minimal and typographic approach, that responded to a clear vision and very defined brief by the client. A preliminary preview of the identity, concept and branding, can be seen on our website on the following link:
http://www.atrissi.com/grand-egyptian-museum-branding/

 

Preview of the visual identity design for the Grand Egyptian Museum by Tarek Atrissi Design. The top view of the architecture – considered as the 5th façade of the museum – was replicated in a graphic form that included a custom made contemporary Arabic calligraphy with the name of the museum. The dynamic changing position of the logo reflects how the museum has been designed to offer different perspectives to the the historic and unique landscape around it

 

The new logo of the museum has created since its reveal the biggest design controversy I have witnessed in my career in the region. The discussion about the logo has been on the front page of every newspaper in Egypt and was widely covered in international press. Some loved the logo. Some hated it. Some found its simplicity and modernity a major step forward in the development of graphic design culture in Egypt. Some found the logo outrageously ugly. Some sent me personal messages to congratulate me. Some sent me personal messages to curse me. Some made design parodies of the logo, which were funny and reflected Egyptian humor. One thing is for sure: it was impossible for anyone to ignore the logo.

 

“Minimal design, modern typography, contemporary colour choice – all in one” reported the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest newspapers. One of the many local and international press coverage of the new branding of the Grand Egyptian museum

 

Given our experience at Tarek Atrissi Design in developing such large scale design project, we were not surprised at all by the big reactions from the public towards the logo. Such projects trigger by default the interest of many, even some of the audience that are usually not even interested in design. This shows however “a healthy interest and involvement of the public in national projects”, says Dr. El-Kerdany, one of the 20 International and Egyptian experts in the museum team that directed the branding process. We at Tarek Atrissi Design look at the controversy created by the identity design as an actual positive aspect in relevance to the design discourse in Egypt: A graphic design debate going to a national scale is certainly important to the development creative industry in the region. It proves that graphic design matters. What surprised us however is the lack of deeper levels of design criticism or platforms, with most of the debate remaining superficial, limited to short social media posts, and narrowed down to subjective opinions and aesthetic discussions about “ugly vs beautiful”, with hardly any wider solid design discussion taking place to trigger any constructive design debates (and a big chunk of the opinion sharing being aggressive, personal, and bullying).

Controversy in design is certainly nothing new. In various eras, locations, contexts and disciplines some design projects were examples of major controversies and public opinion scrutiny, particularly when it came to projects that are of national importance.

 

Controversies have often accompanied high profile or national design projects, in various eras, locations, contexts and design disciplines. The above examples are all design projects that faced significant scrutiny.

 

Almost every Parisian in the 1880s hated the Eiffel Tower, considering it a historical mistake and describing it as a giant ugly structure. Even France’s best aesthetic minds considered the building as a hideous and useless. Today, the Eiffel Tower stands for glamour, modernity and romance; standing strong since 1889 and becoming a strong symbol of Paris and France.
The re-design of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Logo in 2016 simplified the logo to become “The Met”, only to face an avalanche of harsh criticism, made easier than ever by social media’s typical outraged culture. Who knew a Logo can be so controversial? Critics condemned the historic museum for trying to look fashionable, while the museum’s team found the new identity to reflect a changing institution adapting to the world around it. The museum finally stood strong against the strong negative reactions and maintained its vision by keeping the logo as part of its branding.
Zaha Hadid’s al-Wakrah stadium design in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup became a household topic when some accused the stadium design to resemble a vagina. Almost every talk and comedy show around the world joked about the rather inappropriate and shallow point of criticism. “Ridiculous”, was Zaha Hadid’s strong response to critics. She remains widely acknowledge as a groundbreaking architect who reshaped architecture design in the modern age.
The logo design of the 2012 London Olympic games is another example of a brand that faced massive public criticism; it was mocked by being turned into a cubist sexual cartoon imagery. This marked the beginning of the era of “the desire to attack a logo”, wrote designer Michael Bierut, particularly when it came to high profile brands: “New logo? Game on! Graphic design criticism is now a spectator sport, and anyone can play!”. Despite the controversy, London stuck to its proposed design, applying it as a bold visual identity that was strongly recognizable – becoming one of the most memorable elements of the games.

In a similar way, the new logo of the Grand Egyptian Museum caused a major controversy between supporters and opposers, and became a discussion both the public and the design community quickly judged. Given the fact that design practice remains relatively new in the Arab world, and given the fact that often large governmental projects are often chaotically managed, some questioned at first if the design project was managed in the right set up. Make no mistake: The process of the design of the Grand Egyptian Museum identity was one of the healthiest design processes I have ever experienced in a project at such large scale. The museum team had put together an elaborate design brief and a committee of 20 museum team members worked on directing the branding process; a process that took 6 month from start to finish, with meetings and presentations taking place at the museum’s temporary working offices in Cairo. The museum committee consisted of Egyptian and International members. It included architects, designers, curators, museology experts, historians, directors and key management personnels: People living and loving the museum’s vision and mission, on a daily basis. The project followed international standards in project management and progressed through defined phases that allowed a healthy design process to take place, allowing a balance between a clear strong vision from the client and leaving room for design experimentation to take place.

The branding brief was part of a 344 pages’ document that contained in depth information about the museum and the design scope of work. This included the exhibition and branding design briefing, with elaborate requirements on the general graphic design strategy, naming and branding requirements, communication requirements in addition to a compilation of all previous extensive research done for the museum that relates to its vision in positioning itself. This defined and determined the museum’s mood, personality, long term plans, tone of voice, and target audience, and provided a clear approach on the branding general direction the Grand Egyptian Museum wished to follow.

 

The logos of the world’s biggest museums are often minimalist, typographic, abstract and simple. They are treated as marks to present the museum’s name in a recognizable and unique way, without attempting to narrate everything about the museum. The elaborate visual identity elements of a brand are what reflect further the content and singularity of a museum.

 

The vision of the Grand Egyptian Museum was already established and clear in the brief: to be consistently in the top museum’s world ranking, and to be perceived and positioned on an equal peer to the world’s most established museum’s. For the design of the museum’s identity, this meant that the requirement was to follow the international common best practice in branding such large organizations. The world’s biggest and most established museums certainly reveal common design approaches in their Logo: they are mostly very simple logos, adopting a clean and minimalist style, often typographic, with concepts that are rather abstract and not visually directly related to the artefacts on display in the exhibitions. If non typographic elements are used, they are often basic geometric or simple forms, or a very basic illustrative representation of a concept that is open for visual interpretation. The logo is often treated as a mark to present the museum’s name in a recognizable and memorable unique way: it is by far not the only element of a visual identity, and should not try to narrate by itself literally everything about the museum. The mood that the museum wishes to project through its branding is narrated through all other elements of the visual identity: the photography, the artefacts, the exhibition design, the location and the entire experience of the visitor.

 

The project’s elaborate brief defined the ““Second Level Visual Associations” as elements to be absolutely avoided in the logo design (sample above). These are visuals overused locally and the museum wished no direct or indirect link to it in the core visual identity.

 

In line with this thinking, the project’s brief clearly determined the visual elements and references that should not be used directly in the logo design of the museum. It defined these visual elements as the “Second Level Visual Associations” to the museum: They are clearly elements that reflect the Ancient Egyptian civilizations, but they are very popular Egypt-related symbols that can be seen almost everywhere across the country and have became some sort of stereotypes that are overused by the entire tourism industry. The brief determined that direct or indirect reference to any of these second level visual associations should be absolutely avoided in the logo design itself. This included elements such as hieroglyphs, cartouches, the pyramids, eye of Horus, Tutankhamun, Lotus flower, Pharaohs, scarabs or any other typical artefacts. These important elements will appear extensively in any case in the wider visual identity of the museum, in photographic or illustrative representations and in exhibition material and content; and should hence be avoided in the core elements of the branding. The brief specified in return that if any visual associations are to be made, they need to relate more to the particular physical character of the museum: Its specific location, its relationship to its environment, and its distinct architecture.

 

The desire to be presented as one of the key players among international museums was certainly reinforced by the fact that the foreign visitors to Egypt were one of the largest target group of the museum. The museum certainly has a wide range of target audience, including local, national, and regional visitors from different age, level of education and subjects of interests, as well as expectations from the museum. But the international target group consisting of foreign tourists holds a significant importance to the museum, particularly in the national effort of Egypt to re-strengthen itself as a strong touristic destination. All these factors resulted in the brief being very precise in the wish to positioning the museum branding as modern and very international.

 

The local and international “competitors” of the Grand Egyptian Museum determined the positioning of the new identity. The museum’s team firmly wanted a visual identity considerably different on many levels from these institutions.

 

This specific positioning of the brand comes as well as a result of the direct competition of the Grand Egyptian Museum, clearly analyzed in the project brief. The top three local (Egyptian) and top three international competitor consisted of the following museums: The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, The Alexandria National Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, The Museo Egizio in Turin, The Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the British Museum in London. Each of these institutions have a specific edge in the market, but the majority of these competitors had brand positioning inclined to a traditional styling, and there was a strong wish of the Grand Egyptian Museum to have a visual identity that significantly different in outcome than these. The museum’s team had a conclusive consensus that the new required identity has to be considerably different from all these competitors, and positioned at an extreme international and contemporary styling. They wished to occupy an empty niche in the visual representation of Egyptian antiquities.

 

The brand identity guidelines were delivered to the museum as an online tool, easy to use by the museum staff and their suppliers, and containing the full rules of usage of the brand and all necessary files and templates.

 

The analysis of the local competitors shows that their brand weaknesses are by far not only in their actual logo design, but rather in the lack of a visual identity, brand guidelines, and consistent communication across channels. Having a strong cohesive visual identity was the most important aspect of the branding exercise for the Grand Egyptian Museum, far more important than the logo design itself. The logo had to be the basis of a system that creates many possibilities in building visual compositions that are consistent yet dynamic in offering various graphic design layout possibilities. The branding of the Grand Egyptian Museum consisted of developing an online platform that contains the full identity guidelines and rules of usage of the brand, with all necessary templates and files available for download. This was a very needed tool for the future of the museum, to hopefully be properly used by the various suppliers that will work on implementing the creative communication channels of the museum.

The design process of the identity was a long process with endless sketching of different ideas, concepts, and design explorations, as the case should be in such projects. Different ideas and concepts were explored, and while the typographic directions were the focus point, many different ideas and directions were explored, including some that fall under the visual elements that the museum wanted to particularly avoid (Second Level Visual Associations). The advanced logo design sketches created during the design process are sufficient to create a small publication, showing the design process in detail. This elaborate design work allowed to generate longs discussion with the museum team about the general direction of the branding. Six concepts were finally narrowed down as the directions to be evolved, and 6 fully developed creative routes were designed as full branding design solutions. These different options were varied in approach and execution, and the final decision made by the team was based on a balance between various judging criteria that they determined important for the museum: Concept, Uniqueness, Overall visual language strength in application, Arabic Calligraphy, and Egyptian Identity.

 

A very lengthy design process was behind the design process, with many different ideas and concepts explored. Finally, 6 design routes were fully developed, and the museum’s team chose the one that responded best to the brief’s criteria.

 

For the museum itself, the controversy couldn’t have been a better boost of awareness for its new brand. As Paul Rand says, a logo is meant to identify, not to sell. In record time, this logo has become more identifiable than the museum’s team has ever imagined it would be. The positive side of this controversy shows that the graphic design community in Egypt is growing fast, and that young designers in particular feel connected to larger design projects taking place around them- even though the level of design criticism surrounding this projects remained generally lacking depth, both in the positive and negative opinions. To me personally, I look critically at this debate, within the bigger picture of the branding landscape in Egypt. The current level of design of the visual identities of existing museums or even national landmarks in Egypt is extremely weak or inconsistent, and often non-existent. The focus on the new branding for the Grand Egyptian Museum was in that respect disproportional: The energy of aspiring designers should be focused on identifying the other institutions in desperate need of proper visual identity design, and finding ways to create opportunities in working on such projects that would contribute in the overall improvement of the graphic design scene and practice. Like it or not, the Grand Egyptian Museum has done what no other large museum in the country has done so far, from a graphic design point of view. This should be embraced as a positive development, and an open invitation for other institutions to do better. The museum has still a lot to learn on how to use the identity in line with the guidelines designed, and this was probably evident in the poorly planned launch of the identity, which was probably the main cause of controversy. Designing a visual identity system is different than managing or launching that system, and unfortunately these tasks have not been assigned to us at Tarek Atrissi Design. But there is time until the opening of the museum, and until then, we hope that a strong in-house design team will be set to use and manage the brand better, or that these will be given to a capable design studio that will work closely and regularly with the museum to projects its image in the way it was planned.

It is easy to judge a logo, but doing so without knowing what the brief was, what the process was, what the client’s vision was, and without understanding the political complexities of decision making within such large scale projects is an underestimation of the reality and challenges of design practice. Lots of alternative logos for the Grand Egyptian Museum surfaced after the controversy: Student work, previously proposed designs, or logos designed for the previous design competition done few years ago (which resulted only in poor submissions). Some were interesting, some were poor, yet a lot of these specific examples or ideas were seen and discussed in length with the museum team, and they were disregarded as they did not respond to the brief or did not escape the cliché visual elements often used in the tourism industry in Egypt.

Will the museum eventually stick to its guns by holding to the decision of the museum’s team, or will it reconsider the image given to the museum and reattempt an approach that pleases everyone? Only time will tell, and such a decision will probably be a political one, not a design-driven one, as the case is often unfortunately in the region. There is a big downside however if the identity will be changed in the near future: It will actually be a move that hurt the design industry. In the discussion about the Grand Egyptian Museum logo, every non-designer took the liberty to consider himself a designer, and gave a quick judgment on the outcome of a design process resulting from a professional collaboration between an established design studio and highly experienced and diverse museum team. What does this tell about our industry? And how does it help to take design practice seriously? In addition, changing the branding will also do little help for establishing the importance of consistency of visual identities and the long term maintenance of a brand image. The world’s strongest brands are the ones that remained relatively consistent for decades.