The Future of the MIT Media Lab Looks Not So Bright

Pentagram’s new identity for the MIT Media Lab.

Last week the MIT Media Lab unveiled a new graphic identity created by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut. The Lab’s new logomark is derived from a stark 7x7 black-and-white pixel grid. The beauty and novelty of the system, however, is that it allows each of the research groups within the Lab to have its own pixelated mark as well. The solution brings order to what was sometimes chaotic before, where each faculty member was responsible for branding his or her own group. And the letterforms and icons Pentagram designed for each group based on the system are clever — they exhibit quirkiness and personality. They’re still rather distinctive, even though they all live in the same grid.

I like the idea of a system for the Lab’s many smaller research groups, and I generally appreciate Bierut’s work (e.g. his rebrand of Saks Fifth Avenue). But as someone with a history with the Lab, I have two major issues about the new identity system. First is that they selected a deliberately bitmapped solution, when as my friend and Media Lab colleague Ben Fry has pointed out, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Lab, first called for the end of “jaggies” in Wired magazine back in 1994:

Well, this month’s column is my flame to almost every computer manufacturer and software developer on the planet. People are tired of your jaggies. It’s time to correct your offensive fonts and graphics. And, as you know, it is not hard to do.
Aliasing: The Blind Spot of the Computer Industry, by Nicholas Negroponte, Wired Magazine, January 1994

It’s ironic that someone who railed against aliasing so stridently now embraces a logo system with a low-res grid at it’s core. I think this might be a case of graphic designers having a bit of a laugh at their client (or maybe they just didn’t do their research).

Second, I can’t help but lament that in the rebrand of the Media Lab they’ve decided to ditch the cheerful six-color palette that’s been the hallmark from the Lab’s inception in the mid 1980s.

The initial identity system for the Lab was designed by Jacqueline Casey, a graphic designer who had a thirty-year career in the MIT Office of Publications. She designed numerous posters for MIT during her tenure. In 1985 she created materials dedicating the Jerome B. Wiesner Building, designed by I.M. Pei and named for MIT’s 13th president. In Casey’s words:

The walls of the cavernous atrium of MIT’s Wiesner Building, enhanced by a mural of brightly colored horizontal bars, are by Kenneth Noland. It is so distinctive that it lent itself, in a more condensed and simplified version, to an identity design for the Media Laboratory which is located in the building.
Here-There: architectural installation by Kenneth Noland. From http://listart.mit.edu/public-art-map/here-there
Casey’s graphic work for the Wiesner building, and the MIT Media Laboratory, echoing the colored bars of Noland’s installation
Late-90s artifacts: MIT Media Lab business cards

David Small, a former Media Lab professor and alumnus, writes that Casey’s work was “one of the earliest examples of a system-based identity, where there is no fixed image.” The randomness of the system seemed algorithmic, but as Small points out, “She achieved this by hand.”

As a student at the Media Lab in the late 90s, I remember getting excited every time we’d get business cards. Legend had it that the offset printer had stacks of huge sheets pre-printed with the multi-colored bars, and when the black ink for your cards were printed, the configuration of colors and spacing was left up to chance. Some of the cards looked better than others, but it was always a surprise and delight to see what you got.

When I was a grad student at the Media Lab, I remember how the colored bars lent the website a smidge of character:

In 2001, I received an invitation from John Maeda, then Associate Director of the Lab, to refresh some of the site’s pages, and I came up with a system that set the bars in a three-dimensional space:

Much has changed at the Media Lab since then. In particular, the Lab expanded into a new addition in 2009 that neighbors the Wiesner building to the south. The architect Fumihiko Maki, according to David Small, systematically removed color from the new Lab building. It’s reasonable to suggest that now that the Lab is mostly housed in a new building, its graphic identity shouldn’t be so closely tied to the Noland site-specific installation for the original building.

For the Lab’s 25th anniversary, Richard The, E Roon Kang, and Willy Sengewald developed a dynamic new identity that stressed the many thousands of permutations possible within the algorithm.

From http://www.richardthe.com/medialab/

But, in with the new. Three years later, the Pentagram identity begins with the same 7x7 grid from The’s design but ditches the colored gradients and the computer programming. Instead, letterforms are deliberately placed in the grid, and the identity of the Lab has become the visual language of this pixelated black-and-white system.

I do find the solution charming in a way as a throwback to an earlier time in computing. Black and white is classic, and stylish. And I think it’s cute that many of the models on the Pentagram page are dressed in outfits to match the identity. Still, it makes me wonder if something is lost —in a monochrome world, can the Lab’s future be just as bright?

http://new.pentagram.com/2014/10/new-work-mit-media-lab/
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