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A Case Study—in Progress—of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Brand Refresh

Category: Mission & Institutional Planning
Exterior image of the de Young museum with a Mabuhay/Welcome banner in teal with white letters hanging from a lamp post.

With the arrival of a new director and CEO in 2016, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco expanded its largely encyclopedic approach to art history by introducing a curatorial department dedicated to collecting and presenting contemporary artwork. This was a strategic move that directly addressed the institution’s desire to develop broader, more relevant connections with its audiences at two museums while fulfilling its mission.

In addition to displaying contemporary artwork as expected in the striking architecture of the Herzog & de Meuron–designed de Young museum in Golden Gate Park, the new director opted to also present it within the neoclassical building of the Legion of Honor museum, known for its in-depth survey of European art.

This was unexpected. And that was the point.

The institution wanted to highlight different kinds of experiences made possible by the diversity of its collection.  By developing a stronger, more visible connection between the two museums located in distinct locations, the breadth of the institution’s offerings to its audiences would be more powerful. Within the institution, this synergy would ultimately support future growth and long-term sustainability of the institution.

The Opportunity

While public recognition of the de Young and Legion of Honor museums individually was high, very few current and potential visitors understood that the two museums, housed in two architecturally distinct buildings located about three miles from each other, share the same collection and operate under a joint operating agreement as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

This lack of clarity surrounding the relationship between the two museums was exacerbated by a visual brand that had been unable to support the evolving and complex needs of the growing institution. This created confusion among the public as well as operational inefficiencies within the organization.

The Strategy

For an institution to deliver on the promise of its mission and to serve the public, it is critical that the expression of its identity—its brand—allow the organization to not only rise above the surrounding noise but also powerfully articulate its purpose and the diversity of its offerings.

To align the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco brand with its vision, a three-part “refresh” project began that included the development of a messaging platform, refinements to the visual identity, and improvements to the wayfinding signage.

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Working across the institution and with input from visitors, a unified messaging strategy was solidified that reflected the Museums’ vision: to provide places of respite and inspiration that welcome people of all backgrounds, connecting them to a world of art and ideas. The development of the messaging platform affirmed that the two museums together, through their broad range of offerings and inherent contrasts, provide a deeper and more satisfying experience than the two individual museums provide alone. It became clear that the concept of connection—between art, people, and ideas—was essential to the institution’s brand.

It was through this lens that updates to the visual identity were approached. The original logos, introduced when the new de Young building opened in 2005, included illustrations that lacked the scalability necessary to cover the evolving communication needs of the institution. Over time, the illustration elements were dropped, leaving only the logo’s text components. The remaining elements, however, were problematic. Amy Browne, director of graphic design, noted, “The simplified versions of the logos did not have proper usage restrictions, which caused many disparate variations to spawn in response to the institution’s diverse needs.”

For example, the simplified versions of the logos did not solve one of the bigger challenges, which was to provide graphically distinct marks that functioned in outdoor settings (such as banners and bus ads). The logos were often confused as text. This was particularly problematic for tourists and other potential visitors unfamiliar with the names “de Young” and “Legion of Honor,” which alone do not clearly identify them as art museums.

The de Young museum logo with the words de Young a slash and then museum in white letters on a teal colored background.The identity refresh was designed to eliminate this confusion and provide effective use on all platforms. The concept introduces a slash between the two names that serves as a visual anchor to graphically connect the two museums while distinguishing the marks as graphic logos rather than simple text. Read visually, and activated throughout the institution’s identity system, the slanted line draws attention to the broad scope of the institution, highlighting different points of view, and inviting viewers to consider a new angle on art and the world.

Although the logos for the two museums share visual attributes, they are differentiated by separate color schemes—the de Young museum’s cerulean blue is inspired by the patina of the aging copper found on its building’s facade, while the Legion of Honor museum is identified with an amethyst purple to reflects its stately presence. The use of color in combination with the logos strategically aligns and simultaneously distinguishes the two museums.

The changes to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco visual brand, launched in July 2018, coincided with improvements to the signage strategy at the de Young museum. The signage changes were designed to provide a better experience for visitors by creating a more seamless connection between  the entry ways, ticketing areas, and art galleries.

Results: In Progress

Over the next year, the institution will be assessing, evaluating, and recording the outcome of these changes to messaging, positioning, visual identity, and the entry sequence to the de Young museum. In the process, it will be asking the following questions: How should success be defined? How can it be measured? How should this be measured?

As competition for audiences’ attention continues to grow, the results of these initiatives will help the institution to fine-tune its communications strategy to support future growth and long-term sustainability.


Linda Butler joined the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF – de Young and Legion of Honor Museums) as Director of Marketing, Communications, and Visitor Experience in August 2017. In her years as a leader in the arts, Butler has been recognized for her commitment to engaging and attracting diverse audiences in innovative ways, and for her dexterity in developing impactful content and effective institutional strategy. Within her first year at FAMSF Butler successfully led and completed a comprehensive brand refresh project; produced a first-ever photo shoot in New York with top model Halima Aden; worked with a local group of Muslim community advisors and directed a global communications firm to usher in the groundbreaking Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition.

LinkedIn Page: www.linkedin.com/in/lindasb

Jennifer Sonderby is founder and creative director of Sonderby Design, a San Francisco-based design studio that specializes in design strategy and branding for art and cultural organizations. Her most recent work includes a comprehensive brand refresh and wayfinding project for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Twitter Handle: @jsonderby

LinkedIn Page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifer-sonderby-913517/

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