How graphic design and architecture reinforce culture — Zeitz MOCAA

Cross-section of Zeitz MOCAA
Cross-section of Zeitz MOCAA

Africa is commonly misconceived as poverty-stricken and filled with strife, void of any coherent cultural sphere. But the construction of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) challenges this somewhat bigoted perspective, marking a pivotal moment in time that debunks such misconceptions. As a sanctuary for contemporary art from across the continent and its diaspora, the approach to graphic design and branding in this building is as relevant as its purpose and message.

In general terms, the cultural sphere may be broken down into four interrelated parts: art, craft, design, and discourse. Many brands don’t understand the sum of all these parts, and how any given society coheres through an appreciation of each part in relation to the other. So, too, many designers, artists, and other creatives don’t really understand their responsibility and respective roles within these constituent parts. It should go without saying that the production of culture doesn’t take place through profit and consumption, or creative self-obsession; it does so through an appreciation of the cultural sphere.

Dialogue between graphic design and architecture

The focus here is on the dialogue between graphic design, by proxy branding, and architecture, and how these important disciplines need to coexist within the context of the cultural sphere. Sadly, this dialogue is often an afterthought. The lack of graphic design in many public spaces and built environments highlights this point, with ill-considered branding randomly placed onto façades and poorly executed signage at every turn. Ignorance towards this dialogue is the reason why bad design confronts us in the streets of every city in the world, from non-existent wayfinding to second-rate typography, to advertising that verges on a form of pollution; and the trend continues. This kind of ignorance does nothing to support the cultural sphere, often preventing the production of culture, and it can be incredibly destructive, affecting the common man on the ground at a grassroots level on a massive scale. Yet ill-considered design is so omnipresent that we don’t even see it anymore. We are mostly numb to the adverse effects of our indifference towards the uplifting difference that design can create. This especially when a happy marriage between graphic design and architecture — where there is a cultural synergy between branding and the built environment — can be achieved.

Museum structures are the subject of debate in this particular regard because they are culturally significant public spaces, and there are significant examples around the world where successful synergies between graphic design and architecture have evolved, such as the Sifang Art Museum (Nanjing, China), Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (New York, US), Centre Pompidou (Paris, France), Guggenheim Bilbao (Bilbao, Spain), and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK), to name a few. All these stay true to the cultural sphere, remaining consistent in their respective integration of graphic design into the overall design strategy of their respective buildings, and the brand narratives that are attached to them — the dialogue between graphic design and architecture was clear from the onset of each building project.

As a form of visual communication, more architects, interior designers, councils, developers, building managers, curators and the like should consider how imperative graphic design is in the construction of cultural spaces and the layered narratives that such spaces hold.

Change the world

Culture has the potential to change the world, uplift, revive, and reform nations and, when it comes to culturally significant structures such as museums, architects need graphic designers more than ever as their symbiotic relationship forms a pivotal food chain within the cultural sphere. The building itself is a conduit and an important cultural signifier. For example, there is a visible gap between the amount of thought that has gone into the design of many museum buildings, as opposed to the amount of effort in developing the wayfinding and environmental design systems for those structures. A lack of continuity in design, outside and within a building, may destroy any kind of storytelling that the architect may have had in mind, compromising the overall experience of the building. So, too, poorly executed branding on the exterior of a structure may completely eliminate any architectural considerations that have gone into the design of a building in the first place. A dialogue between graphic design and architecture should be a first-rate priority.

Few examples of this dialogue exist in South Africa, barring the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill, and some others. With the recent completion of Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront is arguably one such public space beginning to construct a broader consciousness about the cultural sphere, effectively seeding the discourse between various types of art, design, and craft on the continent. It is the only structure of its kind, the first large-scale contemporary art museum in Africa, and as a result, may be seen as an important case study in the dialogue between graphic design and architecture on the continent.

This particular story starts with the choice of site, the Silo District of the V&A Waterfront, reclaiming one of Cape Town’s most-historic structures, the city’s Grain Silo building. Built in 1924, this structure has cultural significance as a landmark, a heritage site originally used as a grain storage complex that once contained 40 000 tons of grain and disseminated food to the nation and to the world. After standing derelict for years, the structure has been repurposed by the internationally renowned British architect, Thomas Heatherwick.

Inside-out vision of the architect

Working from his London-based design practice, Heatherwick Studio, the structure’s 42 silos and elevator building have been disemboweled, completely transforming the site. With an inside-out vision — by Africa, for Africa, in Africa — the museum has become a legacy project, attempting to negate any pretense towards mirroring the west. Its mission: to craft a contemporary African art and design history for all Africans — not settling for a history bestowed upon it from the west (from the outside-in).

Heatherwick himself described the construction process as akin to mining or farming. The large atrium of the building literally deconstructs the 42-silo grid of the original building. He scanned an actual corn kernel — a life-sustaining symbol (womb-like when inverted into the negative space of the atrium), referencing the birth of civilisation (agriculture) — carving out a massive cavity. It’s secular yet somehow spiritual.

The shared vision of the graphic designer

Membership card with Zeitz MOCAA branding
Membership card with Zeitz MOCAA branding
Membership card with Zeitz MOCAA branding

The story continues with the ad agency that worked with Heatherwick Studio on the various branding and design components required for the museum, and so the dialogue between graphic design and architecture begins. M&C Saatchi Abel in Cape Town stepped up to the plate, eventually creating the branding, corporate identity, wayfinding and signage systems for the museum, among other collateral and paraphernalia. The choice of M&C Saatchi Abel seems apt, as a quick observation of its Cape Town office alone exhibits a clear dialogue between art and design, with contemporary South African artists exhibited on many of the walls inside the agency building, sporting many of the same established names that the museum currently houses, such as Athi-Patra Ruga, Kudzanai Chuirai, and Mohau Modisakeng.

Defining cultural moment

Working pro bono, Ashraf Majiet, who was M&C Saatchi Abel’s creative director at the time, took the helm on this project, alongside a small, dedicated team. Seeing the museum as a defining cultural moment with the potential for powerful visual storytelling, Majiet had difficult shoes to fill in trying to find a unique design solution that could compliment Heatherwick Studios’ resolved architectural narrative. What initially started as a branding project in July 2015, based upon a simple brief to create an icon and a logo, ended with Majiet delivering a case study on the significance of graphic design in dialogue with architecture within the cultural sphere of South Africa, and the continent as a whole.

As a young student, Majiet was influenced by Heatherwick’s first appearance at Design Indaba as far back 2005. Spurred on further by Heatherwick’s 2014 Design Indaba conference talk, where his plans were revealed to develop and design Zeitz MOCAA, Majiet researched African art in order to inform the museum’s then fledgling identity system. He tried not to separate between the worlds of art and design, eventually finding that a basic icon and logo wouldn’t suffice for a project of this scale. The result was a simple grid, based on the original structural arrangement of the 42 silos, malleable and extremely versatile. This is the foundation for an entire visual language forming the design DNA, including a bespoke typeface, colour palette (inspired by the exposed raw concrete of the building), branding and corporate identity system, wayfinding and signage system, alongside other elements.

Although the 42 silos have been transformed into a graphic rendition, suggesting the form, function and history of the original building, the grid has been created to be defied — a tip of the hat to Heatherwick’s deconstruction of the building. Majiet investigated local hand-signage and -lettering, inspired by spaza shops, improvised signs in townships and other similar visuals, in an attempt to design more-irregular, less-rigid, curves for the letterforms of the bespoke alphabet in particular. From this a font, called “Forty Two”, was developed, connecting the topology of the architectural site into the typology of the brand architecture. This font signposts everything, from the toilets to the restaurant, but is adaptable enough to be interpreted through different colourways, patterns and textures.

Ever-evolving, curated and deconstructed

The museum’s branding needed to be experienced in a similar fashion to the museum itself: as an ever-evolving, curated and deconstructed, cultural icon. The result? Various branding and design components that often incorporate the artworks exhibited in the museum, using the same textures, imagery, mediums, and materials.

At all times, craft and art must meet design, just as design meets architecture, all existing in a vital cultural ecosystem fuelled by various narratives and discourses. As such, the cultural sphere is observed here. Developed to adapt and evolve with the ever-changing contents of the museum, always in conversation with the building itself, the overall visual language is designed as if on-site at ground level, rather than only the result of sketches on paper and graphics on a screen. In terms of graphic design, Majiet’s response to Heatherwick’s building is a more radical and conceptual answer to the original brief, allowing the branding to flow in conjunction with the dynamic environment of the museum, as well as the ever-shifting narratives of contemporary African art itself.

It is important to mention that the branding, and its strategic backbone, fits in-between all of this. The design of it all exhibits a keen awareness of the cultural sphere and the final solution to the brief respects the subject matter at hand, acknowledging and reflecting the unique heritage of the original building while, at the same time, staying true to the powerful originality and diversity of the museum and the art that it houses. In much the same way that the building interacts with its visitors, and viewers interact with the artworks, so, too, the interaction between graphic design and architecture has arguably begun.

What Zeitz MOCAA proves

Graphic designers are trained in the science of identity systems, the art of typography and legibility, alongside various other important components within the gamut of visual communication. What Zeitz MOCAA, as a case study, shows is that the power of architecture can be amplified through the artful use of graphic design and the proper implementation of branding.

It is successfully engineered and resolved here, telling a layered and complex story in an accessible way. As the agency has described it, this approach is “alive with art and culture”, educating society at large as well as reminding the elites of the art world about the importance of having access to the cultural sphere and encouraging various ongoing dialogues, focused not on a universal idea of design or a blind ideology about design, but rather a wholeness in design. Thoughtfulness in design is a conversation for all.

Shane de Lange is the owner and graphic designer at www.gilgamesh.co.za. He is also the founder and curator at www.colophon.co.za.