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How to Create a great Museum Brand Identity?

What makes one museum brand identity stand out from the crowd and another instantly forgettable? How can a great brand identity give your museum the edge when potential visitors are deciding how to spend their free time?

Whatever your role in the museum, you can benefit from knowing a little about the importance of brand identity.


What is a brand identity?

Brand identity is all the design elements that your museum uses to present itself to the public, including the logo, colour palette, fonts and other visual elements. Put simply: it’s what you, audiences, and prospective visitors can see.

This is different from the museums brand.

That’s the perception that people have of your institution, this is shaped in part by your brand identity, but also by every other interaction that they have with your museum, from their experience visiting through to how easy your website is to use.

Your brand identity is a tool to communicate what your institution stands for, but that isn’t something that a designer can create for you.

How to develop a strong brand identity for your museum?

Before you brief a designer to create your brand identity, you need to know what your museum stands for.

What’s important to think about is what makes your museum unique. What makes your institution different from other museums? What is its personality? What is its tone of voice?

Having worked with many cultural institutions to develop their brand identities I have found that the most successful way of doing this is by running a workshop with staff from across the organisation.

Once you have the opinions of your colleagues try and arrange them into four pillars which represent the things that matter to your museum. In the centre put a statement which brings these elements together. Remember that this should be as unique as possible.

brand pillars

Above you can see the four pillars developed out of workshops that I ran for the Museum of East Anglian Life, and it’s central brand message, ‘People grow with us through history’.

Being clear about what your museum brand stands for is extremely powerful. Once you have done this exercise for your museum, it’s time to build the identity that will communicate your brand to world.

Developing your museums brand design

Before you start working with a designer to develop the brand identity for your museum you might want to consider whether certain fonts, colours and images are more appropriate than others.

If you are redesigning your museums brand identity does it make sense to keep a recognisable colour palette? Could some element of the museum logo be kept or evolved?

Also, make yourself aware of competitors in your marketplace. Are there colours and other elements to avoid so that your museums brand identity stands out?

museum brand

For example when I designed the logo for Creswell Crags museum and prehistoric gorge I originally proposed that it should be green to reflect the lush landscape. The team at the museum were concerned that this would blend into the rural setting so we moved to an Autumnal palette.

Gather information like this together to share with your designer.

Working with a designer

Museums often ask a handful of designers to pitch designs as a way to select the company or individual to work with on their brand identity.

In my opinion, this isn’t the best strategy because of the in-depth thinking required to create a great brand identity. I’d recommend instead asking a four or five design companies to share a selection of branding work that they have produced for others, as well as their methodology.

It’s helpful to also ask for references so that you can speak to people who they have worked with and find out about their process from a clients perspective.

You need to have a clear idea of the budget that you have for the project and know the elements that you require. A good brand guidelines with all the elements that you need to roll out your museums brand identity can save you money in the long run.

Once you have selected a designer, share the brand pillars and any research that you have developed.

Your Museum’s Logo

The museums logo design is central to your Brand Identity but it’s important to note that this will seldom appear in isolation, so don’t fall into the trap of expecting your logo to communicate everything that your museum offers.

The logo should be simple, clean and uncluttered while getting across the essence of your institution. I find it helpful to look at the brand pillars created earlier in the process and use this as a lens through which I judge which design works best.

I’d expect a designer to offer three or four options, along with an indication of the wider graphic style. Then based on your feedback one of these designs would be refined into a final museum logo design.

museum brand identity

You can find a selection of fantastic museum branding examples in this article.

Final Brand Identity

Your logo is just one element of your Museums Brand Identity, so once this is agreed you should ask your designer to expand on how the colours, fonts and graphic style will work across key communications.

If budget allows it, I’d recommend having them put together a brand guideline that shows how the Museums Brand Identity works on posters, leaflets, social media channels, advertising, banners and signage.

Ideally, you want templates for these items that can be taken by either in-house staff or a freelance designer to produce day to day brand communications.

brand guidelines brand guidelines

Above you can see the guidelines for the Wordsworth Trust which came with files to allow their marketing team to produce leaflets, posters and other collateral in-house.

Launching your Museums Brand Identity

The success of your new brand identity depends not only on a distinctive design, but also on a well-executed launch.

Put together a spreadsheet detailing everywhere that your brand identity currently appears and develop a plan for rolling out the new design.

This isn’t limited to marketing communications. Your launch should encompass retail items, education materials, uniforms, membership. Often it isn’t practical to replace everything at once but consider the best strategy to prioritise rolling out the new brand identity.

As well as thinking about replacing communication materials, you also need to budget some additional money for the launch.

brand launch

What creative ways can you communicate this change? What are the messages that you want to get across?

Often a rebrand is part of a wider change, so does the new Brand Identity link to the opening of a new building, exhibition, mark an anniversary? Think about the key messages that you’re trying to communicate to different audiences.

In Conclusion

Your brand identity will set your museum apart from others in the sector and the wider competitive landscape.

Having a strong brand identity can help you to communicate why your museum matters and help you to grow your audiences.

But it’s important that your museum follows through on what is promised and that everyone in your organisation embraces delivering on your brand promise.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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