In 1999 Wolff Olins asked me to help rebrand the Tate Gallery. The work was to include a new logo and a custom typeface. The art institution had opened new sites in Liverpool and St Ives, and was about to inaugurate a huge new gallery at Bankside Power Station in London.
Like most galleries, the Tate’s fantastic collection of art supplies the imagery for their advertising and therefore most art institutions identities are typographic. For a custom typeface to work properly it needs to be seen often, which means using it across the complete spectrum of applications: logo, signage, posters, web, merchandise, and so on. The typeface for the Tate Gallery needed to walk the fine line between being uniquely identifiable yet sufficiently neutral to allow the art to have a voice.
Art dating back more than five centuries would traditionally be accompanied by a serif typeface. The challenge was to investigate whether a contemporary brand typeface would be appropriate next to a masterpiece from the sixteenth century. As art has been a guiding light since my early childhood, creating a typeface that would play a significant role in presenting art to as broad an audience as possible was close to my heart.
The intended use of a typeface is the functional brief. We can design purely utilitarian type for printing sell-by dates onto eggs, or arresting display alphabets calling people to action in times of crisis, or exotic letterforms for alien languages in sci-fi movies, and everything in between. The primary objectives for the Tate typeface were informing the audience, focussing their attention, inviting thought, and speaking to the general public in a non-institutional voice that was fresh and intelligible without dumbing down the material. Conceptually, the type would express the contemporary as it is informed by its predecessor, to show the possibilities of the present when inspired by an appreciation of the past.
The Tate Gallery’s competence was unquestionable. It didn’t need to be bolstered by adopting type that reassured the audience with its stature. The unique character of the Tate was the focal point, and this would unite the institution’s four locations. I chose to combine an unusual mix of references to create a distinct typographic identity, by basing the capitals on the classical proportions of Roman inscriptions, applying the geometry of 20th-century modernism to the lowercase, and keeping all letterforms open and rounding the terminals.