Editors’ Note: In March 2016, the Poetry Foundation commissioned New York City-based design agency Pentagram, led by Michael Bierut, to reimagine the Foundation’s brand identity, including the logo, print materials, and Poetry magazine. This effort coincided with the redesign of poetryfoundation.org, led by Chicago-based agency Fuzzy Math.
I’m not a poet. I’m a graphic designer who has developed a specialty in branding. Many people find branding a vaguely unsavory bit of jargon, but it puts a name to something familiar: the way that institutions and organizations communicate who they are. Of course, corporations have brands, but—in a more abstract sense, at least—so do political parties and religions and even individual people. And so does the Poetry Foundation.
When I was asked to evaluate and reconsider how the Poetry Foundation communicates with its many audiences, I was struck immediately by two main things. First, there’s a rare one-to-one correspondence between the organization’s name and its mission. The Poetry Foundation and its primary face to the world, Poetry magazine, leave no doubt about what they’re about. This is no small advantage in a world where the competition for attention is so fiercely unrelenting. Everyone knows that Poetry is about poetry.
Second, most people think they know what poetry is. Often, they formed an opinion about it in elementary school, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. There lies a challenge: retaining the longstanding and enthusiastic support of people who know and love the magazine and the Foundation while asking for the attention of new audiences and those who think they’ve already made up their minds.
We know that poetry can be many things. It can be simple and complex. It is one of the oldest and one of the most innovative of literary forms. It can provide solace, and it can be profoundly disturbing. And—of particular interest to me as a graphic designer—it is a peculiarly visual art form. Even the way the words of a poem are arranged on a page has a profound effect on the way we read them. As a result, poetry has inspired radical experiments in typography for centuries.
The combination of the familiarity of a simple six-letter word and its capacity for endless surprise led us to a new way of thinking about the poetry brand. What if the name could be the brand, and the presentation of the name could be ever changing? So we began with the word poetry and arranged it in a distinctive two-by-three letter configuration. We then began writing the name in every style we could think of, formal and informal, conventional and radical, bold and delicate, straightforward and fanciful. The result is a visual treatment we hope goes right to heart of what poetry, and what Poetry, is: always evolving and forever new. We hope it is worthy of this great art form and one of its most ardent champions.
Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of the international design consultancy Pentagram, where his clients have included the New York Times, Saks Fifth Avenue, Mastercard, MIT Media Lab, and Hillary Clinton. He is a cofounder of the website Design Observer and the author of several books...