Institution: Library of Congress
Designer: Pentagram / Paula Scher

Every so often, a library releases a visual identity that people (besides yours truly) actually sit up and pay attention to. Sometimes, it’s because the brand is outside-the-box of typical library branding. Other times, it’s because the community has bigger issues on their mind (like money). Finally –and that brings us to the Library of Congress– there are genuine head-scratchers. As in, what were they thinking? Let’s see if we can find out.

The Good

Let’s have a look at what the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, says in a guest blog post:

“Our view here at the Library of Congress is the image of a treasure chest, filled with limitless information and services, ready to explore and amaze if you open it up.

So today, the Library of Congress is introducing a new visual brand that seizes on this concept and amplifies it. It can change to feature different collection items, stories, images and sounds. The potential is limitless, like the Library itself.”

We can see how the wordmark is meant to evoke this “treasure chest” idea in this animation:

Here’s how Pentagram, the design firm, describe it:

“The logo combines the condensed name (“Library”) set in Druk Condensed Super and the full name in Sharp Grotesk 20, all in one lockup that can appear in various configurations. The versatile arrangement is the basis for a cohesive system for the Library’s many sub-brands and affiliate programs.”

Basically, that means that the word LIBRARY and the full name LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (both in all-caps, you’ll note) can be placed above, below, and inside one another, depending on the need (see the logo lockups, below).

Below: Brand implementations include publications, the website, and various merchandise (Source: Pentagram).

The designer, Paula Scher, notes in Quartz, “The images of what is contained within ‘Library’ are front and center, part of the logo design and infinitely changeable”. The goal is to emphasize all the items and services the Library of Congress has to offer, making it more transparent to the public.

Above: The LIBRARY wordmark with objects and photos inserted within (Source: Pentagram).

Leaving aside the wordmark itself for a moment, I think the use of Druk Condensed Super for titles and website headings looks fairly striking – something you might see in a chic museum instead of a library. The Druk font (originally designed by Berton Hasebe in 2011 for the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek) has a distinctly mid-century vibe about it; it evokes a certain nostalgia, further heightened by the pairing with orange.

The Bad

Here’s a taste of some hot-takes that appeared in my twitter:

But some of the most scathing critiques come from the comments on the Brand New post on the redesign (which you should read if you haven’t already):

I’m not sure I have much more to add to this, other than to echo what other commenters have already said. To me, this design is a total throwback. I’m really drawn to mid-century design aesthetic, but even I have to admit that this is at odds with what Carla Hayden says herself about the direction of the Library of Congress: “A fresh visual identity is intended to signal that something new is happening here, and we want you to be a part of it.” On its own, it’s not clear this signals something new, or as Meryl Friedman notes above, “the overall aesthetic is on[e] that seems to be looking to the past, not the future”.

To provide a counterpoint, Quartz has a quote from the Library’s communications officer, “…the double appearance of the word “library” is intentional. ‘Casual visitors often fixate on the words ‘of Congress,’ and are unsure whether they are allowed to use the resources here. Emphasizing the word ‘library’ as a word mark helps deliver the message that the Library of Congress and its resources are for everyone.'”

In case you were wondering about people claiming that Pentagram are “ripping off” their own design, and comparing the Library of Congress wordmark with the Pentagram-designed EFF wordmark, here’s that:

And as Fast Company and others have pointed out, Pentagram also put photos and objects within a wordmark relatively recently with the Serpentine Galleries branding (Source: Gregory Krum / Pentagram):

The Rest

Unfortunately, with this wordmark, we have to say goodbye to the previous logo (which is only 8 years old!):

As Armin Vit notes on Brand New,

“Other than the use of Trajan, the old logo was great. Designed by Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv in 2010, the icon brought together two elements — a book and the stripes of the American flag — in a simple, effective way that felt… congressional.”

While I’m not necessarily a fan of library logos that lean too heavily on the book shape, it makes a ton of sense for the venerable Library of Congress. It is, after all, the biggest library in the world, though I’ve been corrected about it holding every published US work. Also, while the logotype was uninspired, the flag/book logo had an instant iconic nature. It could recognizably stand alone, while also looking classic on book spines, below (Source: Brand New). It’s hard to imagine the new LIBRARY logo in the same context.

With the emphasis on the word LIBRARY, often used all by itself, the Library of Congress seems to be saying ‘this is our word; all you other players need to come up with your own word’. Unfortunately, when the LIBRARY wordmark is left to its own devices, like on social media, it just doesn’t work very well. Out of context, the viewer is left wondering: LIBRARY? Which library?

In the end, though, we have to assume that the Library of Congress had a brief — make it bold, make it clear that we are a library that contains multitudes (more than books), de-emphasize the congressional aspects — and that the brand that was delivered met that brief.

And as for what Paula Scher (of Pentagram) thinks of all the haters (as told to Quartz), ”I totally stand by this design …I have experienced this sort [of] backlash, now rather regularly. Give it time.”

Did I miss an important opinion or a different take – let me know in the comments.
I hope they make those mugs because I will totally buy one.