Building a Legacy: Getting Donor Recognition Right

Read Time: 4 minutes

Here in the United States, November is the season of Thanksgiving, and to celebrate and honor this popular holiday, SEGD is presenting articles featuring themes of gratitude and appreciation throughout the month. Our first features donor recognition panels, which are “difficult design pieces to get right” according to SEGD member and contributing writer Alison Richings. Alison, who is Wayfinding Design Director at London-based Endpoint, explains how designers can navigate the often competing agendas in the design of donor recognition panels for arts organizations.

Somewhere between gratitude, altruism and inspiration—and between the entrance hall and the main stairway in any large art gallery, museum or theater—you’ll find that most curious of installations: the donor panel.

Donor recognition for our treasured cultural, educational, and healthcare institutions can be difficult design pieces to get right. After all, how can you convey a sense of modest recognition when the names in question are of existing cultural icons, philanthropic leaders or powerful corporate and government entities? And how do you adapt a design so that it can handle an individual’s potential fall from grace or a society’s changing notion of moral and ethical acceptability?

Different Perceptions

Donor recognition is a great way to distinguish the generosity of philanthropy, and recognition panels can immortalize donors in a respectful and reverent manner to ensure future generations remember the gifts of the past.

But the recent financial impact on the arts, brought on by COVID-19 and the resulting quarantines, points towards a cultural shift in terms of funding. With other areas often taking precedence for the foreseeable future—such as furlough, business support and healthcare—are we likely to see a shift, here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, towards a more Victorian funding model where the arts are concerned? A shift in which large institutions increasingly depend more on wealthy donors rather than government programs? 

Design Challenges

One of the biggest design challenges is to decide how reverent donor recognition should be. Is it okay to be modern, quirky and individual in the way you display the names of donors and philanthropic organizations? Often, recognition panels serve as a kind of memorial, commemorating the contributions of individuals and organizations for posterity, and as such, require a level of “seriousness” in the design approach.

But also, unlike other commemorative design pieces, donor panels serve a dual duty: to honor patrons while maintaining an ethical responsibility to the public.

Sometimes arts benefactors do not maintain the reputation befitting their significant and generous donations—or perhaps a society’s collective response evolves or changes towards those individuals. (For example, think of recent events involving statues of philanthropic slave traders.) Ideally, recognition panels need to be futureproofed against any unforeseen imbalance between donors and their deeds. The panel’s design, then, needs to be flexible enough to be changed, when and if needed.

Royal Academy of Music + Royal Opera House

After creating donor panel designs for a number of clients—including the Royal Opera House and the Royal Academy of Music—the designers here at Endpoint know all of this is easier said than done.

The challenge presented by the Royal Opera House was to create a set of donor panels that showed reverence to the benefactors. The client asked that the donor names be placed with respect and that each panel have a similar approach to other donor panels around the building, and that they all be aesthetically pleasing. Our wayfinding team successfully achieved this by trying a number of different ways to set out the typography to reflect the qualities required.

With the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) commission, the design challenge required creating a recognition piece reflecting the modern values and incredible musicianship of the RAM, while simultaneously respecting the beauty of the historic building and the illustrious 200-year history of the UK’s best conservatoire.

The RAM’s benefactors are heroes to many of the students, so in addition to celebrating the donors’ gifts, the panels need to inspire those who walk past.

The design was beautifully simple. We took our cues from musical instruments. Form was dictated by the paneling on this section of the wall, and the concept we wanted to convey was the repetition of sound.

The vertical repeated form was driven by instruments and the sound they make—derived from the energy of sound and music and the definition: “Sound is the energy things produce when they vibrate.” We looked to recreate this energy through the vertical repetition of the donor bars to provide a dynamic yet measured aesthetic.

This dynamism was reflected in the forms created throughout. However, there was a real need to avoid being too literal or limiting representation to a single or select number of instruments.

To be inclusive of a broad musical range, the materials needed to be symbolic, so we chose black gloss and gold finishes synonymous with a Steinway piano—with the timber finishes alluding to stringed instruments.

Final Thoughts

Whichever way you look at them, it seems that contemporary donor recognition panels require new thinking

  • They need to be versatile while giving the appearance of permanence in a way that is consistent with their historic and cultural surroundings.
  • They need to communicate a clear message while demonstrating sensitivity to any subtext.
  • They need to be understated enough to be socially acceptable while striking enough to be noticed.
  • And they must react to society’s changing values while authentically connoting a given time.

Alison Richings is the Wayfinding Design Director for London-based Endpoint. Learn more about Alison and Endpoint’s design projects here on the Endpoint website.

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