Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Environmental Graphics, Branding, and Signage

Ready for Prime Time

A new brand and wayfinding signage bring clarity, scale, and drama to a venerable Los Angeles icon.

When the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County chose to renovate its existing facilities instead of spending $300 million on a new building, it knew that more than just the physical environment needed to change. To stay relevant, the museum needed to rethink its very mission and the way it engages with visitors and patrons.

“It was an institutional turnaround,” says Cynthia Wornham, the museum’s vice president of marketing and communications. “There was a dramatic internal change away from being more introspective and research-driven and toward inspiring discovery and encouraging our visitors to respond to the natural and cultural world.”

In short, like many other museums, it needed to change its image from “a place where dead things live” to “a place where exciting things are happening right now.”

A branding rehaul by Kim Baer Design Associates (KBDA, Los Angeles) laid the foundation for this turnaround, and wayfinding signage by Carbone Smolan Agency (New York) brought the brand to life in three dimensions—adding scale, drama, and a new clarity to a complex space and rich collections.

Brand new

When KBDA was commissioned to develop a new brand for the museum, the goals were clear: increase the museum’s attendance, fundraising potential, and visibility.

Principal Kim Baer embarked on a road trip to explore how other world-class natural history museums were expressing their brand personality, and her team interviewed key stakeholders and completed a 360-degree audit of the museum to examine “the entire arc of their relationships with visitors and potential donors—from how they attract people to come in the first place to what kinds of experiences they have while they’re in the museum.”

The museum had a few obstacles to overcome, including a less-than-cohesive architectural presence. The museum is actually made up of three different buildings: the legacy building, completed in 1913, is a classic Beaux Arts structure with stately interior columns, coffered ceilings, and travertine and marble walls and floors. A 1920s addition was less than sympathetic to the Beaux Arts style, and in the 1970s, another addition included a new entrance in the Brutalist style.

The additive architecture made for a complex and confusing place to navigate. Inside, the lobby was an uninviting space cluttered with vestiges of several different signage systems, none of which helped visitors through the maze of exhibit halls. And poor lighting throughout the facility only worsened the problem.

“We knew from research that the space was intimidating and confusing to people, even unwelcoming,” says Baer. “They weren’t spending as much time as we knew they should in a museum of this size and quality.”

Ultimately, Baer recommended changes to just about every visitor touchpoint, from the building façade to the website and from the lobby to the exhibition halls. And her team helped the museum rearticulate its mission in a new way: sophisticated but friendly, witty but credible, serious but not ponderous, and reflective of a new, vibrant energy that is projected outward, not in.

Arriving at that point required a crucial step, Baer recalls. “What they didn’t talk about in the beginning--but that was ultimately most crucial--was helping galvanize internally who they were and how they would present themselves to their audience. We had to find the sweet spot between who they are, their strengths, what’s important to the staff, and how that meets up with what their audience is asking of them.”

Weapons of mass distraction

When it came to designing the actual visitor experience, Baer knew she would need a partner experienced in using the physical environment to express the brand.

“Both Kim and the museum team realized that they could design a great logo, a dynamic website, wonderful ad campaigns, and beautiful brochures, but if someone walks into the museum and the promise of the brand is not delivered, you have a huge problem,” says Ken Carbone, chief creative director for Carbone Smolan. “That’s where we came in.”

Carbone knew the wayfinding signage needed not only to welcome visitors to the museum and help them navigate through the site, but also to bridge the three styles of architecture and draw attention away from the less-than-ideal physical condition to the museum’s rich collections.

“Our job was to focus attention where we wanted it—to create weapons of mass distraction,” he explains.

KBDA had already developed a strong graphic vocabulary for the brand, including contemporary-but-approachable typefaces (Chronicle for serif type and FF Kievit for sans-serif) rendered in white on black backgrounds. Jewel-like photographs of museum specimens also pop from dramatic black backgrounds. To this kit of parts, Carbone Smolan added new rules for three-dimensional graphics: Think big. Think bold. Add clarity through contrast. And use the scale of the building (including vast expanses of wall) to best advantage.

“We said, why take a postage stamp approach? From the front door, we quadrupled the scale of everything because the building could take it,” explains Carbone. “And we all started to see the collections in a new and exciting way.”

Scale not only added drama, but clarified wayfinding issues and helped draw attention to exhibit halls down vast expanses of corridor. Large-scale hall identifiers can be seen from long distances. “We knew people would intuitively use these huge-scaled photos and graphics as landmarks,” says Baer. “They became beacons. We hear people say ‘I’ll meet you at the cheetah!’”

Pilot light

An early project gave the team an opportunity to pilot test the strength of the environmental graphics approach. During construction of the new Age of Mammals exhibit, generic plywood barriers closed off the exhibit hall to visitor traffic.

“We thought, why not take the whole 40-ft. expanse and use it to actually create some excitement about the museum’s other exhibits?” says Carbone. So, much to visitors’ delight, super-scaled graphics were mounted to plywood and placed in the closed entrances. “We converted the message from ‘Do Not Enter’ to ‘Look at these wonderful things our museum has to offer!’”

Flexed for success

After delivering an audit of the museum’s existing wayfinding and signage, Carbone Smolan helped the client prioritize opportunities for graphic intervention. In the run-up to the opening of its Age of Mammals hall last summer, the main lobby was renovated and new signage and wayfinding added to the first floor. Second-floor wayfinding has since been installed and a new donor recognition program will be added soon.

Recognizing that the museum will be “in motion” for the next five years as exhibits are closed down for refurbishing and visitors are rerouted around them, Carbone knew the signage should be designed for relatively quick and easy updating. So the team developed a layered system consisting of a semi-permanent “hero panel” (specimen image) overlaid by an information panel made of an architectural mesh fabric by Dazian Fabrics.

“The idea was that we would have a relatively inexpensive way of changing the mesh wayfinding panel without having to change the whole structure,” notes Carbone. “The armature designed to hold the mesh panel is fixed, but the panel can be removed and replaced easily.”

With flexibility in mind, the design team also considered digital signage. Ultimately, they opted for digital monitors only behind the lobby desk. “We were very mindful of how much digital equipment should be used in institutions of this kind, as well as the long-term costs of maintenance,” says Carbone. “In the end, we felt we didn’t need a ‘hard delivery’ of information. We felt there was something gracious and soft about the mesh in an environment that is somewhat hard and muscular.”

Finding the right mesh required some research and testing to ensure that it hung well, could be removed and replaced easily, and printed well, says Patti Drum, vice president of design for primary fabricator Lexington Design & Fabrication (Los Angeles). “We were also mindful that the printing quality needed to look consistent across all the different materials used in the installation.”

“A” for attendance

If attendance is any indication, the wayfinding and other physical improvements made to the museum have been a major success. Visitorship is up 40% since the Age of Mammals exhibit opened last summer, and visitor surveys include rave reviews of the overall experience, including improved navigation.

Perhaps even more important, giving is up. The museum is in the middle of a $135 million capital campaign that runs through 2013, its 100th anniversary. So far, $83 million has been raised, and recently a $13 million gift was made to build a new pavilion on the front of the museum.

“There’s great momentum now, and branding and signage have both activated and perpetuated that momentum,” says Wornham. “People who haven’t attended for a while, or those who haven’t made contributions, are coming forward now because they see that something new and wonderful is going on, and they want to be a part of it.” 

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011


Location:  Los Angeles

Client:  Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Client Team:  Jane Pisano (president and director), Karen Wise (vice president of exhibits and education), Cynthia Wornham (vice president of marketing and communications), Nancy Batlin (director of creative services), Julia Rivera (director of marketing)

Brand Strategy and Identity:  Kim Baer Design Associates

Brand and Identity Team:  Kim Baer, Allison Bloss (creative directors); Elizabeth Salud (designer)

Wayfinding and Signage Design:  Carbone Smolan Agency

Design Team:  Ken Carbone (principal), Joseph Eicher (project manager), Bob Callahan (senior designer), Amy Wang (designer)

Fabrication:  Lexington Fabricators (primary fabricator), Artex (banner fabric), Dazian Fabrics (mesh fabric), Cisco (digital signage), xx (dimensional letters), xx (exterior graphics ??)

Consultants:  Imaginary Forces (digital content)

Construction:  Cordell Corporation

Photos:  Tom Bonner

New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

2023 SEGD Academic Summit
2023 Wayfinding and Placemaking
2023 Experience Washington D.C.