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New Work: California Academy of Sciences


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On September 27th, the California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, reopened in an iconic new building designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. In the 154 years since the Academy’s founding, science museums have evolved far beyond the Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities. The $488 million, all-green, LEED® Platinum Certified building not only physically represents a new chapter in the institution’s long history, but celebrates a new kind of museum experience—one that is dynamic, thriving, interconnected and all about the natural world. The new Academy is, uniquely, a natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium and four-story rainforest, all under one living roof. And Kit Hinrichs and Laura Scott have designed a program of identity, environmental graphics and collateral print materials that definitively rebrand the institution as a vibrant, living museum.


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After the California Academy of Sciences’ existing building was structurally damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the museum faced the challenge of rebuilding its physical presence at the same time that it saw a gradual decline in attendance and membership. The result is Piano’s innovative 410,000-square-foot building that dramatically complements San Francisco’s hilly terrain. Referencing the landscape, seven domes of various sizes appear as hills in the 2.5-acre living roof, which has been planted with nine native species of California plant life. The two largest domes are spheres that contain the planetarium (and below that, the aquarium) and the rainforest.

Pentagram’s identity is similarly integrated into the museum experience. Woven out of organic curves inspired by the roof, the new identity has been described as “The Fabric of Life.” Radiating outward from a center oculus, the symbol appears to be growing—reinforcing the cyclical and dynamic nature of the natural sciences. Based on the Whitney typeface by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, the customized logotype grounds the symbol, echoing the horizontal format of the building. The colors of the symbol speak specifically to the Academy’s location and mission: international orange is strongly connected to San Francisco (the color of the Golden Gate Bridge) and the architectural details within the Academy’s new building; green represents life and the natural world; and gray reflects the city’s famous fog and the concrete building (and to those in the know, its LEED® Platinum-level rating).

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To launch the first public expression of the new brand, Pentagram designed the Academy’s development campaign materials, including brochures, quarterly newsletters and a stationery system. All were created to aid in the $488 million public phase of the campaign, the largest fundraising effort in San Francisco’s history. The theme “Life Stories” was developed for the campaign, and each piece brought to life stories of the people who have infused their passion into or have been impassioned by the Academy—be they staff, donors, docents, enthusiasts, volunteers, researchers, scientists, aspiring scientists or wide-eyed kids. Photography across all pieces was vibrant, witty and engaging, and the identity’s color palette graphically united the campaign. Each of the pieces was also designed to have an unexpected element of surprise, whether it be a unique fold that reveals new programs, a photograph with a twist, or scale that is larger than life.


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As part of the campaign, the entire membership experience, from enrollment to fulfillment, was rethought and redesigned for both members and donors. The membership collateral program focuses on how the Academy fosters lifelong curiosity and is the place to find answers about the natural world. Membership brochure covers provocatively ask “Why Join?” And membership fulfillment collateral continues that conversational, questioning tone by providing the answers to questions like “What will I experience?,” “How can I dive deeper?” and “How can I have a bigger impact?”

The donor program used the message “Get Closer” to emphasize the more customized relationship one would have with the Academy at higher giving levels. Formatted in a perfect square, all photography showcases a tightly cropped detail of a specimen, creature or planet—zooming in so tightly that the image becomes abstracted, as if one were looking at it through a microscope. Soft coral starts to look like flowers, the shape of a chameleon tail like a coiled fern, and fish scales like a beautiful watercolor painting.

Membership cards were printed on recycled plastic and issued for the lifetime of the member. The Academy’s reopening has been met with unprecedented enthusiasm; at the time of opening, membership had nearly doubled to over 30,000 from 16,019 when the Academy temporarily closed in 2004.


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Part of the new membership collateral program was the redesign of the member publication. Launched with a new name—LIVE, from the California Academy of Sciences—the redesign captures the energy, ingenuity and global impact of the researchers and scientists at the Academy.

The publication was launched with a slightly wider format to feel more like a magazine, and the content was completely restructured to make scientific information more accessible, interesting and fun for all ages. Specimens—even the creepy and ugly ones—are proudly showcased as bold silhouettes, and the popular Skyguide section has been expanded to put the reader in a stargazing mood. A pull-out calendar of events and programs stitches into the center spread, creating a handy way to keep the Academy’s schedule available for easy reference. A more creative approach is taken with feature articles (in the first issue, trap-jaw ants swarm to create a headline), researchers and members have a voice through clever Q&As, and each scientist’s expedition is always located in the world on a map—the same map used as a locating device throughout the museum.


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Hinrichs and Scott also developed the branding, banner and donor wall signage for the Academy. With a fully glazed entrance, branding the entry was a challenge. Instead of emblazoning the building with the logo, the designers proposed a solution that would make a visitor look down as well as up. As if emerging out of the ground, a 21-foot-diameter logo of three different colors of granite was inset into the concrete entryway. At this scale, the width of the logo’s lines measured nearly seven inches; architect Renzo Piano envisioned children tracing the lines of the logo with their feet, creating an interactive exhibit before visitors even enter the Academy’s doors.


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Working within a pre-determined size and placement from Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Kit Hinrichs and Laura Scott designed the museum’s exterior and interior banners. To bring life and graphic energy to the building’s facade, large, iconic images were selected to represent the three major components of the Academy—the Kimball Natural History Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium. The banners use engaging, larger-than-life photography and a black background that contrasts with the neutral gray building. One can’t help but smile back at the grinning Chameleon and bulbous California Garibaldi Fish.

Taking their cue from the exterior banners, the interior banners also use one strong iconic image to represent the four exhibit areas on the main floor. Functioning as both large graphics and wayfinding, the banners are color coded to coordinate with the graphic panels hung throughout each exhibit area. Printed on double-sided mesh to give them a translucent, ethereal quality, the banners are non-obstructive and fully integrate into the space.


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The designers also created a series of donor walls, including a wall for major donors, a wall for the academy’s annual fund, and a community supporters’ wall. Adjacent to the Swamp, the major donor wall is a permanent installation of 288, six-inch-square glass blocks resembling “specimen boxes” that have been etched with the names of donors who have contributed $50,000 or more to the new Academy. With 20 million specimens and counting catalogued in the Academy’s collection, it seemed natural to have the donor wall celebrate this treasure. A contemporary interpretation of the traditional specimen box, each glass block is a “glass sandwich” printed with a picture of a specimen to give the impression that an actual specimen is inside. Giving levels are visually defined by four different categories of specimen—butterflies, starfish, beetles and the California poppy—giving the wall a colorful and random pattern while complementing the architecture’s strong grid.

Pentagram worked with Kate Keating & Associates, who implemented the wayfinding signage, to create an integrated program of environmental graphics and wayfinding.


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The community supporter wall, a permanent installation on the third level of the Academy (on the way up to the roof terrace), is all about discovery. The idea was to create a contemporary interpretation of an embedded fossil wall as a scientific and textural backdrop to the donor names. To bring the idea to life, Kit Hinrichs and Laura Scott partnered with concrete designer and architect Fu-Tung Cheng.

Interpreted and created by Cheng, the installation uses the concrete that is such a fundamental part of the architecture to create a piece of art. The base of the installation rises out of the floor with embedded artifacts that reference glacial striations. The entire wall, in fact, is based on science: the golden rectangle and Fibonacci spiral. A nautilus shell fossil dating from 250,000,000 B.C. is placed at the golden section of the rectangle, and embedded objects and molded concrete radiate from that point. Peer between the rows of silkscreened names and you’ll see spaceships, planets, a recycled carburetor, crystals, antique watch parts, fossils and an imprint of the Academy’s living roof—all celebrating the scientific foundation of the Academy. As with the other two donor walls, names were typeset in Whitney, the base typeface for the Academy’s logotype.


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Pentagram also designed identities and environmental graphics for The Morgan Library and Museum and The New York Times Building, both designed by Renzo Piano.

Project Team: Kit Hinrichs, partner-in-charge; Laura Scott, associate; Takayo Muroga.
Consultants: Kate Keating Associates, Martinelli Environmental Graphics, Ostrum Glass & Metalworks (major donor wall); Fu-Tung Cheng (community supporter wall).