Museum of Science Finds A Friend in the Akko™ Typeface

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“I wanted to create a design that melded the Cooper Black™ and the DIN typefaces,” acknowledges Akira Kobayashi, type director at Monotype, about his Akko™ typeface. “Cooper for the warmth it brings to a page and DIN for its almost cool persona. I’ve always had a weakness for round sans, and Cooper Black has fascinated me since I was a teenager. So, I tried to design a sans serif with both softness and a modern demeanor.”

As it happened, this particular combination of design traits was not only deeply appealing to Kobayashi, but also exactly what the exhibit designers at the Museum of Science, Boston, were looking for in 2011. To brand the new, permanent Hall of Human Life (HHL) exhibit, Emily Marsh, senior exhibits graphic designer at the museum, says, “We wanted the main typeface to be contemporary, friendly and approachable. We have a wide range of visitors, so we needed the typeface to be something that both children and adults would respond well to.”

Museum of Science, akko

Boston’s Premier Cultural Institution: Museum of Science

Museum of Science, Boston, opened in1864, as the New England Museum of Natural History, at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston Streets in Boston’s Back Bay. It relocated to the present site, just north of downtown Boston, in 1951, and the museum has grown to become one of the world’s largest science centers. It is also Boston’s most highly attended cultural institution, attracting about 1.5 million visitors a year through its rich, diverse programs and over 700 interactive exhibits.

Museum of Science, Akko

Image Courtesy of Michael Malyszko

The museum team began discussing the HHL exhibit late in 2009. “The project had a much longer gestation period than most exhibits,” recalls exhibit project manager Caroline Angel Burke. “This was to be a very special exhibit – a collection of installation, program, and media experiences that offers visitors a thoroughly contemporary understanding of human biology – and their personal relationship to it. It’s also the largest major permanent exhibition developed at the museum since the 1990s.”

It would also be an exhibit with some special issues to contend with. “We would be challenging visitors with a vast amount of content,” says Marsh. We knew that the first way they would grasp the exhibit subject matter was through our use of a typeface that makes the text approachable and readable. The physical layout, type and graphic design all work really well together – they feel approachable rather than overwhelming. That may seem like a subtle thing, but I think it’s a huge feat.”

“We needed to avoid the ‘scary medical device’ or ‘hospital’ look and feel that might come with some of the exhibit’s more difficult subject matter,” echoes Malorie Landgreen, who collaborated with Marsh on the graphic design. “Our goal was to go in the opposite direction through the use of natural colors and a typeface that would give the exhibit an approachable, but scientifically-friendly look and feel.” Again, Kobayashi’s Akko™ typeface comfortably fit the brief.

Akko’s Credentials

When they typeface was released in 2011, it was described in the following way: “Akko™ is meticulously crafted and blends beauty, legibility and versatility, a perfect combination for a broad range of applications, from small-sized text on mobile displays to billboard-sized ads that make a clear and distinctive statement.”

Museum of Science, Akko

Image Credit: Vikki Quick

The Akko™ typeface from Monotype is the main brand identity font for the Hall of Human Life, the new permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston. In addition to Akko’s appearance on screen and in print throughout the 10,000 square-foot exhibition, the typeface is used in 3D signage as part of several exhibit stations (such as above), crafted to draw visitors into various interactive settings to fuel discovery and curiosity about what it’s like to be human.

As it turns out, these qualities are excellent for exhibit design. “When we began looking at typefaces,” recollects Marsh, “we wanted to be sure that the small informational copy would be as legible as the titles and headers – the big impact words. Both the text and display copy needed to be easy to read. We also wanted the typeface to seem commanding.”

“A bold weight was important for the many big titles and the exhibit headers,” she continues. “We also needed something fairly condensed so that we could get a lot of words on a line and create a visual impression of a band of color. And finally, we knew that HHL would have large 3D-letter titles. Akko™ came up a winner again because its bold weight has so much surface area.”

A Skeleton of Another Kind

“I used a single design skeleton for the Akko™ series,” Kobayashi says about his design. “My initial concept was to create a sans serif typeface with a somewhat rounded influence. The overall impression was to be an affable design – although its structure would also have a hint of German Textura type.”

As the design developed, however, Kobayashi realized that a second, “unrounded” typeface was a natural outgrowth of the basic letterforms – and this became the foundation for the Akko typeface – the design chosen by the Museum of Science. Kobayashi was still drawn to a softer version of the design, and that became the Akko Rounded side of the family.

Museum of Science, Akko

Image Credit: Vikki Quick

Designed by Akira Kobayashi, type director at Monotype, the 24-font Akko™ family is a sans serif design that offers a large x-height, which makes the typeface appear larger and easier to read, and slightly condensed proportions to help maintain legibility. Kobayashi also designed the characters to hold an even texture, regardless of text size. Akko’s techno, yet human, qualities made it an ideal branding choice, providing a consistent look-and-feel on screen, in print, and as part of the exhibit architecture.

The Akko™ typeface, which takes its name from the first two letters of Kobayashi’s first and last names, represents a departure from Kobayashi’s collaborative work with legendary designers Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger. The Akko suite consists of two typeface families, Akko and Akko Rounded. “I wanted to create a sans serif typeface with rounded corners,” he said. “Then I began to see a more ‘industrial’ design, with the straightforward feel of the DIN Next™ typeface, but also with curved strokes and ‘soft’ proportions.” Akko is robust and struc
tured, according to Kobayashi, while Akko Rounded is softer and friendly.

Much More Than Letters

While most people think of a typeface as a collection of individual characters, Kobayashi is quick to point out that letters are not the only elements that make a good typeface design. Many typeface designers are as concerned about the spaces between letters as they are about the character shapes themselves. The interplay between the letters and their surrounding space can enhance – or undermine – typeface legibility and readability. “Sometimes it seems that I spend more time worrying about white space than I do designing the letterforms,” Kobayashi explains.

In designing the Akko family, Kobayashi also paid particular attention to the character counters, and to the places where strokes join. The subtly curved diagonal strokes of characters like the A,V, K, v and y ensure that no “dark spots” in the characters would distract from the smooth reading of text copy.

Although Kobayashi is deeply immersed in digital technology, he still starts his design process with pencil and paper. “I always sketch on paper, normally drawing about ten to twenty characters by hand before I begin working on my computer. Then, I design the rest on screen.”

Design Considerations

“In addition to its overall inviting quality, the large counters also attracted us to Akko,” says Marsh. “And, of course, its slightly condensed letterforms – even in the bold weight – allowed us to pack more information into a space and still maintain clear communication. Many sans serifs can become nearly impossible to read from a distance as their weight increases. It’s obvious that every weight of Akko was carefully designed. I can feel the love of detail and crafting in the family.”

Type size and color were also important factors for the HHL graphic designers. Type always performs best when set in black, but the HHL typography would use color to create hierarchy and build brand. “We knew that the large type could not be just black. We wanted to reverse it out of bands in various colors, which needed to be vibrant and inviting,” says Landgreen. HHL has five branding colors, ranging from a deep yellow to a rich blue. Landgreen and Marsh required a typeface that could render well in a variety of colors and in a wide range of environments. “Akko creates a strong presence when set in a color, and it is powerful enough to reverse out of yellow.” She adds, “The large 3D typography in Akko is especially compelling.”

“And then there is the issue of type size,” adds Marsh. “The smallest typeface representation is nine-point, which is on the exhibit wristbands, and the largest is about 1,000-point, which is on our logo on the donor wall. That’s a 14-inch cap height, so it’s pretty large.”

The Challenges of Implementing Akko

The choice of Akko family, however, was not without a few hurdles for Landgreen and Marsh. “We spent a lot of time and physical effort working with our 3D designers to maintain the integrity of Akko,” recalls Marsh. “For example, we created a lot of templates for our fabricators to ensure proper kerning of the face when it was translated into three-dimensional letters. We could not count on non-typographers getting it right.”

The range of physical settings in which the Akko family is used in the exhibit also presented challenges. Because the museum’s hands-on exhibits are subject to years of enthusiastic use by visitors, durability is critical. When attaching the three-dimensional versions of the Akko letters on the variety of surfaces in the exhibit area, it was important to guarantee that the bond would be permanent.

Building the HHL Brand

Museum of Science

The Akko typeface is an integral part of the HHL brand, expressing the exhibit’s personality in a memorable way. Throughout the 10,000 square-foot space, it appears on screen, in print, and in the large three-dimensional signage at several exhibit stations. “The signage is intended to draw visitors into various interactive settings, to pique their curiosity and fuel discovery,” says Marsh. “We love how Akko looks throughout the exhibit, and we appreciate how everyone is drawn to the typography, even people who don’t know a thing about typefaces.”

Visitors at the HHL are invited to engage with more than 70 interactive exhibit elements to explore how the human body works, and how factors such as environmental circumstances, personal choices, physical attributes, diet, age, and living conditions can impact daily life. As visitors journey through the exhibit, they may also take part in gathering and reporting anonymous data in an unending process of learning and discovery – with all the exhibit elements branded using the Akko™ typeface.

Exhibit Design: It’s About Critical Thinking

Few go to school specifically to be an exhibit graphic designer. It’s typically more “on the job training.” According to Landgreen and Marsh, however, the ability to be a critical thinker is key to success as an exhibit designer. While both designers attended the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University, they stress that the program focused on critical thinking.

“At the Museum of Science, our job is to ensure that each exhibit is designed to optimize the visitor experience,” says Landgreen. “We focus both on how visitors will understand the information being presented and how they will engage with the exhibit themes within the physical space.”

“To add to the complication,” says Marsh, “exhibit design is unique – and the materials are quite different from other kinds of design. We begin the design process on paper, but the entire exhibit space – and all its parts need to be considered. The thought process is different and critical thinking is vital to a successful outcome.”

Collaboration Is Key

Perhaps unlike some design projects, the process of designing an exhibit is highly collaborative. “Many things just shouldn’t be done in isolation,” says Landgreen. “For every exhibit, in each part of the development process – especially here at the Museum of Science – you need to first work from the emotional side of your brain. You’re considering what looks good and feels good from a design standpoint. But then you have to reach into the cerebral side and think about durability, visitor appeal, total exhibit cohesiveness – considerations that are pragmatic.”

The design duo began the project by working with the 3D design team to determine the basic building materials. “Picking the correct materials to work with was our first task,” recalls Marsh. “We needed to start thinking about the different forms that the exhibit could take, and then did sketches in pen and paper.” This initial collaboration led to the finer details of what the graphics actually looked like.

“The next step was to seek feedback from the rest of our internal exhibit team, including technical designers as well as from our many outside fabricators,” Landgreen continues. “Emily and I conceived of the initial graphic ideas for HHL but then we needed to ensure that they were sound from an implementation and durability standpoint.”

Marsh elaborates, “We start by thinking about the different forms that the exhibit can take, and then do sketches with pen and paper, and then share these with our colleagues. This collaboration leads to establishing the finer de
tails of the exhibit.”

Lighting is a good example of teamwork. Marsh and Landgreen first “rough out” the exhibit lighting in their offices, but then they need the best possible sense of how it will perform in the exhibit space. “We have to color test with the exhibit fabricators to know what will be just right – whether to add a little bit more pink or a little more blue. Small changes can make a very big difference – and this is part of the joy and the challenge of exhibit design. Everything aligned beautifully for HHL.”

Much of the early development phase was devoted to creating drafts and mock-ups to share with the rest of the exhibit development team. Landgreen and Marsh made countless presentations. Most went well – though some less so – and once in a while the team shared an “aha” moment that turbocharged the design process.

“HHL has definitely met my expectations,” says Marsh. “It is, by far, the largest exhibit I’ve ever worked on. Today, it is pretty incredible to walk into the gallery. What was on my computer screen is now up there, huge and in functioning form. When I’m in the exhibit, I take a step back and smile at how well it all came together.”

Get more behind the scenes coverage of the Museum of Science exhibit.

More Resources:

Have a taste for type? Check out Denise Bosler’s Mastering Typography course for a more in-depth look at letterforms and how they impact your designs.

Or, dig into the Mastering Type Download Collection for a comprehensive look at type and how to make the best choices for your designs.