Speed Art Museum's Promise, Witness, Remembrance Gets an Assist From Design Studio Team
Promise, Witness, Remembrance, the Speed Art Museum’s latest exhibit, honors the life of Breonna Taylor. Not only does the show reflect on Taylor’s murder at the hands of the Louisville police, but it explores the loss of countless Black lives to gun violence in the US.
Those three words that make up the exhibit's name come from Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, and they divide the show into three crucial segments. “Promise” finds artists discussing the origins of our country and its founding, along with the symbolism that speaks to the realities of our ideologies. With “Witness,” they explore the moment we find ourselves in, with a country that exploded in protest last summer after police murdered Taylor and George Floyd. Finally, in “Remembrance,” they honor the Black lives lost to gun violence and the ongoing legacy of police brutality in the US.
Curated by Allison Glenn, the exhibition features both artists from the Louisville area and the national scene, like Lorna Simpson, Nick Cave, Nari Ward, and Bethany Collins. Perhaps the biggest draw to the exhibit, however, is Amy Sherald’s powerful portrait of Breonna Taylor that graced the cover of Vanity Fair.
But even when organizing a museum program of this nature, you still need other visual assets to frame the entirety of the affair. Strategic design studio Team created the verbal identity and typography used throughout the exhibition, with design lead Aida ElBaradei taking visual cues from epigraphs while adapting a typeface from one of the first known Black typeface designers. We spoke with Team about their less is more approach and how they tackled the consequential and necessary exhibition.
How did you come to get involved with the project?
John Clark, co-founder and creative director: Team was brought in by the strategists at Cultural Counsel, the PR firm that collaborated with Speed, to develop the public relations and social media strategy for the exhibition. We have collaborated with them on many campaigns, including the launch of the Bronx Museum of the Art’s Bronx Ball and the rebrand of Red Bull Arts.
What was your design process here? Can you tell me about the verbal identity and use of typography?
Aida ElBaradei, senior designer: Typography plays a huge role in this exhibition—we iterated through a variety of type treatments and drew inspiration from Black type designers like Joshua Darden, who gets credited as one of the first known African American type designers, and Tré Seals, whose work draws from the visual language of Civil Rights protest signs. In the end, we settled on Darden's Freight typeface. Freight is a graceful serif that pairs gravitas with elegance, reinforcing the power of the exhibition without distracting from the artwork itself.
Nicole Wang, senior designer: We selected galaxy black for the exhibit to complement Breonna Taylor’s portrait and favorite colors—a mix of blues and purples. We intentionally used it as the hero color for the visual identity. The heaviness of Galaxy black is an appropriate match for the weight of the show, and the color’s subtle depth gives it a transcendent quality, serving as a powerful accompaniment without creating a clashing color palette. In the web experience, we fade from Galaxy black to pure black, creating a subtle differentiation between the microsite and exhibit.
Devin Sager, associate creative director: Time: Allison Glenn broke the exhibition into three segments of Promise, Witness, and Remembrance (she elegantly describes the purpose of these three categories here) that naturally alluded to the tenses of past, present, and future. We felt the text should be dynamic in the sense of where to allude to the ever-shifting moment and perception for that particular segment of the exhibition, but not any concrete moment in time.
Throughout the exhibit, the placement of Promise, Witness, Remembrance is dynamic and ever-changing—signaling to the viewer that we should view each work through a shifting lens of time and place. What do Promise, Witness, Remembrance mean not just today, but how have they changed in the past 50 years? And what will the next 50 years look like?
What about other elements like interface design and motion graphics?
Ioan Buitu, user experience and interface designer: Our goal for the microsite was to create a fluid experience that presents the artwork as the audience’s primary focus. The user experience design evolved from a splash page we designed announcing the exhibit to a resource and tool for reflection. Each evolution of the site incorporated the subtle timeline design to situate the viewer with the work and the exhibit’s eponymous themes, whether they can visit the exhibition in person or not.
This is such a crucial exhibit in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd's murder in 2020, as well as the legacy of police brutality and systemic racism in the US. How do you approach this kind of project and visually frame it?
Samantha Kassay, creative producer: In developing the design for Promise, Witness, Remembrance, it was of the utmost importance that we were sensitive to the serious subject matter of the exhibition. For this reason, to focus on anything other than type and color was superfluous, as would be any design elements that detracted or overshadowed the art. As such, we collaborated closely with Allison Glenn and key community stakeholders through an in-depth workshop and goal alignment session, as well as a series of reviews to create the microsite and identity, ensuring the curatorial vision was front and center.
What was it about the project that resonated with you?
Amy Globus, co-founder, creative director: We felt this project was an opportunity to lift up an important story—but we also didn’t want the exhibition design to be in any way the focus. The input of Allison, The Speed, and community stakeholders was essential to creating a poignant identity that treats such a challenging subject with grace and the appropriate tone.
We were inspired by Glenn’s clear vision, “to explore the dualities between a personal, local story and the nation’s reflection on the promise, witness, and remembrance of too many Black lives lost to gun violence.”
Glenn’s vision pushed us to look at the exhibition and the individual pieces through the context of time. We used the dynamic positioning of the typography and the subtle palette to question the fundamental role time plays in understanding how we Promise, Witness, and Remember—as well as where we’ve been as a nation and where we might be in the future.
The work was also a good opportunity for us to reflect and learn. As a studio, we’ve been reckoning with how systemic racism and white supremacy affect the work we do and how we can use our output to promote the voices of artists and designers who may not always have the same opportunities which many of us in the studio are afforded. We don’t have all the answers, but this past year has been a lesson in leaving space for acknowledging our own privileges and learning to listen.