Welcoming a New Look for the Folger
Launched in Shakespeare's birthday month of April, the Folger's fresh new look includes three typefaces, one of them custom-designed; a palette of black, gray, cream, white, and Folger red; the signature line, reading simply "Folger Shakespeare Library"; and, most strikingly, a bold logo—a distinctively shaped capital letter F with a deep Folger connection.
Together, these elements offer the Folger a new visual identity—a rich system that can adapt to and expand across the full range of the Folger's forms of expression. "What's special about the Folger is its broad platform of expressions: traditional publishing, public programs, exhibitions, its physical siting as a DC destination," and other forms as well, says the acclaimed designer, AIGA medalist, and author Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who designed the visual identity. "It became a case study of the power of connecting all these expressions."
Miller first worked with the Folger in 2016, the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death, when he designed two back-to-back Folger exhibitions: Shakespeare, Life of an Icon and America's Shakespeare. In 2019, he began work on another pair of Folger projects: the visual identity and, simultaneously, work on the signage and environmental graphics for the new garden entrance and exhibition halls.
For the Folger's visual identity, "the highest goal is that it feels authentic to this place," says Miller. "The Folger is a forceful and very solid presence in DC architecturally," with its distinctive building by the architect Paul Cret. "From the outside, there is a definite modernity to the building, which in DC can be camouflaged, because everything has to be very classical with beaux arts proportions, but the grillwork on the building and the mood of the building is very Art Deco in character. It's very much a blending of classical and modernizing tendencies."
"A lot of our thinking was about how to keep the identity feeling vibrant and modern and for everyone." — Abbott Miller, designer, Pentagram
An important goal for the identity project was to speak to the "modernity of Shakespeare," says Miller, which drew him toward the modern, rather than the classical, elements. "A lot of our thinking was about how to keep the identity feeling vibrant and modern and for everyone," he says. "We wanted the Folger to look like it was aware of its past, but operating very much in the present."
The Folger building is also known for its extensive exterior and interior inscriptions and lettering, which include many different styles of lettering developed by Cret and his studio. Of these, the most modern is one that is used in association with a statue of Puck produced for the Folger by Brenda Putnam in 1932. Nowadays, an aluminum copy is displayed outdoors, with the original marble statue on view inside.
Putnam's statue of Puck is distinctively Art Deco, and so is the engraved lettering associated with it, which spells out a playful quote from Puck: "Lord, what fooles these mortals be!" ("Fools" is spelled "fooles," reflecting how the text appears in the 1623 First Folio.) That lettering, says Miller, "has the most expressed Art Deco qualities that you will see in the building."
As Miller began to focus on the Puck lettering, he found that it was unexpectedly similar to Mallory, a typeface by typographer Tobias Frere-Jones that he was already working with for the visual identity. This offered an unusual design opportunity.
"I went back to Tobias," says Miller. "And I said, "Here is a challenge. Your Mallory is already close in proportion to the Puck lettering. Can you 'Puck-ify' Mallory?" Rising to the challenge, Frere-Jones created a new Puck typeface based on Mallory, producing exactly the visual effect that was required.
The Puck typeface is so special and powerful that it is reserved for very specific uses, while Mallory is more typically used as the supporting display typeface. For lengthier, non-display text, the visual identity uses Practice, a typeface by designer François Rappo, from the Swiss type foundry Optimo. Practice is "a really recent, finely drawn font from the Renaissance manuscript tradition," says Miller.
In addition to providing display text, the Puck typeface has done much more. It's supplied the star of the visual identity: the new logo. From the beginning, Miller aimed for a unifying logo, something that would be easily recognized even at a small scale, but distinctive and bold, too. The design process ultimately led to the letter F from the Puck typeface. The letter F has a distinctive shape that is inspired by the lettering near Putnam's statue, but is not identical to it. For the F, the wedgy quality of the F's upper or top bar was brought to the lower crossbar, too, creating an even more intriguing yet versatile shape.
Once this idea was proposed, "Abbott started to design with this type element, the F," says Folger Director Michael Witmore. "It's highly geometric, it is angular, and for that reason, it is very dynamic. He could use it as a designer in ways that were so interesting and powerful. When you see a really talented designer start to just create one thing after another, inspired by the design element—he did a tote bag, he did a book spine, he did magazine covers, T-shirts, theater posters—it's like when someone learns a new verb that they can conjugate and suddenly they can say twenty sentences. That's when I realized that not only does this logo express the heart and soul of our own history, it also expresses an attitude, and an opportunity, to fill in the spaces in a new way."
As part of the visual identity, the design team has also crafted many specific ways to combine the logo and the "Folger Shakespeare Library" signature, which is in the Mallory typeface. The signature text can be to the right or the left, at different scales, inside or outside the F, and so on. In each case, says Miller, "our strategy was staging it so that the F is the hero of the visual identity and the "Folger Shakespeare Library" is the caption to that hero."
As for selecting the F from the Puck typeface as the Folger's new logo, Miller says, "I just remember feeling that there's a letter form that's very specific and very own-able, and that this is something that comes from a place, and it comes from a really good moment, the Puck statue. So the fact that this was rooted in the Puck statue, and connected so well with the building, made it really delightful."
Esther Ferington is an editor, writer, and content developer based in Alexandria, Virginia.