Art Behind the Scenes

What typeface is the Milwaukee Art Museum?

"Milwaukee Art Museum" in various sizes of the Weiss font.

A sense of competition led me to learn a little more about typography this week. What started as a challenge from a friend to best his score on the wonderful online Kern Type: The Kerning Game, became an interest in examining the typefaces, or fonts, that surround me here at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Museum has a specific graphic identity that unites our signage, publications, website, and even the circular stickers visitors wear in the galleries. Our graphic design team of Leslie Boll, Sierra Korthof, and Brenda Neigbauer make certain that all our printed materials look snazzy and unique, but also that they incorporate identifying elements, like our specific shade of blue and the same fonts. Part of their responsibility is to make everything produced by the Museum have the Museum branded look.

I was curious about the names and history of the fonts that I see in the Museum’s galleries and billboards, so I met with the design team about typefaces they use to create the Milwaukee Art Museum identity.

If you loved the documentary Helvetica, you would have loved our conversation.

The designers first told me the background of our Museum logo.  The words “Milwaukee Art Museum” are almost always shown in a font called Weiss Antiqua (or, Weiss Roman).

"Milwaukee Art Museum" in Weiss Antiqua. Photo by the author.

Our design team uses the Weiss font for branding the Museum name on all types of materials, like the signage you see just above, but also throughout the Museum’s permanent collection galleries for most of the object labels, like you see below.

Weiss Antiqua font used on Milwaukee Art Museum object label. Photo by the

Book designer and typographer Emil Rudolf Weiss (German, 1875-1943) developed his namesake family of fonts in the late 1920s. Weiss is a “serif” style font, meaning it has the little dash details (serifs) on the ends of some of the strokes. Fonts without these little structural dashes are called sans-serif, or without serif.

"Milwaukee Art Museum" in Weiss Antiqua font. Photo by the author.

The design of the Weiss letters is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance typography. During the Italian Renaissance, book makers and scribes moved from heavy Gothic-era lettering (like the style shown here in a ca. 1490 English book by William Caxton) to the classical lettering styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

"Milwaukee Art Museum" in Weiss Antiqua font on Members tote bag.

In a great example of how designs transfer through history, the lettering that Emil  Weiss designed in the late 1920s, that copied Italian printing of the 1400s, actually owes its inspiration to the Classics. Doesn’t Weiss look exactly like the Roman stone capital letter inscriptions shown here with a plaque from the Arch of Titus from 81 A.D?

I think this style font conveys the perfect visual message for the Museum. Weiss shows an interest in art history by referencing three great art moments–the Ancient world, art’s European Renaissance, and German art of the early 20th century. When you ponder its influences, you see that Weiss font subtly conveys these historic artistic moments, but at the same time it also manages to be visually light and modern. I think the font describes what we try to do at the Museum–We show art history and contemplate the heavy ideas of the past, but we also strive to inspire contemporary thoughts.

In a much more modern style font, the design team shared that they rely on Myriad Pro for additional Museum signage, especially for materials they create for the Visitors Services team. Myriad Pro is known for its ease of readability and a sense of openness and friendliness, which makes perfect sense for Museum signage. It is the first things many visitors will read when they stand at the admission desks and read the sign below.

Myriad Pro font used on Milwaukee Art Museum signage. Photo by the author.

Myriad Pro was developed by type designers Carol Twombly and Robert Slimbach in 1992 for Adobe Systems.

Myriad Pro used on Milwaukee Art Musuem signage. Photo by the author.

Myriad is a contemporary font that was designed especially with typography on a computer in mind. It has been used since 2002 as Apple Computers’ font, and is used extensively for company signage including Walmart and Wells Fargo bank.

Museum graphic designer Sierra Korthof noted that she enjoys using Myriad for the Museum because the font family offers a lot of different weights that mix and match beautifully. (Font “weight” refers to the thickness or thinness of the characters.)

For the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Member magazine, the MAM Insider, the designers use a mix of Stag Sans and Meta Pro.

Stag Sans is used throughout the MAM insider for titles. As you can see in the picture below, the font family of Stag Sans offers a lot of variety in weights. The chunky word “MAM” and the thin letters saying “Accidental Genius” and “Impressionism” are the same font. If that doesn’t seem quite clear, you can examine the Stag Sans charts at the Schwartzco website to see all the versions lined up clearly.

Stag Sans font used in the MAM Insider magazine. Photo by the author.

You can also notice, of course, that the words “Milwaukee Art Museum” remained in the Weiss font there amid all the Stag Sans.

Meta pro used in body copy of MAM Insider. Photo by the author.

Christian Schwartz developed the Stag Sans font in 2007 as a commission from Esquire magazine for a “sans serif” version of the Stag font he previously developed in 2005 for the magazine.

In the words of the designer on his website, Stag and Stag Sans were requests for a new font to make bold headlines, and he was pushed by his magazine client to make the design “weirder and weirder”.

I could tell from our design team that they love Schwartz’s results. Stag Sans was the first font they mentioned in our conversation.

However, Head Graphic Designer Leslie Boll noted that while Stag Sans is very versatile for titles, it is not a font that is appropriate for body copy. The designers use Meta Pro for the body copy throughout the magazine, as you can see in the detail of the MAM Insider at left.

Much thanks to Leslie Boll, Sierra Korthof, and Brenda Neigbauer for all the beautiful work you do for the Museum, and for taking time away from your humungous design-department computer monitors to talk with me about it!

Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

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