Leaving his Mark: Malcolm Grear

With the London Olympics less than a month away here is a (design) trivia question: who designed the sports pictograms for the last Summer Olympics held in the US?  Hint: he is from Rhode Island.

The answer is Malcolm Grear.  It was Grear who was asked to develop the graceful, minimal figures, referencing classical Greek Olympians, to be used on signs and banners, for the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.
 
But even if you did not know the answer you are probably familiar with Malcolm Grear’s work without realizing it.  Most likely, you have encountered it and may even recognize it.
 
Malcolm Grear, Professor Emeritus at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is the graphic designer behind many of the familiar logos of well-known and well-loved local organizations in Rhode Island. For example, he designed the “T” in the center of the mask symbolizing Trinity Repertory Company, and he created the sun for Lifespan.  The face for Community Prep School, the circle of “V”s signifying the Vets Auditorium, and the whale’s tale superimposed on a sail for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, were all created in his studio.
 
A glimpse into Grear’s work as graphic designer over the decades is provided by an exhibition currently on view at the Newport Art Museum. Malcolm Grear Designers were hired to develop a new visual identity for the museum. The redesigned logo, comprised of the negative shape of a lower case letter “a” inserted into the letter “n”, is part of the museum’s identity update in conjunction with the celebration of its 100th anniversary this year.
 
In addition to the locally found logos described above, Grear has designed countless other logos and helped shape brand identity for nationally recognized organizations like the Presbyterian Church, the Veterans Administration, MIT, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum, among others.
 
Rooted in classic, Modern graphic design, Grear’s designs are based on form and structure.  They are known for clean lines and clarity, often achieved by manipulating the letters comprising the initials of an organization.  By rearranging the letters, often stacking or superimposing them, he creates new forms and images, often slightly abstracted.  A recurring theme is the letter-in-letter design like the one used in the logo for the Newport Art Museum.  In addition, the logos often rely on the interplay of form and counter form, or negative space, created by the juxtaposition of the letters.  Take, for example, the circle of lowercase “l”s comprising the sign for Lifespan: the counter form is a sun.  And so the sun, a symbol for life, becomes the symbol for Lifespan.
 
This intimate show at the Newport Art Museum provides an overview of what Grear calls “purposeful visual communication” created over the span of almost fifty years.  It succeeds because it attempts to explain, and demystify, the process of designing a visual identity.  Showing the many stages of a design from the first rough sketch - the initial idea drawn in ink by hand - to a finished logo, communicating the identity of a brand or an institution.  This allows the viewer to follow and understand the considerations and the work that go into the development of an idea when a designer like Malcolm Grear leaves his marks.
 
Making a Mark: The Art of Creating a Visual Identity,
Malcolm Grear Designers,
Through August 26, 2012 at the Newport Museum of Art
 
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