Since its inception, the Walker Art Center has embraced design not only as a programming activity but also as an important element in forming its public image. The Walker practically invented the modernist institutional identity for museums, which favored sans-serif typefaces, generous white space, and a grid system to arrange words and images. This style had dominated its graphic identity for more than thirty years.
In the early 1990s, the Walker sought to more openly reflect its multidisciplinary programs and culturally diverse audiences. In this spirit of self-examination and shifting demographics, Matthew Carter was commissioned to design a new typeface to mirror the changing institution. His forty-five years of experience in creating typefaces in all major technologies—from metal to photographic to digital—would be invaluable in the realization of the commission.
Then–Design Director Laurie Haycock Makela formulated a concept that would guide the development of the typeface: “We began with the idea that a type-face could be an identity—a font rather than a logo—that would run through the system like blood.” The prospective design would also be diverse and flexible enough to reflect the variety of the institution’s activities. Taken together, these two ideas would serve to dismantle the Walker’s monolithic, modernist identity and would focus attention on the potential of language for graphic expression.
The resulting design, entitled Walker, is a variable typeface whose ultimate look and feel is determined by the designer. Walker is intended for headline purposes and thus exists as an all caps alphabet. In its base form it is a bold sans serif, a style that provides an important link to the institution’s previous typographic palettes. Describing its basic structure, Carter states, “I think of [it] rather like store window mannequins with good bone structure on which to hang many different kinds of clothing.” What distinguishes Walker from any other font are its “snap-on” serifs. By using various computer keystroke commands, the designer can choose among five different types of serifs to attach to any character. In addition, horizontal rules can be placed above and below letters to underline and/or “overline” text—a feature, like a clothesline, from which letters can be hung. To realize the technical innovation of the snap-on serifs, Carter employed a strategy similar to one he developed for Devanagari, a typeface used for Hindi text that allows dependent vowels to be typeset in the correct location of a letterform with simple keystrokes.
The Walker typeface provides a distinctive look that affords great variability in its composition. Conceptually, it represents a revision of modernist typography insofar as it focuses attention on the space between letters, words, and lines of text. The result, however, is not so much about voids as it is about spanning them, as designer Moira Cullen notes: “In Walker the serifs are the ultimate connectors, the antithesis in type of a modernist apartheid. Each character holds its own frame, but an inspired or decisive stroke can will the letterform to nuzzle its neighbour or extend an arm or leg across the white divide.”
— Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator
- Quoted in Moira Cullen, “The Space Between the Letters,” Eye 5, no. 19 (Winter 1995): 73.
- Quoted in ibid., 74.
- Margaret Re, Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), 26.
- Ibid., 26–27.
- Cullen, “The Space Between the Letters,” 75.
Published in Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 152.