I’ve heard it called the flying moustache, a disembodied sideburn, the Pentagon (aerial view), a blackbird in flight, an abstraction of the state of Minnesota, a paper airplane. While art is all about the viewer’s interpretation, I’ve gotta ask: what is that thing at the center of the mnartists.org logo?
Actually, that thing is things, a constant shapeshifter that morphs from Groucho eyebrow to attacking crow to Nevada, all day long. But what does it mean? Robin Dowden, director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker, explained in a white paper presented at the 2003 Museums and the Web conference:
All Web developers know that delivering dynamic, up-to-date content is key to maintaining visitors’ interest. mnartists.org has taken this concept to a new level by making member-generated content the most visible element on the site. The home page, discipline “browse pages”, and each individual artist’s home pages are constantly changing, reflecting the most recent work uploaded by the membership. The images appearing on these pages are time dated, revealing exactly when the content was created. Reinforcing this concept, mnartists.org’s logo includes a polygon whose points and rotation change daily, reflecting visitor page views (the rotation) and uploads (distance of a point from the center) within the five disciplines in which registered artists are grouped. The strength of this design concept cannot be overemphasized. The idea of getting your work on the home page motivates artists and organizations to post new material and provides the general membership — the art enthusiasts — with a constant source of intrigue.
Confused? I was, so I asked for an explanation from new-media designer Eric Ishii Eckhardt, who came up with the system collaboratively with typographer/designer Alejandro Quinto (with oversight by design director Andrew Blauvelt). He says it’s not necessarily meant to be a direct gauge of site statistics, but serves as an active representation of how users shape the site’s content. (Which makes sense: from the start, the Walker and the McKnight Foundation wanted a dynamic and democratic community, driven by its members.) But there are direct metrics involved: on the site, the polygon at the center of the logo rotates throughout the day, like the hands on a clock, in direct response to the number of page visits. And its shape morphs based on how much work is uploaded onto the site in each of five broad artistic disciplines. Imagine a centerpoint; the distance from that point to the farthest edge of the shape represents one of five discplines, probably Visual Arts (the other four general categories are Design/Architecture, Literary Arts, Media Arts, and Performing Arts). Upload more images of scrimshaw or found-object sculpture and Nevada turns into California–voila!
It’s an apt symbol: the site has grown from an image database of multidisiplinary art in 2001 (it launched as Minnesota Artists Online, but perhaps the unfortunate acronym MAO, part Mall of America, part Chinese communist, prompted a name change) to today’s media-rich site offering mp3s, movie clips, original articles, a mix CD of music from across the state, arts news, online forums, radio interviews, and more. And one measure of its success is the geographic reach and diversity of its membership base–more than 6,000 artists from all over Minnesota.
Calling the logo both polymorphic and ambiguous, recognizeable and readable, Eric says, “Unexpectedly our design has invited a lot of conversation about this shape but I enjoy seeing that because conversation is really a good starting point for any strong community.”