Louis Mikolay Interview
SF Symphony was one of the most celebrated rebrands of 2021. Louis Mikolay filled us in on the challenges and collaborations that made it happen.
Louis Mikolay is a Creative Director who led the SF Symphony rebrand while at Collins. He's since joined the Apple Design Studio.

Mon:          What was the disruptive force driving change for SF Symphony?

Louis:          SF Symphony was at a critical moment of re-imagination as its famed maverick Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, was ending an extraordinary 25-year tenure. They laid the groundwork for their next chapter by transforming their programing, launching a DEI-focused organizational overhaul, and — in a move that stunned the global music community — passed the baton to visionary conductor and composer, Esa–Pekka Salonen.

Any one of those things happening to an organization is big, but together it was an incredible force for change that empowered a great team to make some bold decisions.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and his team see ‘Classical’ music as a Contemporary Art form (not a historical artifact) that can attract a variety of audiences, old and new. I think that was one of the biggest inspirations for our work — we asked ourselves how can we create a brand, and a visual manifestation of that brand, that really suggests ‘classical’ music as an art form for today? A brand that feels relevant now and can continue to react and evolve along with art and culture — just like ‘classical’ music does.

Mon:          How did the research phase of the project inform the direction of the project moving forward?

Louis:          Research is everything. All of the answers, all of the inspiration, all of the possibilities come from deeply embedding yourself in the organization; the history, relationships, ambitions, art and the wider culture. And when you share a deep understanding of the context with your client partners, you make space for a giant leap — that feels more like a small step.

One detail that I think had an oversized impact on the outcome, is how we grounded the conversation in Contemporary Art. That meant finding opportunities to share research and maintain a constant dialogue about other inspiring Contemporary Arts organizations around the world. For example our first presentation was held in the restaurant of Symphony Hall — we turned all the lights off and projected our research onto the walls and ceiling to create an immersive, and unexpected atmosphere. An unfamiliar space to inspire new decisions, far from their usual meetings.

Mon:          Even the word 'classical' in classical music seems to be fighting a contemporary change. Was it daunting being tasked with modernizing this brand?

Louis:          We did seriously discuss how the word ‘Classical’ might just be biggest blocker for new audiences considering the art form. It conjures a dusty picture in a lot of people’s minds that just isn’t true of the art, let alone the experience in SF.

However, at the same time — there are tons of classic, timeless qualities of orchestral music that are relevant to everyone. We just tried to amplify those, and trim a little fat.

Mon:          The new leadership model at SF Symphony is quite intriguing, eight collaborative partners, including an artificial intelligence entrepreneur. Do you think this forward-thinking model helped set the groundwork for SFS's brand transformation?

Louis:          Totally, this was a huge inspiration for us and helped us think about how technology might become part of the design work.

Mon:          The motion design in this project feels essential to the new identity. Do you see motion design and graphic design becoming more intertwined?

Louis:          I don’t see them as separate at all. I think a great designer should be able to think in terms of, strategies, ideas and executions — it doesn’t matter whether those executions are architectural, motion based, a logo or a letterhead. It’s about communicating a message effectively through any medium. That doesn’t mean we all need to be experts at ‘doing’ everything, but we should be able to ‘think’ across everything.

Mon:          Do you agree with Mitch Paone that mass adoption of screens means "A brand can now have own-able choreography", when it comes to animation?

Louis:          That’s true, brands live in a million different spaces and now many of these are screen-based which unlocks a ton of opportunity to have a unique animated personality. That said, I think we need to be careful not to confuse the idea of own-able choreography with sales talk or a fancy design studio case-study.

We need to make sure that the brands we build can be appropriately expressive when and where they need to be. But also super functional in the places that they need to be, and usable for the client team that lives and breathes the work every day.

Mon:          How did the collaboration with DINAMO come about? How did this partnership help strengthen the project?

Louis:          I honestly can’t praise Dinamo enough. They brought so much to the project; energy, optimism and of course absolutely incredible craft. We reached out to a few potential partners early on in the project, and the chemistry with Dinamo was just perfect. They suggested we consider an unreleased version of the variable font ABC Arizona as the foundation, which had just the right feel, and crucially it’s standard variable parameters gave us the ability to define the core qualities of the font, (weight, serif size etc) before developing the new stretched masters.

From there, the process of developing and perfecting the font was fantastic, and a true collaboration. We always knew we wanted to build a plug-in for the internal SF Symphony teams to use; but Dinamo were a huge force in making that dream a reality — they just have the perfect combination of creativity, craft and technical expertise. Thank you Dinamo crew!

Mon:          There seems to be a trend of brands commissioning bespoke fonts, do you see this as a key way to create distinction for brands typographically?

Louis:          There are two sides to this. On one hand, words and typography are the most important and visible tools that a brand has to communicate. So if you can find a way to create a unique and recognizable typographic voice, it can be an extremely valuable asset. This is especially true in a world where companies like Squarespace give any small company an insane level of visual ‘professionalism’ with very little effort.

On the other hand, developing a custom typeface can be a smart move internally for a ton of logistical reasons, not least licensing costs.

Mon:          Was using a variable font always the plan? Or did its use just come about during the creative process?

Louis:          Once we had the concept of type that stretches to visualize sound, we quickly started thinking about creating a variable font — although we didn’t exactly know if it would be possible (even after the concept was signed off!).

I was personally very excited because even though variable font technology had been around for a while, this felt like the first time it could be used for something expressive, and perfectly appropriate for the brand.

Mon:          I've been using the Symphosizer! Do you think these sorts of digital tools and online brand experiences should be used more by brands?  To bring in new audiences?

Louis:          The Symphosizer is a fun online experience that invites people to engage with music in a new way. The act of  typing a word, and seeing it dynamically react to the richness of the sound, really allows you to feel the emotion of the music, and appreciate it on a deeper level. It works with all types of music — but the layers and contrasts found within classical music really bring out some kind of magic. Hopefully that magic might help inspire a new generation to consider classical music.

We initially built the Symphosizer as a tool for the in-house studio to work with the identity, and as the engine for future experiential projects. I’m mainly excited to see what is possible with the core technology and the incredibly talented team at the Symphony.

Mon:           Favorite Classical Music piece?                                        

Louis:           We got pretty intimate with SF Symphony’s recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite during the project. It’s incredible — the power is almost overwhelming, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster. Check it out: Spotify

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