The Art Institute of Chicago
A museum of living thought
As the virtual front-door to one of the world’s great canonical art collections, the Art Institute of Chicago website sees more than 3 million unique visitors per year. These visitors have the unique opportunity to see something even visitors to the physical museum can’t—the 98% of the collection that isn’t on view at any given time. With the opportunity to create the definitive experience of an inexhaustible collection, we collaborated with the Art Institute of Chicago team to offer new connections and discoveries to art experts and novices around the world.
Inspired by the idea of a museum of living thought—a concept introduced by museum leadership more than 100 years ago—we envisioned a dynamic experience marked by new exhibitions, fluid transitions and exclusive curatorial content. Above all, we worked to position the site as more than a catalog of the artwork in the collection, but rather a place to ask questions of the art and its community.
Our first design decision was to center the user experience around the classic museum use cases of planning a visit, discovering exhibitions and exploring the collection. We designed easily-digestible, straightforward landing pages that covered the majority of user needs, while creating more detailed contextual navigation systems for advanced content pages. We gave the artwork pages this landing page treatment, embracing the reality that most incoming traffic enters with these artwork detail pages as their starting point.
We approached the collection as a standalone product unto itself. To go beyond classic search mechanisms, we looked to more clearly identify the core value proposition of the collection experience—to search, browse and discover artworks with simplicity and nuance. Visitors are familiar with different art movements, but it’s not always clear how these movements relate to time or how individual artworks relate to one another. To that end, we included UI elements that convey art knowledge—art movements as entry points, recirculation of related artwork styles and labels that matched users’ browsing patterns.
To begin our design foundation work, we were tasked with evolving the Art Institute's digital vernacular, expanding on Pentagram’s original system. We looked at different contexts, considering the multivocal aspirations of the museum, and were able to create opportunities to bring the museum's editorial content to the fore. The expanded visual vocabulary enabled the Art Institute to control for specific page contexts through a broad set of modules and title variations.
New photography was shot to match the updated brand guidelines, creating an immersive, vibrant and distinct photography style across the site. Transparency—an unmistakable feature of the Modern Wing of the museum—has been applied throughout the art direction. In the end, we delivered a set of visual guidelines for future applications that allow the museum to grow confidently across all channels.
To manage a multi-faceted data stream, we created a custom API that ingested the museum’s data and pushed specific content back into their systems, ensuring all data remains current. That data becomes available to content creators in Twill, the CMS we built over 15 years and open-sourced for the first time with the Art Institute’s engineering team. Our most robust instance of Twill to-date, the resulting CMS gives museum content-creators more expressive power than ever.