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The I. M. Pei Pyramid at the Musée du Louvre is one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in Paris, and draws a lot of its meaning from its centrality within the Louvre. It is the entrance pavilion, the exit pavilion, the hub at the center of the museum’s diverse galleries and exhibits. The pyramid is an icon—both for the Louvre, and, cleverly, for the exit:

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This is brilliant because it introduces a literal meaning to pictograms. All too often, pictograms are abstracted idealizations: An exit is a figure moving, a door, an arrow. In the Louvre, the pictogram for “exit” literally means “exit”. It is both universal and place-specific, balancing between the need to speak to a specific audience and the need to speak to the multinational members of the audience. The pyramid, already an icon for the museum, is abstracted and flattened into an icon of itself.

That the Louvre can invent its own pictograms speaks to the strength of the institution. You can do it, but it’s not a good idea, because it tends to hurt wayfinding significantly while aiding branding very little. The cleverness of the pyramid-as-exit pictogram is that it’s smart graphic design, but it’s not merely smart graphic design. It’s also smart wayfinding.

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