The Empathy Project

The Empathy Project is a collaborative, participatory art project initiated by Paul Rucker and Curated by Marcus Civin at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) Baltimore. It invites participants to explore their experiences with empathy through visual art, writing, installations, performances etc. Many classes added an assignment for the students in the institute to participate in the project where a wide variety of work was created, from collaborative installations to anonymous written posts. The project itself is a sum of all these parts and serves to celebrate the diversity that exists among any community of people.

When i was brought on the team to design the identity and collateral for the project I was faced with a few specific problems that I must try to solve:

Most people don’t differentiate between empathy and sympathy. This was evident when I asked people what they think something called “The Empathy Project” would be about. Many responded by asking if it was a social project to help people in low living conditions or so. I knew I had to confront this with the identity, to take the project out of the connotations attached to it because of a simple but widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the title.

The exhibition space will be divided into 7 sections based on the nature of submissions – Engage, Collaborate, Write, Listen, Perform, Meditate and Install. The identity must somehow incorporate these sections within it as well.
I tried to visualize the many attributes of the project itself instead of try to follow the usual road of trying to give form to “Empathy.” The way the project works and was positioned could be the base for its identity, after all. The most important aspect of the project was its diversity: The exhibition itself is not the work of one artist alone but many. It will feature a wide spectrum of work with no bar on the form of the final piece. The concept of diversity is explored through diversity itself. The other aspect is how the exhibition is a sum of many parts, contributed by people with different tastes, styles, backgrounds and skills but all exploring one common theme.

To express all the above in the identity, I chose Peter Bilak’s History type system. Released by his type foundry Typotheque in 2008, it contains 21 fonts, all based on the same skeleton but each exploring a different style. These can then be layered on top of one another to create more variants.



This system was perfect for the empathy project, as it worked on similar principles of parts creating a different whole. The typeface is extremely challenging to use, with so many options and its impeccable design, it tests one’s skill. After hundreds of variations, the final logotype was chosen.




A black and white version was created for some of the other collaterals. This was another interesting challenge: I did not want to just make a greyscale version of the existing logo (Which would lose many of the qualities) and decided to design a slightly modified version made with the constraints of monochrome in mind. 


Once the final logotype was approved, I had to tackle the second problem in the brief, the extensions. To remain with the visual language, i chose shapes from the existing logo to represent each individual sub division. Working with only one or two layers helped me explore the nature of the sub divisions separately and thanks to the typeface, they will all follow the same visual language.


As i mentioned, i tried to express the idea behind the sub division through their individual type treatments (two styles of History collaborating to create the word “Collaborate” etc.) These were essentially signage for the exhibition hall.




Since this was my first exhibition design project, there were several pitfalls in my way in terms of execution and production. After the larger challenge of the wall graphics was taken care of, I could get into the fun stuff – posters and collaterals. For the body text, I chose Fedra Serif A another typeface by the same designer. History and Fedra complimented each other beautifully and completed the typographic palette of the project.



The Empathy Project by Paul Rucker.Curated by Marcus Civin.History and Fedra Serif A designed by Peter Bilak, Released by Typotheque.Design guided by Jennifer Cole Phillips with valuable feedback from Ellen Lupton, Abbott Miller, Juhi Vishnani, Gwynne Keathley and Young Sun Compton.Designed and executed in MICA, 2014.



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