San Francisco Symphony


Music is one of humanity’s most powerful creations — it meets us at our emotional center. Like all great art, it both inspires and reflects the times we live in. However, ‘classical’ music suffers from an ongoing and ruthless PR problem: it is too often perceived as an unchanging, dusty, old-world music for elite audiences only.

The San Francisco Symphony is a 108-year-old cultural legend with international acclaim and a deep legacy of rewriting the rules to advance the relevance of the orchestral arts. And it was at a crucial moment to reimagine its future. As its famed maverick Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, closed out his extraordinary 25-year tenure, the organization began laying the groundwork for its reinvention. It is transforming its previous programing approaches, subverting the hierarchical nature of both itself and the industry through a DEI-focused organizational overhaul, and — in a move that stunned the global music community — has passed the baton to visionary conductor and composer, Esa–Pekka Salonen.

Salonen’s relentless drive to reposition classical music for the 21st century aligned perfectly with everything San Francisco and the cultural organization stands for. Together, they worked to create an experimental blueprint for the future of symphonic music built upon a new and groundbreaking artistic leadership model: eight collaborative partners, from a variety of cultural disciplines, that include Bryce Dressner of The National, artificial intelligence entrepreneur Carol Reiley, bassist Esperanza Spalding, classical vocalist Julia Bullock, experimental flutist Claire Chase, violinist Pekka Kuusisto and composer and pianist Nicholas Britell.

COLLINS was invited to help clarify, define and express this new vision for the Symphony, and help them re-assert classical music as a crucial, global contemporary art form — all while staying rooted in our community and strengthening the bonds that have made them so successful for over a century.


We began by collaborating with the Symphony musicians, audiences, staff, executive leadership, and board members to define a new, shared vision for the future, one which would become our foundation for creative and design experimentation.

As the Symphony experiments with emerging technologies, our work’s heart lies in new digital, sonic, and typographic experimentation. An ever-responsive, evolving visual system brings to life the dynamic qualities of classical music itself. Starting with traditional typography that speaks to the art form’s heritage — we used responsive and variable font technology to add an unexpected contemporary behavior — giving each typographic character the ability to immediately change form in reaction to sound and music. We also crafted a more expressive voice that juxtaposes the timeless formality of black and white with a contemporary palette inspired by the unique colors and landscape of the Bay Area. All now better designed to evoke the rich emotional range of symphonic music across an always-changing media and digital landscape.

We have been honored to work with the multi-talented teams at The San Francisco Symphony. We hope that, together, we have crafted an expression that will help accelerate classical music as the most potent and unignorable contemporary art form in the world today.

Louis Mikolay

Erik Berger Vaage
Sidney Lim
Karin Fyhrie
Christine Takaichi
Ben Crick
Tomas Markevicius
Michael Taylor
Yeun Kim
Mackenzie Pringle
Eric Park
Neil Jackson
Ivan Cruz
Paul Jun
San Francisco Symphony

The SF Symphony evolution was awarded two Yellow and two Graphite pencils from D&AD; 'Best in Show', three TDC67 Certificates for the dynamic logotype and brand identity from the Type Directors Club; a gold cube from The One Club for Creativity; a gold pencil from the Art Directors Club; and the peoples' choice for 'Best Project of the Year' from Working Not Working. Bravo to our visionary partners for enabling this work.

I am incredibly grateful to Louis and Karin for letting me into this project, allowing me to contribute writing, case study copy, two case stories, and a future PR article that helped our partners imagine their new future. 



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