The San Francisco Symphony sets the stage for innovation

Symphonies suffer from a ruthless PR problem: They are too often perceived as dusty, old-world art for the elite. The San Francisco Symphony is challenging that perception — from the inside out — with its disruptive approach that proves the art form is as essential as ever.

By Karin Fyhrie

For many, the symphony conjures up classical associations of old white men in ridiculous wigs. Pictures, perhaps, of Bach or Beethoven, Mozart or Mahler. Despite being radicals of their time, these composers stand to symbolize everything called into question by youth culture today: namely, the enduring dominance of a primarily male, Western perspective.

It’s a perspective that popular music has gone to great lengths to diversify over the last century — as proven by the ascension of jazz, rock n’ roll, pop, and hip hop. So it’s easy to assume that the orchestral arts have become rather passé; having settled, instead, into a niche category appreciated by older classical enthusiasts, avante-garde outliers, or annual holiday concert-goers.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just look to the mainstream and you’ll see the subtleties of a symphonic uprising in a post-genre world. Feminist hip-hop icon Lizzo, for instance, has made flutes cool again. Frank Ocean, Sufjan Stevens, Actress, and Johnny Greenwood — both pop and indie artists — have brought orchestras into their music and onto the stage. Even contemporary composers like Hilder Guonadottir and Nicholas Britell have gained mass appeal with their award-winning scores: from the soundtrack for “The Joker” to the theme-song to “Succession,” respectively. Recent studies even show that 31% of 25- to 34-year-olds say that they enjoy listening to classical music. Clearly a youth movement is underway. The problem is: Few see it this way.

“When you talk about the masters, the underlying message is that the best has already happened. I don’t think so,” says San Francisco Symphony Artistic Director Esa-Pekka Salonen in an interview with The New York Times. A steady decline of sales, however, was telling another story. It was time for the San Francisco Symphony to take more drastic measures to disprove this myth of irrelevance.

“When you talk about the masters, the underlying message is that the best has already happened. I don’t think so.”

In this article, we’ll introduce you to a few voices from our partnership to reimagine the San Francisco Symphony — including clients like Salonen and former Board President Sakurako Fisher; to creative partner Johannes Breyer, co-founder of type house Dinamo, to independent creative technologist Ivan Cruz; and our senior designer Erik Berger Vaage. Through this eclectic perspective — only a small window into the many, many talented people involved — you’ll see how the San Francisco Symphony is seriously shaking things up, both in its behaviors and its brand, to show that symphonic music still has its place in contemporary culture.

An industry in transition

Music is one of humanity’s most powerful creations — it meets us at our emotional core. Like all great art, it reflects the time we live in.

In 2018, the San Francisco Symphony reached out to COLLINS at a crucial moment in reimagining its future. As its famed maverick Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas closed out his extraordinary 25-year tenure, the organization was laying the groundwork for its reinvention. This included experimenting with new programmatic 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 — passing the baton to visionary conductor and composer Esa–Pekka Salonen, offering Salonen something quite seductive for any artist: a blank canvas to reimagine the symphonic experience for the 21st century.

Together, symphony staff, executive leadership, musicians, and the Board of Trustees worked to create an experimental blueprint that repositioned classical music for the modern era. The seeds of this show up in a groundbreaking artistic leadership model: one that diversifies the idea of a single artistic figurehead into the brainpower of a collaborative partnership. With the launch of the 2020-21 season, eight partners from a variety of cultural perspectives and disciplines will envision programming, including Bryce Dressner of the band The National, AI entrepreneur Carol Reiley, bassist Esperanza Spalding, classical vocalist Julia Bullock, experimental flutist Claire Chase, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and composer and pianist Nicholas Britell.

This inclusive approach builds on the ethos of the organization, demonstrating a vested interest in dismantling the “elite” narrative that risked making the culturally curious feel unwelcome. The alternative experience of SoundBox, for example, sells out in just a few seconds, appealing to both long-time members and young newcomers with its informal, intimate, and industrial environment where musicians easily mingle with the audience. The symphony’s educational initiatives as the sole providers of music education to the San Francisco Unified School District only further demonstrates this commitment to widespread interest.

As we began to better understand the symphony outside of broader cultural stigmas, we focused on two strategic pillars that ground all of our brand thinking, namely:

  1. What big idea do you stand for?
  2. How is it unique?

It all boiled down to this: The San Francisco Symphony was making great strides to show that the symphonic tradition is, indeed, transforming. This philosophy was authentically true of their past as well as how they planned for their future. “The infrastructure of what we call classical music is going to evolve into something else … we don’t quite know what it is,” says Salonen, gleefully, in his New York Times interview.

“The infrastructure of what we call classical music is going to evolve into something else… we don’t quite know what it is.”

Through an experimental mindset — amplified by its symbiotic relationship to Silicon Valley — the SF Symphony is uniquely poised to reimagine pathways for all of the musically-curious to find enrichment in it. So how did we begin to visually translate this idea of an innovative institution and ever-evolving art form for greater impact?

Timeless meets timely

“There’s plenty we may have been able to change in ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that audiences will know it,” says Sakurako Fisher, former Board President of the San Francisco Symphony and one of our key clients on the project. “So you have to make a pretty significant change [in the brand]. The beauty of something shocking, visually, is that it grabs my attention. Shock is waking back up. And even if folks can’t experience our music first-hand, they can experience that same jolt, on some level, in the new identity.”

“Shock is waking back up.”

At COLLINS, we couldn’t agree more. Yet the “shock of the new” is often a real challenge for organizations and long-time audiences to get used to. It’s different. It’s risky. And it seems to challenge what was always true and valued.

To work through this tension with stakeholders, we framed the evolution in line with the team’s point of view:

1. From A to A+
Our role is to understand and extract what is most unique, compelling, and true to any organization, then amplify the powers of that. The “A to A+” analogy is a quick way to reassure teams that we’re equally invested in the aspects that have made the brand and business successful to date.

2. Design for the familiar and surprising
Familiarity achieves a few things: It aids recognition, it creates consistency (and, therefore, a sense of reliability), and it also appeals to people through common ground and the comfort that comes with it. Surprising qualities, on the other hand, demand attention, prevent boredom, stoke intrigue, and allow you to bring the more familiar qualities into new territory. In this way, surprise is the seed of evolution. To empower teams through transition, we discuss brand elements within this spectrum as a means to manage change with a high degree of flexibility.

For the SF Symphony, our primary bridge between the past and the future was typography: a brand element reflective of the sonically-evocative “voice” of a company. By anchoring the identity in a traditional serif font suggestive of the art form’s 17th-century roots (and the brand’s previous logos), we could more easily introduce a radical and unexpected contemporary behavior that signaled something innovative afoot.

When discussing our approach with Johannes Breyer, co-founder of Dinamo, for this interview, he reinforced the successes they’ve seen in doing something similar: “I find this type of approach very relatable. By building on a trove of shared references, you’re inviting people in — at first glance — through familiarity. But, as my partner Fabian says, ‘We have to try to smuggle the good thought in.’ By then, audiences have probably already gotten comfortable — they’re already on the trip and more likely to let ‘the unfamiliar’ bits along for the ride.”

“We have to try to smuggle the good thought in.”

“With the ABC Symphony, we started with a traditional, highly “legible” serif that Dinamo had designed and then stretched it — A LOT,” said our senior designer, Erik Berger Vaage. “We were interested in it because it feels, on a gut-level, as if the volume has been dialed up.” Suddenly language transformed into crescendos, staccato rhythms, or a gentle chorus. It was as though the fonts had begun to sing back.

“When we started treating letters individually, that’s when the sense of rhythm and musicality really came to life. It began to feel alive, even in a static state,” said Erik.

Inspired by these possibilities, the question then became: How can we turn this into a compelling, flexible, and easy-to-manage system?.

Variable fonts find a new voice

With each era, emergent tools and technologies open up the possibilities for new expressive pursuits. The laundry list of the obvious is long: the camera, the 808, midi language, the laptop, and so on. Yet few of us think of variable fonts as a means for modern poetry. Everyone is fascinated with it … but few of us had figured out just what to do with it.

Entirely derived for the internet, variable fonts solve a lot of “functional” challenges, such as minimizing file weight, speeding up download times, and allowing for typographic layouts to adapt elegantly to any screen size or device type. But the “emotional” utility of variable fonts was relatively untapped. We wanted to change that.

The “emotional” utility of variable fonts was relatively untapped. We wanted to change that.

Well known for creating variable fonts, Dinamo became fascinated with the technology when they, as Breyer describes it, “discovered a beautiful connection between type and software scripts: Together they create some kind of output that we can’t always anticipate. Where we end up is so different from our starting point — it’s like some sort of engineered surprise.”

In collaboration, we developed ABC Symphony, a custom typeface designed to stretch in a whole bunch of ways. Tall for high volumes! Italic for accent notes! Subdued for silence! Letterforms that could move through the music or respond to the meaning of a word as quickly as the wind changes.

“We don’t want to make type that’s ‘illegible,’” says Breyer. “It has to process information. But we also want the fonts to be interesting and captivating and, in my eyes, a storytelling device. I think that’s very much how COLLINS works as well.” Doing this, however, was not quite so simple.

“Nobody has done anything like this yet. Why not? Music exists. Variable fonts exist. Digital interfaces exist. Still, variable fonts are fairly new and a lot of technologies aren’t yet optimized for — or even [to] support — them. So the process had to be very organic. There was a lot of hacking to get this to work,” says creative technologist Ivan Cruz, another collaborator on the project.

So let’s talk about hacks, happy accidents, and getting from A → Z (quite literally).

Hacking in harmony

As the Symphony experiments with emerging technologies, the heart of our work lies in new digital, sonic, and typographic experimentation — an ever-responsive visual system that brings to life the dynamic qualities of the classical tradition itself. For a peek into our process, here’s how we went about turning our ABC Symphony dreams into a reality.

Step 1: We selected an unreleased variable serif from Dinamo’s collection, originally named ABC Arizona, which was limited at first to font weight variability (seamlessly transitioning between light, regular, bold, etc.).

Step 2: We determined the edges of our stretchiness. Which directions could the font be stretched? How much? What were the minimum and maximum heights? What variance could any two letters have between each other? Across a set of letters? How did this affect the serifs? How could we ensure consistent optical contrast across a word that has letters of different scales? Legibility? Musicality?

Step 3: Dinamo added these new variables to the original font, adjusting the letterforms so that they maintained a consistent optical contrast across stretched vertical dimensions.

Step 4: We defined a pre-set curve library to mimic musicality. Once we refined the type itself, we shifted our attention to the compositional use of the font. There are natural transitions to how we speak; how sound travels in space; how we play instruments. The more poetic and human qualities started to come alive in the easy-to-miss interpolations that reflect the physics of this. Without integrating those details, the typesetting felt too mechanical … or worse, just looked bad. Once we’d found a good mix of curves that balanced musicality and legibility, we then defined pre-set “sonic swoops” for designs.

Step 5: Dinamo built a custom type tool for symphony designers. The plug-in, built for Illustrator, expedites the design process through pre-set recommendations, such as the curve library, to help internal teams quickly compose within a sophisticated system. As an added bonus, Dinamo included a “randomize” button as its gift of engineered surprise. “It’s fully random but restricted,” says Breyer. “For instance, it ensures that the aesthetic steps are still quite distinctive in the letter forms.” This feature became a great starting point for designers — revealing previously unseen rhythms in a word, at random.

“Where we end up is so different from our starting point — it’s like some sort of engineered surprise.”

Step 6: We built a web-engine that lets the font viscerally respond to sound and music in real time. While the identity system works well in a static state, it’s most evocative when it moves — manifesting the most mature expression of our original idea. To make this possible, we reached out to Cruz to build a web engine where ABC Symphony really comes alive. Lovingly dubbed the Symphosizer, the initial launch version is designed to be a “typographic instrument” that invites audiences to “play” the words themselves and bring a new, multi-sensory depth to the listening experience. Technically speaking, the Symphosizer is composed of two parts:

Part 1: The tech that “listens” and converts the sound into a series of interconnected variable font parameters.

Part 2: The interface that “plays” and is conducted through a simple control panel that allows audiences to input sound as well as change visual parameters (e.g., type color, background color, font alignment, language, and pre-set SF Symphony color pairings).

“The experience seems simple: just a few vector lines, some color and sound. But the engine running all this is very complex,” says Cruz, who grappled with the technical details of the back end. “There’s a battle of numbers happening in the background with a huge set of variables. So we had to define the right set of rules that could allow the experience to work the way we wanted.” For instance, every device picks up sound at a different level (e.g., how high is the volume on your Spotify?).

This became a huge technical challenge in creating a cohesive starting point to the experience. To solve for this, we added a sensitivity tuner — which appears when people hover over the mic button — and ensures that everyone can calibrate the Symphosizer to their own equipment setup (or desired effect).

While concert halls around the world are closed due to the pandemic, the Symphosizer, we hope, offers audiences an enhanced listening experience at home by adding a new visual dimension. While it can never replace the sheer energy and visceral amazement of watching 100+ performers in person, it extends new possibilities to engage more deeply in the music and notice new layers previously unseen (quite literally).

“Now that it’s complete,” says Cruz, “I find myself spending long stretches of time with just one word, mesmerized. There’s this extra level of experience that comes into it— when the words become their own character.” We hope it allows existing aficionados to experience the art they love in rich new ways and provide an avenue for new audiences to reimagine what the symphonic arts have to offer.

Like symphonic music, the new typographic behaviors mirror an emotional core, inviting audiences on a journey where the senses — both sound and vision — compound into something altogether “other.” It doesn’t replace the functional utility of variable fonts. This is all we could have hoped for, and more.

At COLLINS, we’re intoxicated by simple aesthetics: color that shocks, words that jazz, compositional balance that hums with harmony, whatever makes someone pause to look twice and feel something in our perpetually competitive economy of attention.

Yet in an era consumed by data and dollars, the value of such startling and ineffable expressions remains under threat. Maybe its strength lies squarely in a kind of mysterious magic. Every brand challenge is a chance to amplify those powers of enchantment.

Sometimes it begins with ordinary tools like paper and ink, Photoshop and Figma. Sometimes it requires experimentation, cutting-edge technology, and creative friends in distant places to help dream up what once seemed an impossibility. The rebrand of the San Francisco Symphony is one such story.


Since the pandemic hit, the San Francisco Symphony has received a million-dollar anonymous gift to expand its education program into Oakland. Consider supporting the Symphony or enjoying an armchair experience here.

Karin Fyhrie is the Managing Partner of COLLINS SF.

Artwork by Barney Stepney, COLLINS.

Want to learn more about our partnership with the San Francisco Symphony? Visit our case study to see the rebrand, then enjoy our encore in-depth interview with Sako Fisher to learn more about making organizational change possible.

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