Branding  /  Exhibit Design

MLK Public Library Exhibit Design

A Renovation and a Revolution

Project overview from the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library’s permanent exhibition titled 'Up From The People: Protest and Change in D.C.'

In Early 2019, Workhorse began design work on the permanent exhibition for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington D.C.’s central library. The exhibition connects Dr. King’s local activism with the broader activist landscape integral to the city’s deep history of revolution, culture, and change.
The exhibition also showcases the library’s in-depth public resources, such as The People’s Archive, the library’s special collections which collects and shares D.C. historic documents and stories of dating back over 60 years.

Responding to History

Initially opened in 1972, the library was designed by the Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus and one of the century’s most influential architects.

After much citizen input, the city dedicated the library to the prominent civil rights hero and American icon, Martin Luther King Jr.. Our approach was to respect all of the institutions, stories, and legacies attached to the library, no matter how complicated—while centering the city, its people, and culture, as we tried to tell an honest story of Washington, D.C.

Mies Van der Rohe, Architect

Before designing the D.C. central library, Mies served as the director of the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus redefined design and art education and gave birth to the modernist movement that still prevails today. Mies’ tenure as the last director of the Bauhaus and his legacy is shrouded in controversy due to his commitment to stay apolitical despite a growing Nazi threat in Weimar Germany. Eventually, Mies shut down the school after being pressured once too often to bend to the politics of the fascist regime, but some may say he waited too long.

Mies eventually settled in Chicago, where he continued to work until his death in 1969, forever leaving his mark on the American landscape as one of the fathers of modern architecture. The MLK Library is the only library designed by Mies, and perhaps one of the last projects Mies himself had a hand in creating and the only library he ever designed.

MLK in D.C.

On Jan. 14, 1971, the DCPL board voted to name the new central library after Martin Luther King, Jr.. Less than a decade prior, in 1963, Dr. King had made his most famous visit to D.C. to deliver what later became known as the “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Though this is most well known of his visits to the city, Dr. King had long-established ties with local clergy, activists, and students, specifically those fighting to create autonomy for the district. These people included a young pastor named Walter Fauntroy, who became the first representative in congress for the District of Columbia. Also, the young chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later Mayor for Life, Marion Barry.

European and American Influences

The design approach sought to balance the modernist legacies of the German Bauhaus and the Amercian roots of the Civil Rights Movement. The attention to history comes across in the selection of typography, FF Bau, designed by Christian Schwartz in 2002, a nod to historical grotesks, made famous by the Bauhaus. Martin and Bayard, designed by Maryland based designed, Tré Seals (Vocaltype). Tré found inspiration for Martin in the remnants of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 and Bayard by the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom.

The result was a typography system that allowed for flexibility for the different moments and moods across the exhibition that let the stories and history shine through while maintaining a tight, modern design system.

Early design system exploration.
Exhibition Typography

Display Typeface

Tré Seals, Vocaltype, 2016

MARTIN is a non-violent typeface inspired by remnants of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. Memphis sanitation workers, the majority of them Black, went out on strike on February 12, 1968, demanding recognition for their union, better wages, and safer working conditions after two trash handlers were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck.

Display Typeface

Christian Schwartz, FontFont, 2002

FF Bau is a large workhorse family of sans serif typefaces drawn in the “Grotesk” genre. Christian Schwartz is its designer, working under the inspiration of Grotesk types cast by the Schelter & Giesecke foundry in Leipzig. Schelter & Giesecke sold these popular Grotesks for many decades; they were first introduced around 1880. When the Bauhaus moved nearby in Dessau in the mid-1920s, these faces were chosen as the main selection in their printing shop, and the vast majority of their classic experiments in asymmetrical typography featured them prominently.

A Revolution of Values

Activism in the Nation’s Capital

Washington, DC has been witness to almost every political and social movement that has existed in this country. As the nation’s capital, anyone that has something to say has come to the city to make their voices heard. Beyond the national figures, like Martin Luther King, DC has also been fertile ground for own homegrown revolutionaries, free thinkers, and luminaries.

Designing for our City

Working as the exhibition brand and visual design partner agency, Workhorse helped the library curate activist and cultural narratives using stories, artifacts, and ephemera from the library's expansive special collections. 

Partner Agencies
Collecting neighborhood stories and experiences.
Exhibition prototypes being user-tested at the West End Neighborhood Library.
DCPL's Linnea Hegarty and Natalie Campbell


Workhorse worked with library staff to curate photography, news clippings, rally fliers, and letters that properly tell the story of the ties that bind Martin Luther King, DC, and the fight for justice.

03—A Year of Change
Black Lives Matter Protest - Washington, DC Photo by Yash Mori

2020: A Pandemic and Political Upheaval

We are always ready for surprises through every project, but nothing could adequately prepare us for 2020. The project was halfway completed when the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research and interviews by our partner agencies had to be taken online as our teams plunged headfirst into the remote work revolution. The summer brought further challenges as Washington became ground zero for political upheaval in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. With our greater understanding of D.C.'s history, we saw how current social movements and uprisings echo past events.

Black Lives Matter Protest - Washington, DC Photo by Yash Mori
BLM at Monroe Park, 2020, David Geitgey Sierralupe
March for Voting Rights, 1964