A concrete identity

From Ken Briggs to North, via Citigate Lloyd Northover, the Barbican’s identity design has helped the venue itself to evolve

Next month, the Barbican in London hosts the AGI Open, a six-day graphics-fest open to all-comers but featuring speakers drawn only from the hallowed ranks of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. Chip Kidd, Crouwel, Sagmeister, Scher, Bos, Bierut and Bernard will all be there, ably supported by a luminous British line-up.

It’s an appropriate venue. The Barbican has a history of working with respected British design groups – including AGI members – on its branding and exhibitions. The transformation of the centre’s image in the past ten years from labyrinthine arts mall to edgy concrete cultural quarter is arguably as much to do with the centre’s visual identity, as applied in print and online, as it is to do with its bold cultural reprogramming and physical refurbishments. Few cultural brands have come as far in that time as the Barbican. The latest evolution of the brand by North sets the seal on this process by transferring the focus from individual venues within the Barbican to the whole centre.

Ken Briggs designed the centre’s launch logo, back in 1982. Briggs, known for his designs for the National Theatre under Kenneth Tynan, fashioned a cluster of four boldface ‘B’s, each facing a different direction. The mark lasted until 2000, when Citigate Lloyd Northover created a more flexible and expressive identity: a solid circle (or ‘spotlight’) in a range of three colours that always bled off the page, containing the Barbican name in a modern Roman letterstyle.

In 2003, North arrived to create an identity for the Barbican Art Gallery. Their choice of font would set a new direction for the entire centre. “It was a long name so we were trying to reduce it visually by using as many common shapes as possible,” recalls North’s Sean Perkins. “We were looking at geometric fonts and fonts with ‘single-storey’ ‘a’s. Ultimately, it came down to the number of circular letterforms in the font: ‘b’, ‘c’ and especially the circular ‘a’. Futura seemed to naturally complement the Barbican’s architecture and existing half-roundel logo.”

Two years later, when North were called back to create a more unified look for all of the Barbican’s venues and programmes, Futura seemed the natural choice; each venue or sub-brand could communicate with its own variant of weight from the many offered by Futura.

But there was a problem. North feared comparisons with 8vo’s memorable work between 1989 and 1994 for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, (commissioned by its then director, Wim Crouwel) which made prominent use of Futura Bold, laid over and occasionally behind images relating to exhibitions. Believing Futura to be synonymous (in the cultural field) with Boijmans, Perkins and co resisted it for as long as possible.

“We actively tried to move away from it and use an obscure Dutch font,” says Perkins. “But once it became apparent how much work the font needed to do for the other sub-brands and many applications (headlines, body copy etc) the case for Futura became too strong to ignore.”

It was the right choice. The muscular typography and striking imagery of the posters and campaigns that followed gave each sub-brand its own powerful contemporary voice and drove up ticket sales, especially online, and cross-selling between sub-brands.

Wind forward seven years and the move is away from sub-brands; they’ve done their job of spotlighting individual artforms and venues, and increasingly there is crossover and blurring between those artforms. It’s just about the Barbican.

The return to a singular corporate identity has seen North separate the Barbican wordmark and the familiar sliced-off circle, releasing them both to take a bigger role, in line with the centre’s strategic direction, ‘Arts without boundaries’. The enlarged wordmark moves to a vertical position and the circle becomes a more playful visual element or a carrier of imagery or information.

“It took a lot of bravery to move the logo out of the carrier,” says Perkins. “Vertical wordmarks only work if they are short or recognisable graphically. It allows for a much larger wordmark, but you still read the main headline/artist first.

“There are visual similarities to the architecture (of the Barbican Estate’s three residential towers). But the main rationale is that it allows us to turn the volume up and give the brand more cut-through within a competitive marketing landscape.”

Judging from North’s own output with the new, evolved brand and that of Disarm (for the Barbican’s Duchamp season), the evolution is another step forward.

Attendees at the AGI Open will be able to judge for themselves.

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and Logotype (Laurence King). See evamy.co.uk and @evamy. AGI Open London takes place over September 26-27 at The Barbican. More information and tickets are available from the website, agi-open.com and @agi_open

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