A personal touch: GBH’s identity for funeral directors A.B. Walker

Designing an identity for a funeral directors requires a sensitive approach. Russell Saunders, design director at Gregory Bonner Hale, talks us through the agency’s recent work with family-run business A.B. Walker

Funeral directors A.B. Walker's new logo features lettering based on an old sign found in its head offic in Reading
A.B. Walker’s new logo features lettering based on an old sign found in its head office in Reading

Arranging a funeral is a painful experience – one that we’d all rather avoid. The process is often much the same: loved ones and relatives are ushered into meeting rooms and asked to select from coffins, caskets, flowers and tributes, working out costs and planning fitting tributes while still struggling to process their loss.

How funeral directors present themselves – through communications, window displays and the design of their different offices or branches – is rarely a key concern for people using their services. But it can have a significant impact on their experience.

Coffins and wreaths serve as a bleak reminder of what’s to come, while branding in sombre shades of blue and black can project a cold or all-too business-like image. Familiar images of forests and starry skies or flowers are meant to provide some comfort – but often, this stock footage can feel impersonal and clichéd.

London agency Gregory Bonner Hale has taken a different approach in its branding for A.B. Walker, creating an identity that aims that aims to combine tradition and modernity with a sense of warmth. The branding combines hand-painted signage with an unusual colour palette, brochures in the style of paperback novels and a kaleidoscopic animated flower.

A kaleidoscopic flower device created for digital screens and window displays at funeral directors A.B. Walker's branches. The symbol moves slowly at the speed of a clock
A kaleidoscopic flower device created for digital screens and window displays at A.B. Walker’s branches. The symbol moves slowly at the speed of a clock

GBH was contacted by A.B. Walker after working with another family-run funeral directors in The Fixer, a BBC2 show in which hotelier Alex Polizzi set out to revive struggling independent businesses.

Design director Russell Saunders says he was immediately struck by A.B. Walker’s “professionalism”, “warmth” and “attention-to-detail” – but says this wasn’t immediately evident in its branding.

“I think they could see that a lot of funeral directors have a similar vibe about them – you often see coffins in windows, and very similar type of imagery – bright skies and poppy fields and similar material – so we were thinking, what could we do if we had an open brief? What could we bring to this that was different?”

“We also wanted to declutter things and make something that has a very personal feel. Rather than providing a constant reminder of the process, it was more about communicating the idea of A.B. Walker being there to listen to you and get to know you and your loved one before advising you [on the service], because of course no two funerals are the same.”

After visiting A.B. Walker’s branches (it has seven in Berkshire and South Oxfordshire), GBH suggested taking a more streamlined approach to interiors, removing any displays which offered an unnecessary reminder of the funeral process.

“We went round and observed what the environment was like – what you saw on the walls and in reception – and we just realised that a lot of things didn’t need to be there. It was a bit too much of a harsh reminder that you were going to have to make some tough decisions,” says Saunders.

One of the key elements of the new branding is an animated flower device, which will appear in window displays and on digital screens in branches, as well as iPads used by staff when speaking with customers. The flower moves continuously at a similar speed to a clock.

“The idea was to create more of an art piece that could feature in window displays, so that we weren’t just using pictures of flowers and leaves or sunsets, but something that continued to grow at a very slow rate,” explains Saunders. “I think that slowness is suggestive of the idea that we’ve got time to listen to you, and that ever blooming flower … gives in the impression that life continues in a way that straddles religious and secular belief. We wanted to respect tradition, but act in a more modern way,” he adds.

Brochures listing options and prices for coffins, caskets and headstones will be replaced with paperback-style publications featuring ‘suggestive illustrations’ rather than traditional product shots. Each book features a typographic cover in shades of green and cover lines include ‘Set in Stone’ for a book about memorials and ‘Wood, Wicker and Cardboard’ for one on caskets.

“It’s still a live project so these haven’t been rolled out yet but the idea is to create something that looks more like a novel. When you see lots of catalogues on a table it can look quite daunting, but having these paperback-style books with a consistent spine means you can put them on a shelf or slot into a cupboard,” says Saunders.

GBH has created an updated version of a sepia tone portrait of the company's founder, A.B. Walker
GBH has created an updated version of a sepia tone portrait of the company’s founder, A.B. Walker

“Inside, we’d like to use images that are more suggestive – images that express the idea of memories and a life well-lived. If you imagine when you go to speeches at a funeral, there’s focus on particular details: someone’s favourite pet, the way they tie their shoelaces … so perhaps instead of showing a field with trees in it, we can show images that will make you smile. Funerals are very sad but they’re also about celebrating life,” he adds.

A sepia tone portrait of the company’s founder has been updated: a new portrait shows A.B. Walker in a light blue shirt with a pink flower on his collar. The portrait will be installed in each branch and GBH also plans to commission similar portraits of Julian and Matthew Walker (who now run the business) along with other generations of the family.

An old sign found in the company's head office in Reading
An old sign found in the company’s head office in Reading

“We just thought it would be nice to bring [the portrait] up to date with everything else that was going on – like reinventing their heritage and giving them pride in their frontman. We had the original image retouched, so he’s still wearing the same clothes as he would have been – but we have just given him a bit of colour. It makes it feel like everything’s been brought up to date rather than remaining in the past.”

The company’s logo – a white monogram set against a purple background alongside the words ‘A.B. Walker & Son Ltd., Est. 1826’ – has been replaced with a simpler design. Serif letterforms are based on an old sign found in the company’s head office. GBH has also commissioned a sign writer to create new signage for each A.B. Walker branch based on the new logo.

“When we went to the head office in Reading, we saw they had a very nice original hand painted sign on the stairs from the 1900s, and we thought that had a certain warmth,” says Saunders. “That handmade quality emphasises the attention to detail they give every funeral, so we used that as a starting point.”

Brochures showing caskets, coffins and flowers will be replaced with illustrated books, in the style of paperback novels
Brochures showing caskets, coffins and flowers will be replaced with illustrated books, in the style of paperback novels
Books can be arranged on shelves and feature typographic covers in shades of green
Books feature typographic covers in shades of green and avoid explicit references to things such as coffins and caskets

The bright shade of green featured in the company’s new colour palette may seem an unusual choice, but Saunders says GBH was keen to steer away from the oft-used black, blue and purple. “We tried a lot of different colours but this one stuck out – I think it’s probably down to the fact it has a nice warmth about it,” he explains. “Green has an affiliation with nature, [and is] a soothing colour that can have some pop against a darker background.”

The project is still a work-in-progress: A.B. Walker’s new website is still to launch and new signage, books and digital displays will be rolled out gradually rather than all at once. (Saunders says the company is keen to avoid taking a one-size-fits all approach to refurbishing branches, particularly as each one is housed in a different type of building). The new identity doesn’t scream or shout but rather, has a more understated feel – and is more sensitive to the needs of people using A.B. Walker’s services.

“I guess the biggest challenge was not to make anything worse than it currently is – not to do something that would make people coming in feel this was not the right place for them … and to make something with a calming, warm feel about it,” says Saunders. “It really goes back to the frame of mind that people into these places are in – it is the most daunting thing for anyone to be able to do, and you’re never prepared for the first time, so we just wanted to make that whole process less stressful.”

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