Over the years, several attempts at giving the Southbank Centre a coherent and unified identity have been forthcoming, but none have lasted very long. It is a big task to bring together a range of disparate venues and performance spaces under one visual marker – while, at the same time, ensuring the voice of each of these individual spaces is heard.
Collectively, the venues that make up the Southbank – the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall – mean it is effectively Europe’s largest arts centre. The organisation is also home to The Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection, not to mention the ‘Undercroft’, one of the city’s most famous skate parks in use since the 1970s.
The origins of the Centre go back to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Royal Festival Hall remains the only original building from that time, while the Brutalist additions of Queen Elizabeth Hall (1967) and the Hayward (1968) came later. Since then the complex has been refurbished several times, often with an identity update running in tandem with redevelopment work.
In 2007, Wolff Olins unveiled a new identity system that, as Design Week reported, aimed to act as an “overarching style” for the various cultural institutions within the Southbank umbrella. It coincided with the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall and replaced the CDT-designed work which had been in use since the mid-1990s. The wider problem remained, however – how to clearly communicate the purpose of the place and the numerous activities offered up by the 21-acre site?
“The previous Southbank Centre identity had very little brand presence – the identity had become very sporadic and often nearly invisible,” says North’s Charlie De Grussa. “The in-house design team had always struggled to apply the ‘weave’ (see below) in its original intent, due to technical limitations and not being able to overlay such graphic elements on artists or performers images.
“This led to a huge disconnect between intent and reality,” De Grussa continues, “without the weave, the identity was reduced to a logo and neutral typeface, and with communication designs being driven by the diverse content, the logo was being placed quietly and inconsistently in the corner, looking like more a sponsor rather an author.”
In September 2015, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery were closed to the public in order that restoration work and improvements to facilities could be carried out. Last summer, North were invited to review the existing brand identity.
“Whilst Southbank Centre were re-defining their mission and strategy to embrace their festival heritage of bringing art and culture to everyone, North worked closely with their in-house design team to create a caretaker design system that dealt with some of the problems,” says De Grussa.
“When the strategy was finalised, [we] thoroughly investigated different degrees of change – however, it soon became clear that a revolutionary approach would be needed to enable the identity to accurately reflect Southbank Centre’s new mission and strategy.”
With a strategy and programming direction that had moved towards more of a ‘festival’ concept, it was important that the Centre be shown to be a ‘curator’ of content rather than simply a place for it to happen. This ultimately influenced the visual approach taken by North.
“The masthead approach works perfectly for this,” De Grussa explains. “It allows Southbank Centre to be top and centre but the content to always change as required without weakening the brand expression. Over time, the masthead coupled with the typography will become an instantly recognisable device signalling Southbank Centre as the host with the events and exhibitions the content.”
Research into the Centre’s links to the 1950s became a key aspect of the process, De Grussa adds. “In this project we were lucky to have a client with such a rich heritage, both visually and culturally, and whose strategy was to embrace this heritage and spirit,” he says.
“Typography was a intrinsic part of the Festival of Britain’s graphic style – it had a typographic panel, which included lettering historian Nicolete Gray, who created a manual for architects and designers to maintain consistent typography across the site and printed materials.”
“The panel decided that the Festival should be distinctly British, which meant a deliberate move away from popular European sans serifs of the time to 19th-century display typefaces designed for maximum legibility. This approach influenced our choice of a modern display typeface, which creates a recognisable typographic tone of voice and stands out in the cultural sector.
“Noe Display not only reflects the style desired by the Festival of Britain’s typographic panel, but also visually references some of the Southbank Centre’s iconic architectural features, such as the Hayward Gallery’s pyramid rooflights, the supporting columns of the Undercroft and the overhanging angled terraces.”
“The ligatures deal with some kerning issues and create a logotype rather than a piece of type which could be replicated – this second point was particularly important to discourage the logo being ‘re-created’ in the wrong typeface (as had been happening in the previous identity).”
Colour also gave North an opportunity to provide extra standout. “During research one issue that kept reoccurring was the difficulty Southbank Centre had in defining it’s complex physical site to visitors,” says De Grussa.
“We begun to explore how using colour would help solve this problem. Yellow was already being used on the staircase beside Queen Elizabeth Hall and in a number of other places across the site, so we began to extend the use of this to help solve the problem.”
“From further research it became clear that no other cultural institution in the UK really ‘owned’ a single colour, so we began to investigate how yellow could be used in Southbank Centre’s marketing materials, as well as across the site, to create stand out in the competitive cultural sector.
“The yellow works well with other colours and also feels energetic and celebratory, capturing the festival spirit.”