Rebranding Oxford’s oldest church

Creating an identity for an 800-year-old church that will attract a new audience, without alienating its existing one, is a challenging task. But since launching early this year, Spy Studio’s branding for Oxford’s University Church has had a positive response from both newcomers and loyal visitors. We spoke to associate priest Alan Ramsey, a former designer, and Spy director Ben Duckett about the thinking behind the church’s new look.

Creating an identity for an 800-year-old church that will attract a new audience, without alienating its existing one, is a challenging task. But since launching early this year, Spy Studio‘s branding for Oxford’s University Church has had a positive response from both newcomers and loyal visitors. We spoke to associate priest Alan Ramsey, a former designer, and Spy director Ben Duckett about the thinking behind the church’s new look.

University Church was founded in the 13th century, when it was used to host religious services and academic lectures by students and teachers at the University of Oxford. It still hosts Christian services and non-religious events, such as talks, poetry readings and concerts.

The building was refurbished in 2012, and associate priest Alan Ramsey, a former account director at Wolff Olins, says the church was keen to update its communications and signage after reopening.

“When I started working at University Church in September 2013, the building had just undergone a £5 million restoration, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The church looked stunning, but the communications didn’t,” he says. “The website and publicity materials were incredibly dated, the signage wasn’t working as hard as it could. And the confusing variety of names for the church (The University Church, St Mary the Virgin, St Mary’s, SMV) was something that needed to be rationalised.”

As well as being out of date, Ramsey says the church’s previous communications failed to reflect its fascinating history. It was the scene of the trials of protestant martyrs in the 1500s, and Oxfam was founded in its library in 1942.

“A new visual identity was needed to tell all these stories in a coherent and compelling way,” says Ramsey. “There was also an ambition to set a new benchmark for how liberal parish churches visually present themselves…. We frequently invite atheist philosophers, or agnostic cultural figures to deliver the Sunday morning sermon. The project was about matching this bold mindset with an equally bold visual expression.”

Spy was asked to create a more contemporary identity that would appeal to tourists, students and passers-by as well as the congregation, and would better reflect the church’s liberal outlook as well as its past.

The identity is based around a slanted device, which can be used across and under images and as a placeholder, and is also featured in the church’s new word mark, in Lineto typeface, Brown. Ramsey says the device is both a reference to light (the University of Oxford’s motto is ‘The Lord is my light’) and the church’s desire to “provoke and illuminate.”

“The whole look and feel needed to have a sense of gravitas but also vibrancy that would appeal to a younger audience, especially students given our setting,” he adds. The aim from the outset was to avoid anything that would be seen as too conservative or traditional, including religious motifs, and obvious references to the building.

Brown is used alongside Commercial Type’s Publico, a pairing that Duckett says aims to reflect the idea of history and modernity. “The church has some exquisite typographic stone carvings set within the gravestones. This was the inspiration behind [using] Publico,” he adds. The colour palette couples black, white and grey with brighter shades of pink, orange and yellow.

Spy also commissioned photographer Christian Sinibaldi to create a new image library for the church, with reportage style shots and close-ups of architecture replacing formal photographs of sermons. “We’ve purposely focused on more conceptual or architecture based photography rather than corporate style images of ‘shiny happy Christians,’ which is such a turn-off. [The identity] is not about selling. It’s about telling stories honestly and creating a space for people to explore faith with intellectual rigour,” says Ramsey.

The identity was launched early this year and has so far been used to create a new website, leaflets and visitor information, as well as signage and wayfinding, posters for events, and a book about the church’s history.

University Church isn’t the only religious organisation to undergo a contemporary rebrand of late – the Holy Trinity in Brompton, Kensington recently rebranded as HTF, with a new website, and in 2012, Paperjam created a new identity for the Bishop of London. In the US, Pentagram has also been doing some brilliantly witty work with the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York, centred on religious word play.

University Church’s new look is less tongue-in-cheek, and uses no traditional motif or symbol like the Bishop of England’s. Ramsey admits the new look won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but says the response from its staff and congregation has been largely positive. Spy’s flexible system gives the church a consistent visual identity for the first time in its history, and Sinibaldi’s photography provides a nod to the church’s heritage, while showcasing some stunning architectural features.

“We haven’t carried out any detailed research yet on its impact. But we’ve had lots of unprompted positive feedback from visitors and from people all over the world who’ve had a previous connection with the church,” he explains. “It has also made a huge difference to our student and education events: our new style publicity has helped to attract many high-profile speakers and guests who have no other connection with the church, their talks are now advertised in a very professional and eye-catching way and the space is uniquely branded for the evening, so they feel proud to be associated with us. And overall, numbers to these events have increased.”

“One of the great delights of University Church is that the congregation is extremely open minded…. The vicar of the church, Canon Brian Mountford, has cultivated this progressive mindset for the last three decades. That’s not to say that everyone shares similar aesthetic tastes, and the new identity is not going to be everyone’s immediate cup of tea, but there was no fear or unhelpful politics, which there often is in rebranding projects. Everyone was behind the initiative from the outset. It’s important, though, to critique it on an ongoing basis. We’re still working with Spy to bring other elements in line with the new identity, and to see how we might keep developing it further,” he says.

Spy is continuing to work with the church on wayfinding, new additions to its website and printed communications, but says the new identity has given church members a toolkit to create their own posters and communications.

“Simple day-to-day materials of print ready templates have been created so that [the church] can literally ‘plug and play’ with them. That was also a remit within the brief, to create a system was on one side, bold and standout, whilst being very easy to use by non-designers,” adds Duckett.

In the church grounds, Ramsey says the new signs, posters and wayfinding have also been attracting attention from passers by. “We updated our signage at the two main entrances, [and] this has been a huge success. Scruffy blackboards with unremarkable posters glued on and ripped off each week have now been replaced with a series of bespoke glass fronted cases, similar to what’s used by most major London museums and galleries,” he says.

“There is a greater sense of arriving at a cultural destination and everyday I see people linger much longer at these points than previously. The new series of guidebooks have also been an invaluable resource for our welcomers and guides who give tours of the building – it’s the first time we’ve visually documented a full chronological story of the church.”

With University Church proving a popular tourist attraction as well as a place to host religious sermons, there was a clear need for it to have a consistent visual identity, and communications aimed not just at Christians, but anyone who might be interested in attending an event or taking a tour of the building. And as Ramsey points out, there is wider need for many churches, if they want to attract new visitors, to have a more contemporary image.

“I think it’s crucial for churches to have strong visual identities. For any community and its story to survive it has to keep reimagining itself for a new time and for new audiences. Faith is not a half-hearted matter but when you look at most church websites, signs and printed collateral that’s not the impression you get. Our new identity is a visible way of showing that we care about our story, our community, our building and our visitors…. And that the future is as important as the past.”

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