Graphics a great equalizer

Graphics groups are seeing an upsurge in gallery and museum work, says Hannah Booth, and though the budgets are generally low, creativity is high

Museums and galleries have long been a lucrative source of work for exhibition specialists, but increasingly they are also offering graphics studios dream projects with the sort of creative freedom not presented by corporate projects.

From Zandra Rhodes’ nascent textiles museum’s work with Kerr Noble (DW 20 February) to Neville Brody’s work for London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (DW 30 January), museums are becoming commissioners of highly creative design. But what has prompted this focus on creativity? And, given limited budgets and the current economic climate, is creative freedom important?

Graphic Thought Facility works regularly in exhibition graphic design. It created the Design Museum’s new identity (DW 20 February), is designing graphics for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s showpiece Art Deco exhibition next month and has worked with the Manchester Art Gallery, Tate Galleries and the Science Museum among others.

Museum work stimulates the team and gives it the opportunity to create lively ‘portfolio work’, says GTF director Paul Neale. ‘We’re usually engaged in the subject: if it’s important enough to be on show, chances are it’s good material. And we’re often brought in early on during a project which helps the creative process.’

Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn agrees museum work gives designers greater creative freedom as they’re not subject to constraints that may apply to corporate projects. She works with smaller studios including Kerr Noble, Studio Myerscough, Abake and Alex Rich alongside GTF.

‘Museum projects create opportunities for designers to work across different media,’ she says. ‘Exhibition graphics, for example, can include 3D and multimedia work as well as print, while installation design lets architects flirt with set design.

Graphic design guru Brody is hardly new to dream projects, but he has started working with growing frequency for London’s ICA, most recently on the Cut and Splice electronic music festival and Beck’s Futures award, both of which open next month.

Hardly a small studio either, (Brody’s Research Studios has offices in Paris and Berlin as well as London), it nonetheless offers the rich mix of young blood and experience that ICA director Philip Dodd is seeking.

‘We’re committed to showing the work of young, up-coming artists and I felt we should be doing the same for designers,’ Dodd says. Research Studios combines the historical perspective of Brody with the ‘edge’ of its young team, he says.

Brody has been commissioned to produce a poster for Cut and Splice and limited edition boxed catalogue, exhibition guide, private view invitations, signage and other publicity materials for Beck’s. The former is not standard show guide fare. It features a poster, an essay by the author JG Ballard and information in jumbled order, which is ‘in keeping with the aesthetic of the show’, according to Dodd.

He believes it’s unlikely many other clients offer such left-field projects. ‘We’re in a risk-free culture, few companies are [in that position].’ The ICA also offers mutual client-designer support in the form of its creative exchange forum, The Club. ‘We’re always looking for new talent – we’re quite promiscuous,’ he adds.

For commissioners like Dodd, working with smaller groups has benefits. Gity Monsef, creative director at the Fashion and Textile Museum, commissioned Kerr Noble to create the graphics for its opening show, My Favourite Dress.

Monsef enjoys the close interaction and good service from a small team. ‘With smaller studios, you know who you’re dealing with and you can get hold of them,’ she says. Neale agrees. Museums need value for money and smaller teams are usually more cost-effective as they don’t employ account handlers, he says.

Cost is an important consideration as museum work may be creatively rewarding, but budgets are generally tiny. GTF’s work ranges from four-figure jobs at the bottom end to five-figure projects for larger-scale, higher profile work.

Neale says, despite low overheads, GTF has to take ‘less interesting’ jobs to support its museum work. ‘Exhibition graphics are time-consuming, particularly when 3D work is involved. It’s often late-breaking work, too,’ Neale says.

Manchester studio Via, which created all the graphics for the city’s Urbis centre, says budgets are small: its average fee for museum work is ‘£6000 or £7000’. But, according to creative director Trevor Johnson, it’s ‘refreshingly’ creative work, of the sort he has not seen since working regularly for Factory Records.

‘During the mid-1980s [at Factory], our work was of a consistently high standard. Once that stopped [when Factory closed], I was shocked that other industries didn’t care as much about style. At Urbis, the client was very forward-thinking and we were given real creative freedom,’ Johnson says.

Via’s Factory experience gave it ‘strong credibility’ for the all-important student market, says Maria Bota, marketing director at Urbis owner Hallogen, which commissioned the group. Urbis is now focusing on the content of temporary exhibitions to keep the space fresh, and is looking to appoint a creative director to oversee them.

Rawsthorn refuses to be drawn on budgets. ‘The only criterion that we apply when choosing designers is whether we are convinced they will produce the most exciting, and empathetic, creative work,’ she says.

Monsef admits the Fashion and Textile Museum is on a ‘very tight budget’, but also says money was not a factor in working with Kerr Noble. ‘It’s about the work, and how you create the best with what you’ve got,’ she says.

It’s an irony that small design budgets are yielding some of the most innovative work around, but then creativity often thrives under tougher conditions.

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