Sheet attitude

Some say big posters represent a dying medium, but their directness and simplicity have long made them a fixture in the world of music and cultural festivals. Anna Richardson looks at some graphic approaches to the big scale dotted around cities throughout the UK this summer

With May comes the start of the summer festival season. As festivals kick off in earnest across the land, vying for this year’s music, literary or performing arts fans, they have increasingly innovative ways to get their messages across. With non-destructive, creative street graphics, viral fly-postering, online campaigns or hand-painted signs, billboards or banners are arguably old-fashioned options for drumming up enthusiasm. Nonetheless, as Chris Harrison, founder of Harrison &Co, says, they’re ’fairly reliable at the same time’.

’Posters add presence to festivals and give them a bit of gravitas,’ says Simon Thomason, brand manager at Absolute, which is rolling out a number of posters as part of the rebrand of Cornwall’s Run to the Sun festival. ’It’s about making people part of something, and posters are a great medium to translate that.’

Inspired by old-school street graffiti and fly-poster campaigns, such as Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant, Absolute created a graphic identity to convey the festival’s roots in the Volkswagen camper van and custom car scene.

Its various applications include six-sheet poster sites, in addition to flyers and personalisable ’tag’ stickers, capturing the festival’s ’anything goes’ attitude.

Harrison &Co, meanwhile, created the branding for this year’s Brighton Festival, which is art directed by Brian Eno and opened on 1 May. The identity combines calligraphy and photography with a graphic image from Eno’s touring sound- and image-scape 77 Million Paintings, and is rolled out across T-shirts, press ads and other small-scale items, as well as large-scale print such as 48-sheet billboards and bus shelters.

’To keep things simple is always a good policy, whatever you’re doing,’ says Harrison of designing graphic identities. But with large print especially, there are additional restrictions. Giant billboards are produced at a lower resolution, making simplicity paramount, and applying a graphic identity to different formats is not just ’a case of enlarging or reducing’, says Harrison. ’It’s looking at the toolkit of elements and knowing how to best use those in large and small scale, and making sure that there is consistency. On a street lamp poster banner, for example, there are certain images within the toolkit that wouldn’t be suitable because they’re too detailed. If someone is on the ground, and the banner is [4m] in the air, to keep things simple and bold is a good idea.’

Simple and bold is an apt way of describing the large-scale elements of True North’s graphic identity for the Queer Up North festival in Manchester. They include a 20m x 7m building wrap, one 48-sheet and more than 40 six-sheet gold-coloured billboards, which brought their own peculiar challenges – True North had to check where the sun rises and sets, for example.

’With so many festivals going on, getting stand-out is crucial, so you try to work with the client to push them and yourselves,’ says Matt Maurer, senior designer at True North.

But simplicity was again imperative, given the ambitious gold print. ’It was so reflective that legibility was almost going out of the window,’ says Maurer. ’But it was so enticing we actually saw people walking up to it to read it, so it was drawing people in.’ In the end, the consultancy opted for a simple large-scale URL on the 48-sheeter, which fits well with the graphic identity.

The brand is based on the concept of being different, with the identity made up of 26 different letter Qs, summing up different aspects of the festival. ’We’ve really cut back and used the typography cues and the copy to lead. Part of the reason was to open up the audience. The combination of beautifully typographical posters and type-based copy is very appealing to the general public, as well as to the gay community,’ says Maurer. ’You’re talking to everyone without alienating anyone.’

Maurer admits that the client was brave with the branding, and from a creative point of view ’the more interesting things you can do, the more stand out you can achieve’. But, as in all graphic design, he adds, ’You can’t get away with just beauty and no substance.’

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