The art of the matter

Conveying inspiration and vision while not drawing attention away from the work is the key to creating effective design projects for artists unobtrusive, functional design allows the work to speak for itself, as Laura Snoad discovers

Photographer Rankin’s website, designed by This Is Studio

Last month saw the launch of a new website for artist Anish Kapoor, designed by Brighten the Corners, while Tracey Emin is currently developing her own site with consultancy Glock.

Although winning an artist client can be tremendously liberating because they are well versed in dealing with the visual world, realising an artist’s personal vision while complementing the identity of their art and not drawing attention from it poses unusual challenges.

Glock is currently in the workshop stages with Emin to develop the brief for her new site, which will act as an archive of the artist’s work, as well as featuring a blog and an existing retail space also designed by Glock. Unlike with commercial clients, when working with an artist this stage can be heavily collaborative as many artists are not used to setting briefs, and require advice with regard to functionality and the needs of the site’s users, according to Glock creative director Carsten Glock.

He says, ’We approach it in a very visual way, rather than a strategic and theoretical approach, as you would with other clients.’

Glock likens his design approach to an artists’ website to that of a physical gallery. ’The design and the images shouldn’t be competing with each other,’ he says. ’A gallery isn’t painted in crazy colours. It’s pared down and stripped back so you focus on the painting, not the support structure around it.’

Simplicity was essential for Glock when creating the online retail space for Emin last year, as well as a site for artist Andrea Mason.

Kapoor’s site, which Brighten the Corners describes as ’plain, but dense’, similarly uses a clean, simple style. Perhaps counter-intuitively for such a visual subject, the site is based around a purely typographic homepage featuring colour-coded links to his work, something Kapoor was keen to implement.

Brighten the Corners’ Billy Kiosoglou says, ’Kapoor doesn’t like the idea of using thumbnails of works as they can reduce the visual impact. Also, the titles of his works are quite playful, so they work quite well as links.’

After clicking through, users are presented with impressive, large-scale visuals and can burrow into similar projects using links below the images. Again, perhaps counterintuitively, once at this level the main menu disappears, encouraging users to peruse the similar works, or requiring several back-button clicks to reach the homepage. Kiosoglou says, ’Kapoor wanted people to be able to explore the site you can get lost in it.’

This Is Studio’s site for photographer Rankin, which launched in October 2010, similarly had to display a huge amount of images, in a way that reflected the style of Rankin’s sleek, edgy photography, while stimulating a sense of excitement and discovery.

The site is based around a carousel unit of images, each of which represents a different category of Rankin’s work, such as covers, advertising or film. The thumbnails change frequently, using photographs from each category they link to, to show as much imagery as possible without cluttering the site.

This Is Studio creative partner Richard Barnett says, ’Rankin didn’t want something that looked static, it needed to evolve every time you go back. It’s very simple and focuses on the images. The design itself is supposed to be invisible.’

Rankin’s original vision for the site was to have a magazine look and feel, something which This Is Studio trialled at the pitch stage before abandoning it for the ’simple and intuitive’ carousel model. Rankin says, ’We found that a magazine approach was unnecessary as people only really want to look at the work.’

Another challenge is trying to encourage artists to think with a marketing mindset, as often artists’ creative output doesn’t take into account a target market or need to be functional. Cog Design creative director Michael Smith, who worked with Antony Gormley for the branding of the Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth project One & Other, says, ’I’m not saying artists aren’t great communicators. They obviously are, but their job isn’t communicating at that level. They’re not used to selling.’
Luckily for Cog, Gormley understood that a ’rarefied’, art gallery approach wasn’t going to work for this project and set the consultancy a very open brief to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, says Smith.

The branding for the One & Other project featured a lone person standing on the plinth, and was extended to include around 50 silhouettes to represent members of the public, each of which had to be approved by Gormley.

Smith says, ’It was important to him that the silhouettes weren’t silly and that they represented everyone. You could tell so much about the people from their silhouette, we found that very quickly.’

Although One & Other was about audience participation rather than Gormley’s creations, it was still important to reference Gormley’s distinctive body of work. The featureless silhouette marque subtly echoed the body casts created by Gormley, adding to public recognition of the brand and its origins.

Smith explains, ’In the art world, Gormley’s a kind of giant, but in the normal world he’s a populist figure. We needed to make that link with people.’

Artists’ websites

  • Artists’ websites are often unobtrusive and purposefully minimal, but heavily designed functionality is key
  • Antony Gormley’s own website, designed by Amp London, has a custom-built image viewer that can handle an unlimited number of images, using a mix of server-side caching and image loading/unloading
  • Rankin can update his image-heavy website using an iPhone app, as can up to 40 members of his studio simultaneously
  • Media-savvy Rankin wanted the site to be used across platforms, such as the iPad, so the site was made using html rather than Flash

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