Designing for an art-savvy crowd is never easy. They’re visually literate, with an eye trained on aesthetics, and have a keen sense of what “looks good.” Designing for art fairs is an even trickier beast, keeping in mind not one, but four very different audiences: the organizers of the fair, who need a strong, smart, and confident brand; the galleries the fair wants to attract; the high-rolling, big-spending art collectors; and finally the everyday visitors, there to enjoy the vast spectrum of work that fairs have to offer. But how do you create a brand that works for all these audiences? We spoke to a selection of experienced studios to find out.

Base Design, Art Brussels branding

This month Base Design unveiled its new branding for Art Brussels, a fair now in its 35th edition. According to Base’s Brussels-based CEO and founding partner Dimitri Jeurissen, the fair’s previous branding was based around curatorial and “academic” ideas, but the organizers were looking for an identity that was stronger, more recognizable, and more effective at communicating with external audiences. “They came to us for something that was dynamic but also showed how established they are,” he says. “At the same time they wanted to show how aware they are of things like the moving art world, and how they play an impeccably organized role in facilitating galleries from all around the world, yet they’re still very much linked with the city and the other cultural institutions there.”

Base Design, Art Brussels branding

Base’s approach was to aim for something “timeless,” creating a flexible identity system with a “brand communication approach.” The agency designed its own typeface in-house and used a geometric system of squares and rectangles across the various applications. Jeurissen says, “We really wanted to make something that wasn’t trendy, that could have been made tomorrow, today, or yesterday. There are references to established graphics but at the same time we used flexible systems. Ours is a very geometric system, it’s like a Tetris where you fit all the information into a grid and it builds itself up. It could be very busy or very clean and bold.”

Base Design, Art Brussels branding

Creating a design that subtly references the past, but still looks to the future seems to solve the aforementioned issue of appealing to a broad spectrum of visually attuned audiences. Its simplicity is key, too; the designs eventually have to leave the warm bosom of Base’s designers to be applied by Art Brussels’ in-house team for future editions of the fair.

Another problem with creating art fair identities is the vast number of touch points across which they will be seen–everything from billboard ads, signage, and wayfinding, to apps, bags, labels, and stationery. For Jeurissen, the solution was to “link the logo or graphic system with type based on very simple rules. It’s not ambiguous, it’s bold. When we’re convinced about the boldness, we feel comfortable in how it works with different audiences.”

The Plant, Art HK identity

Matt Utber is founder and creative director of London-based agency The Plant, which has worked with art fairs including Art13, Art15, and Art16 in London, Art Hong Kong, and Melbourne Art Fair. He agrees with Jeurissen that the identity systems for such events should inherently tie in with their locations. The Plant’s campaign for Art Central, a satellite event for Art Hong Kong, was based around “interventions into the city.” Despite its name, Art Central is held in a Hong Kong suburb, so the agency played on this by basing the graphics on the Chinese character for “central.” This was accompanied by a series of lines inspired by Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

The Plant, Art Central identity

“For Art15 there were a lot of international galleries, so we layered a number of concepts and ideas to reflect the convergence of galleries around the world,” says Utber. “Art Central was about the energy of young artists and their galleries. We wanted the identity to feel vibrant and alive. Art Hong Kong was a much higher end fair—it needed to feel like a more exclusive event, so a lot of it is about the positioning, and the design needs to reflect that.”

The Plant, Art15 identity

So what complexities arise when designing an identity for a space that has yet to exist? That was the problem faced by Graphic Thought Facility when it was appointed back in 2002 to create the identity for Frieze art fair. Now the undisputed king of the London art fair scene, in the early 2000s it was a radical idea to house works in a temporary structure in the middle of a park. The studio had previously worked with Frieze co-director Matthew Slotover, and began creating a mark and visual identity. Paul Neale, GTF co-director, says, “I don’t think we ever received a written brief, as is often the way with startups. When nothing exists, you just find a way–you know you need a mark, and secondary typeface, and you have to find a way to work out what the broad spectrum of applications is going to be, and work them up simultaneously when you can.”

Graphic Thought Facility, Frieze branding

This challenge was coupled with broader considerations around creating an identity strong enough to stand out, but subtle enough to allow the art to take center stage. The Frieze mark uses custom drawn typography based on the Jakarta face, with the secondary type using Bembo Schoolbook for a “very different, more academic vibe.” According to Neale, art fair branding should avoid being “too specific” in tone: “You have to use broad brushstrokes to describe the fair’s activity, which is helpful as you have to be more creative than when you’re just using a supplied image.

“Every fair we’ve done has a life to it. The identity can evolve and feel fresh every year, but there’s a consistency to it that keeps it instantly recognizable.”

Graphic Thought Facility, Frieze branding

The final campaign GTF created for Frieze was in 2013, when the designs were handed over to an in-house team. “The decision to not continue was really hard, and it’s strange seeing the elements you created being used by others,” says Neale. “It was a wonderful ongoing project—for us it was fantastic to be there right from the beginning and set these systems up—but as Frieze got significantly bigger it became an increasingly large project, and we decided that as a small studio we had to be very careful about how much work we take on.”

The creators of the stunning identity for New York’s NADA art fair say that their innovative design system was born of experimentation, rather than any conscious discussions around audiences, touchpoints, brand equity, or cities. It’s a brave admission that makes sense for a brave approach, which has seen the identity undergo subtle changes each year between 2012 and 2016, and a wider reworking for the 2017 iteration. Behind these designs are independent designers Francesca Grassi and Geoff Han (neither has a website, another bold move) who share a studio in New York’s Lower East Side. “I don’t know if we really consider the audience,” says Grassi. Was there any trepidation in making work for the visually literate? “I don’t think we considered that either,” she says.

Francesca Grassi and Geoff Han, NADA campaign

Far from being an arrogant or solipsistic response, this attitude has fostered an ever-evolving identity that’s stronger and more visually exciting than perhaps any other I’ve seen. The difference here is that rather than being purely a fair, NADA is a broader non-profit arts organization with a number of other strands, including a membership program, and experimental music series NADAWAVE. It feels like a more adventurous client than traditional trade fairs, and has allowed Grassi and Han considerable creative freedom since their appointment in 2012. “They’re very progressive as an organization, and allowed us to experiment a lot,” says Grassi.

“As they’re expanding, we’re growing with them. It’s about continuing to experiment and not defining ourselves by things like the equity of the brand.”

The designs represent a move away from singling out a single artist’s image, and eschew the formula used by fairs like Art Basel of taking the same identity and modifying the color palette for each edition. “We wanted to create something ourselves, but have it be a system that’s continuously changing so there’s never just one impression. NADA becomes recognizable through the graphic environment we create.” 

Grassi and Han achieved this using a series of seemingly random images, a monochrome backdrop, and the Folio typeface, meaning the brand image is never repeated for the viewer. Not only does this rail against typical art fair identities, but against the fundamental idea of the logo, too.

“Logos seem so acceptable for everyone somehow, but creating a graphic or artistic mark [for NADA] seems to be a little like stepping on the toes of the artists themselves. If you look at art fair ads in art magazines there’s just one image of art after the next—every gallery represents themselves through the images of artists on show. There’s a lightness in creating and building up a library of graphics or images that can then be continuously plugged into, so you’re never looking at the same thing twice.”

Francesca Grassi and Geoff Han, NADA campaign

For the 2017 edition of the fair, these images come from lengthy visits to New York’s public library, trawling their archives then recreating interesting snapshots in the brand’s strict color palette of green, red and blue. The idea behind the animation style used to display these online came from an unlikely source: the banned 1973 trailer for The Exorcist, in which faces rapidly transform into blocks of color in a terrifying series of transitions.

A strong identity system based around longevity, confidence, and the capacity for evolution is a vital foundation for art fairs, some of which have quietly come and gone in recent years. For a while, it seemed these monumental bazaars were unstoppable, but naturally the bubble burst. According to Utber, their success was in their democratization of the art world—“they opened up art, people can see how it works as a business as well as a means of expression”—but he admits there eventually came a “saturation” point. Now, more than ever, art fairs need to be bold in the galleries they select, and to take their brand seriously – which means being bold in commissioning superlative design work to strengthen that brand.