As summer starts to seep into fall, many of us will be emerging from the collective hangovers, sweaty tents, and extended overdrafts that can only be the result of one thing: festival season. Music festivals the world over have soared in popularity over the last decade or so, indicating a seemingly insatiable public appetite for standing about in large fields and bellowing along to music. With the vast range of festivals now on offer, they’ve simultaneously become more nuanced: the sites are not only fields, but beaches, holiday camps, and islands; the lineups aren’t just about bands, but art, food, and that typically millennial pursuit of anything “immersive.”
While this proliferation might seem to indicate that organizers can throw any old line-up into a vast arena and a girl with a glittery face will shove $400 in their hands, the reality is the opposite: each festival is having to compete more fiercely to sell tickets, and as well as considerations like lineup, price point, and extracurricular happenings, that means ensuring branding is totally on point—which is where the designers come in.
We wanted to speak to a few designers who’ve worked across some very different festivals about what works, what doesn’t, and the challenges that are specific to designing for music festivals. This is by no means an exhaustive list of case studies, but a small exploration of a some festivals across the U.S. and the UK, and a few studios’ experience in working with festival clients. Of course, a logo and a nice bit of website design are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to branding an “experience”: a friendly crowd, shared belief system, and watching a wide-eyed raver in a mask lose his shit simply cannot be locked down in a slick brand book.
A Baptism of Fyre
Sometimes though, a festival starts and ends as an exercise in branding, with a canny, if baffling, social media campaign that trumps any sort of substance—like the well documented Fyre festival fiasco. The premise of the event, organised by rapper Ja Rule and 25-year-old tech entrepreneur Billy McFarland, was a luxury boutique affair on an island in The Bahamas, relentlessly promoted on social media by supermodels and “influencers” like Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner, who was reportedly paid $250,000 to promote the event on her Instagram account.
Logo-wise, it was very much of the moment: a sans serif, wide-spaced word mark and a little flame icon not unlike Tinder’s. It’s like something straight off one of those “design your own hipster logo” sites. It’s definitely not great, but it’s not terrible either: clearly it did what it had to do and helped sell a shed load of tickets. Although we’re sure nobody was talking about the branding when the festival’s organizer was charged with fraud.
The very notion of “branding” a festival is fraught with problems, too. Many events claim to be staunchly against the idea of brands playing a role in their festival at all, and so resist the idea of considering themselves a “brand” too. When we reached out for comment from Glastonbury Festival on its visual identity, and who had created it, we were met with an answer as opaque as its famous mud: “We have a lot of artists and 47 years of history so we don’t normally single any one designer/artist out I’m afraid. ‘Tis all a group effort!!” Which perhaps explains its rather erratic and apparently laissez faire attitude to graphic design, which varies wildly year on year with no singular approach to typography, logos, or any other unifying visual device. For 2017, the designs included Victorian style hands rendered in an etching effected against multicoloured, multi-fonted lettering. Their one consistent logo features a merry band of little clip art people, dancing in a circle.
But there have been some excellent moments in Glastonbury’s artwork history, too, indicating that branding isn’t just about a logo and website design. Instead, festival branding is more about a holistic package where intangible or event-specific ephemera are just as important as agency-designed umbrella devices.
For instance Stanley Donwood has designed posters and all sorts of print collateral for the festival year after year, which together has a consistency that only seasoned Glastonbury-goers would recognize. This includes the daily Glastonbury newspaper distributed throughout the event; a touchpoint made all the more special by its exclusivity to festival-goers. Designs like this act as a symbol of a shared experience that those outside the festival site simply can’t experience.
In a similar vein, many would argue that these sort of festivals have built up their own identity through a history of shared beliefs, sociopolitical agendas and the sort of stories passed between friends (and now social media) with which even the best graphic design in the world can’t compete. Which perhaps explains the frankly terrible logo for Burning Man: again, we see the little clipart man that more usually graces the business cards of small-town chiropodists, nursery schools, or real estate agents and makes up the bulk of stock logo sites.
We’ll never know who’s behind the poor little stick figure: when asked for comment, a Burning Man representative replied that “Burning Man is not a festival. Black Rock City is a city built by and for its participants, and the week in the desert is one part of a year-round, global community and culture. Our identity was created by the community, and we have never hired outside agencies.”
But while it’s easy for us to take a swipe at poor old Fyre, and a pop at Burning Man’s little man, the fact is that branding a festival is one of the more challenging and complex projects a designer can face.
Case Study 1: Day For Night: Designs For “a More Mature Experience”
In 2015 New York branding and motion design studio Work-Order created the first of its ambitious audiovisual campaigs for Day for Night festival. The annual event in Houston aims “to combine the the most experimental digital artists from all over the globe with an equally eclectic and international selection of musicians,” showcasing acts like Aphex Twin, Psychic TV, Holly Herndon, and John Carpenter alongside digital artists like Bjork Digital, United Visual Artists, and Joanie Lemercier. It’s a genuinely forward-thinking approach that Work-Order partner Kiffer Keegan describes as an “anti music festival music festival.” As such, the studio wanted to create a look and feel that spoke “more maturely, and speaks to a more technologically savvy crowd that might not get too wasted. It’s a more mature experience,” says Keegan.
This December will see the festival’s third outing, and as with the previous two incarnations the branding will undergo a visual evolution. Last year’s designers used a logomark based on a “twofold system working with and without the name,” Work-Order explains. “Without the name the symbol sits shrouded in mystery. With the name Day for Night, it becomes a clear, bold brand mark.” The symbol was used in a pre-launch teaser campaign “to get people asking questions,” and the brand mark was then revealed through an animated rotating logo for the launch. The circular motif was carried across all four stages, utilizing LED and rear-projection.
Each year’s identity is a slight evolution on the previous year’s designs, which mostly happens through modifications of the color. “Last year it was acidic, and that could cut through a lot of the stuff in Houston,” Keegan explains. “The posters are mostly on the streets and there’s lots less foot traffic in Houston, so visibility from your car is important and they have to stand out from whatever else they’re next to.”
The branding uses the GT Cinetype font from Swiss foundry Grilli Type as it “mimics the laser cut titles in movies,” Keegan explains. “They would use a laser to make that lettering so there’s no clean curves—it looked digital. It fits with our name too, which is also a film lighting technique.” This one typeface is used across the entire identity.
In keeping with the AV flavor of Day For Night as a whole, the wayfinding and stage screens were designed as “interactive, living things.” Work-Order explains: “We custom built software to pull live from social media feeds, custom countdowns, footage playback, Processing-driven graphics and festival messaging, which we used to interact with the crowd in real-time. In all there are over 2,000 editable parameters, as well as the ability to program the system to run itself.”
Keegan explains that the team used a program called TouchDesigner for the live visuals, “and now we can live type in real screens in real time. We can get [people] pumped up and literally talk to our audience.”
For Keegan, it was vital that Day For Night was as much about the art as the music. “What other festivals call art is not an enriching experience, but our main goal is to activate a space you could walk around in between acts and be mesmerised and learn something. Of all of the visual art we bring in, 90% is site specific and the first time it’s been done.”
Case Study 2: Creating “the Stuff No-one Asks For” at Green Man Festival
London agency Lovers has worked with Green Man festival since 2013, spearheading an all-encompassing rebrand that involved a new visual identity and some beautiful illustration commissioning. The studio brought in Sarah Mazetti in 2013, Nous Vous in 2014 and Rick Berkelmans—aka Hedof—for the 2015 festival.
Lovers ended up art directing and implementing every single element of the branding—which is almost unheard of—rather than creating a set of brand guidelines to be applied by an in-house team. It’s clearly a massive job for a tiny studio, and so Lovers relinquished full control of the project after creating the 2016 identity.
“With Green Man it was the opportunity to do the design for everything: the parking permits and all the silly little bits of officialdom that will carry the brand—signage, wayfinding the screens on site,” says Lovers founder Alex Ostrowski. “It’s a designer’s instinct to get the thrill of that continuity. Any brand has that challenge and a festival is a great example of it, but there’s so many touchpoints. It’s a real challenge in consistency.” According to Ostrowski, the key to making a festival identity work across all touchpoints lies in “not making it all rely on one thing.”
The identity works so beautifully precisely because of this scrupulous attention to detail. The designs are based around the pagan origins of Green Man, and take a modular format based on symbols that signify a different area of the festival, and are “also used by the audience to display an emotional connection to Green Man.”
The agency deliberately veered away from the obvious route of giving the Green Man a face or persona, and instead created a bespoke typeface based on an old type specimen “to assert his omnipresent booming voice…We then added a few Celtic quirks, turned it into a woodblock typeface, printed it and digitised the scuffed physical prints into a working font.”
The festival itself has no corporate sponsorship or brand representation, and the designs reflect this unique little microcosm somewhere in rural Wales. “I think it helps to get yourself a bit lost in a conceptual world you create for a project,” says Ostrowski. “The lovely thing about a festival is there’s quite a bit of licence. With Green Man it was about these omnipresent entities and a nature deity, but not seen like a god: instead we created a sense of omnipresence through a typeface. It’s a design choice that takes you to different places: if you just rely on making something look cool and ‘now’ then it won’t be unique.
“The thing you love [about a design project] is the stuff that no one asks for but someone made it anyway. It’s not generated by thinking ‘who is this for and who will like it,’ it’s just stuff that’s relevant to what you want to do. That confidence means you’re creating a lot of joy in making that world. You can tell when someone’s ticking a box or thinking too literally. That’s the kind of spirit we’ve tried to work in.”
Case Study 3: Form, the Studio Branding the UK Festival Big Guns
London-based studio Form has a long history of working with music clients, having spent the last two decades working on projects for the likes of Elbow, Scritti Politti, Depeche Mode, Ministry of Sound and Girls Aloud.
Over the past few years the agency has also undertaken some major rebrands for some of the UK’s largest and most established festivals: Reading and Leeds, Latitude, and V Festival. The first of these was in 2012, when it created a bold new look for Reading and Leeds Festivals.
Form got involved after Melvin Benn of Festival Republic, the owners and co-produce Reading, Leeds, Latitude, Wireless, and Download festivals, invited them in for a meeting. “We got on really well,” says Form co-founder Paul West. “I’ve got massive admiration for [Benn], he always briefs face to face and we enjoy those conversations, and we bonded through that and our shared passion for music.”
The key to our approach for Reading and Leeds was simply to celebrate the festivals themselves. “We didn’t need to put anything too hooky in it for the visuals,” says West. “They’re world-famous events so we just thought let’s colour coordinate Reading as red with Leeds as yellow, and that worked fantastically from posters to the stage scrims in full bleed red or yellow. It really just took off from celebrating the greatness of the brands.”
The red for Reading was a play on the name itself, and Leeds’ yellow was chosen for its ability to stand out, as well as the fact that “when we looked at festival branding around the world, there weren’t many that relied on vivid colors.
Off the back of that work, in 2014 Form was brought in to create a new look for UK festival of music and literature, Latitude. “We were massive fans and had been going for quite a few years and loved it,” says West. “We really understood the festival and loved that it was about music, art, literature, and raving in the forest at night; or watching the sunset over the lakes.”
The designs drew on the spectacularly beautiful festival setting by the lakes and forests of Henham Park, near Southwold, Suffolk. “We just wanted to celebrate the beauty of the festival,” says West. “We used a decorative font for the logo but wanted to keep it tight and graphic. The logo incorporates a keyline diamond graphic, which is an interpretation of a compass, so playing on the idea of lines of latitude.”
Form then went to the festival site a week before it opened and then captured the whole festival with photographer Peter Beavis throughout the day and night, and used the resulting imagery to create “a whole canon of really amazing images,” says West.
Virgin’s V festival brought in Form to work on its 2017 branding last year. Form commissioned sign painter Archie Proudfood to create a new type-based identity for the festival. “One thing we loved was the idea of slightly carnivalesque typography, and letting the typeface do the talking without having to rely too much on festival photography,” says West.
Together, they created an entire V alphabet, including “hashtags, commas, and ones to zeros”, which was given to the Festival Republic team to apply across various festival marketing communications. This was part of the “very extensive style guide” Form created to ensure its designs were translated into a consistent look and feel that would work over future years.
“For us the Festival is about the emotional experience of the event, and that’s what we’re trying to channel with the designs.”
Who are we designing for?
Festival graphics have to tread the muddy path of appealing to everyone from the bands (and brands) the promoters want to attract, to an often very varied crowd that could include young families, old hippies, and excitable drunk teens all in one event. There’s no one solution to getting around that, but Form advises going with instinct rather than clinical (and often unreliable) focus groups or research. It has also found “letting the images do the talking,” and taking a photographic approach for larger festival clients, to be helpful.
“Obviously the promoters need to be happy and on board with what you’re doing,” says West, “but festivals like V, Latitude, Reading and Leeds have enormous gravitas, so it’s more about capturing the enthusiasm and excitement but also remaining respectful to the brands. That’s why we enjoy creating festival branding so much, as it’s an extension of years of working in the music industry, where we’ve always worked from gut feeling and that basic level of understanding.
You can’t just skew something for design’s sake.
Festivals Are Huge: Adaptability is Key
Festival branding has to be successful across such a vast range of scales—from huge stage scrims to tiny wristbands. For Day For Night, Keefer says he knew the logo had to be just one aspect of a wider “toolkit of parts”, and so created two versions, one of which has no text and can be reduced down to just 16×16 pixels.
Form says it learned the power of such adaptable “360 degree” design thinking from working on music campaigns. With Reading and Leeds festivals, the designs outside the logo were “relatively simplistic” in terms of layout, focussing on a deconstructed logotype with “a kit of parts” that work effectively across “small or massive” applications (i.e. scrim to poster to online). “With V we created a much simpler mono version of the logo in addition to a big, vivid, four-color version,” he adds. “I guess our legibility training came from working on record format innovations: 12-inch and 7-inch records became CDs, then iTunes packshots at a hugely reduced format size, but the importance of the visual message is the same over a multitude of sizes.”
Event as Branding
The most successful and honest festival branding, it seems, relies not only on type, color, logomarks and a suite of photography, but on creating a holistic identity built around more abstract and experiential concepts. In creating the Day For Night branding, Work-Order says it wanted the art and music to speak for the brand, above the actual design. “It’s great when the design can help with wayfinding and help you feel like you’re there,” Keegan says, “but it can also step back and let Philip Glass and UVA speak for your brand.
“We faced a lot of headwind when we started as we had no imagery to show, so we had a thing to sell but no picture of the thing we were selling. A lot of people didn’t know in year one about what we were trying to do and what kind of festival it was. But we knew we just had to wait until the first round of selfies came out of the festival, and we did not have that problem in year two.”
West agrees that rather than focusing on the minutiae, festival designs are more about drilling down into the less tangible things that people love about them. “There’s an awful lot of effort in festivals—each one is trying to distinguish themselves from one another. A festival is essentially an outdoor space—a field or a glade or lake or forest in nature—what can you do to make that distinguished? That’s what we love to create.
“A festival is also a thing you can lose yourself in. It’s a little like the Christmas feeling and everything associated with that feeling: people let themselves go in ways that at any other time of year might seem a little odd – but these things suddenly become really exciting once you’re there, on a weekend in July.”