Monday 01 Nov, 2010

Design projects that appear to have near-impossible deadlines always present a dilemma. Especially so when the design possibilities of the subject matter appear to be rich. And that's really the dilemma. Good work takes time and wisdom would dictate simply saying 'no thank you' and moving on. But then that tempting little voice whispers in your ear that the lack of time is actually an interesting challenge. The often irresistible idea is implanted that you might be able to pull if off. And when the people making the request are genuinely sympathetic it becomes even more difficult to walk away.

Such an example, with only weeks of notice, was an invitation to design the graphic identity and promotional materials for a 'mini' Biennale in Viana do Castelo, planned as a rehearsal for a larger Biennale due to take place in 2012. This invitation arrived as a result of a separate involvement with the Biennale as curator of the 175x120 exhibition on behalf of the Serralves Foundation.

The Biennale focuses on 3 areas; Art, Design, and Architecture. It is not an urban event however. This may appear to be a strange comment but not without intention. The philosophy that interested those responsible for the event was based on building and networking local communities, drawing on traditional as well as innovative ideas and skills, and on the concept of 'Slow Cities'. This suggested to me a particular visual approach (and methodology). It meant avoiding what I might describe as 'the alienated aesthetic '. By this I mean the use of 'non-place' imagery (you know what I mean – photos of strangely dislocated environments), together with abstract geometric forms, and 'emotion-free' typography common to many contemporary cultural events. Instead, I wanted something, well, more human I guess, and that incorporated celebration – not a favoured characteristic of much 'serious' contemporary design.  

Because of the many and varied exhibitions and activities incorporated within the event, and with a concern to adopt a graphic solution and visual strategy to promote openness and a sense of involvement, the initial design idea was to create a series of large-format street newspapers in the form of posters (below left), rather than attempting to create a logo-type solution. The problem with this approach was that many of the texts and events information were still in the process of being written and confirmed as we were designing. Without this information the sort of typographic development that would have been necessary was not possible – using simulated texts was not a solution. So the idea was abandoned and an alternative idea was developed based around the use of the letter 'B' (for Biennale not 'Biana').  

Centering attention on the 'idea' of a Biennale by putting the letter 'B' at the centre of the design is a simple idea. Complexity of meaning and interpretation was to be introduced through the ways in which the letter was produced and reproduced. And the idea was that it would not always be rendered in the same way, it would vary, in an attempt to reflect the different sorts of Biennale it was possible to experience. In the final materials 4 different letter styles were used in 4 different colour combinations although the concept suggests an infinite variety of renderings. But whereas in the studio we would usually develop bespoke typographic forms for such a project, lack of time meant resorting to 'off-the-shelf' letterforms.

The final result is not as developed – matured – as we would have liked (no surprise there then), but the basic concept has genuine potential for the 2012 event if we are invited back. Central to the ethos of the event are the ideas of diversity, plurality and community. Many different sorts of letter 'B' would aim to echo or reflect this. And they need not be typographic (mechanical type) in origin. They could be letterforms composed from 3 dimensional elements, they could be photographic or collaged, and they could be created by a number of participants including schools and associations. In short, any manner of 'B' could be created, each one a unique expression, each one reflecting a dimension of the Biennale. The ambition is to create an identity that has a repeating and recognisable visual element that is never the same. The way it changes, and the possibility is has to be changed, has the potential to be a dynamic reflection of diversity and participation.