I’m going to tell you a story.
And that’s where the creation of a brand should always start – with a story – even if it has to be written as part of the brief, a brand should have roots. They give someone like me a meaningful place to start, a line to follow and rationalise back to. I am fortunate that when I work on feature films that there is always a story to draw from. But sometimes these stories stretch much further than you expect…
In February 2010 I was working on a film called “Barafundle Bay”. It was a working title that had stuck but it was hard to say, hard to spell and the Sales Agent wanted it gone. With approximately 3 years of unpaid hard graft to get this independent British movie to the post-picture lock, pre-grade stage (also known as the titles window) you could forgive the production for putting it off but the time had come to change it and a new name wasn’t coming easily.
I was asked if I could carry on looking at the design for the titles without a name so as not to miss the deadline.
“Er.. Yeah. I kind of need to know it…”
And finally, after much debating (and some actual tears, I think) it was decided – the film was now called “Third Star” – taken from a line in the film where Benedict Cumberbatch mis-quotes Peter Pan (that’s the short version of the naming story, you can read the long version from the Producer here) and I could start.
My approach to the typography developed for titles design is that it should become the identity for the film. It’s a difficult concept for an industry where traditionally the titles, posters etc are designed and, most crucially COMMISSIONED by different teams. (If I had a penny for every time I have heard “yeah but once they’re in the cinema watching the titles, they’ve paid their money – what does it matter if the logo doesn’t match the poster?”)
Oh My God! You’re SO right! Has somebody pointed this out to those losers putting the same old boring logo on everything at Apple?
But regardless of what bastardisation may happen beyond my involvement I always begin with the creation of a logo and work from there to develop the titles. In this case the shot in which the main title comes up over the film was a shot of Mr. Cumberbatch blowing out his birthday candles. It came to me quickly that adding a four-pointed star (aka a diamond) to a slab-serif would create the feel of a candle and also a not-too-obvious reference to the star. Or even.. three stars?
It was one of those rare jobs where everyone was happy – the Director liked them, the Producers liked them… hey! I even liked them. The stars replaced the i’s across all the credits to creative a twinkle on every card and as the final shots were set over a starry night sky it evolved almost magically, hitting every mark when tracking back on the story trail.
A year later, I went on to implement the logo into the printed materials, the website and the social media for its cinema release. We created a fully branded “Third Star” world on a shoe-string and had an amazing reaction from the fans (we even got them to tell us their stories about seeing the movie) as we rolled the four out the pointed stars (oh, and the film) across the country in early summer.
Last month, after a Q&A screening in Aberystwyth, I was sitting in a pub with the Writer/Producer, Vaughan Sivell – literally a few 100 miles from where the film was set, shot and where Vaughan is from. We were basking in the battles won (many lost), plotting future world domination (more on THAT here) and then he told me about his family history – it was, apparently, a story he’d been meaning to tell me for a while…
His grandfather was a Welsh artist and designer who, after being injured in the First World War, headed to the USA. He started a sign writing business in Steubenville, Ohio. (The business was called Star Displays.) He designed the Steelmark logo for a friend at the Weirton Steel Works which was then sold to the American Iron and Steel Institute and many years later adopted by the Pittsburgh Steelers team who use it to this day.
He then pulled out his phone and showed me the logo. I almost fell off my chair.
Now. This IS just a big old design coincidence but nonetheless it is now part of the story of the “Third Star” identity (never under estimate a designer’s talent for post-rationalisation – I list it as a skill on my CV!). But, for me, is also wonderful lesson in the importance of applying meaning and story to visual work. We mustn’t forget there is narrative and history to everything we do as visual communicators. And we must write it into our creative process in order to do good work.
I’ve done a bit of research for this post and discovered the logo was used in the 1950‘s as part of a major marketing campaign to educate consumers about how important steel was in their daily lives. The campaign attached the following meaning to it: “Steel lightens your work, brightens your leisure and widens your world.” During the 1970s, the logo’s meaning was extended to include the three materials used to produce steel: yellow for coal, orange for ore and blue for steel scrap. (It was also adopted by the Pittsburg Steelers in 1962 when they had to replace the numbers on their helmets and, after a particularly successful season that year, it remains on one side of their helmets to this day – the “ers” only being added in the 1980’s!)
So is this tenuous, corporate gumph designed to sell, erm.. well. Steel? Or is creating a story and attaching history and meaning to a corporation, a metal or a team through applied colour and shape a very valuable, powerful tool?
For me, stories add weight, they add personality and integrity and can invoke pride in those working with and for that marque – incentivising good usage. They also give you hooks and steers for visual decisions – be it factual or fictional stories create a set of rules and from that comes good concepts, good design and good businesses.
I’ll leave you with one final story. Apple Computers was named in homage to Alan Turing, the brilliant World War II codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for homosexuality and forcibly treated with female hormones. He killed himself at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. (This is why the Apple logo has a bite out of it.) Microsoft, I assume, is the merging of the words microchip and software.
You tell me which identity brief you’d rather work on.
“Third Star” is released on DVD on 12th September.