Focus groups – two words that can send a shiver down the spine of any designer. A recent print and television campaign for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) turned the culture of testing on its head, creating a cutting-edge campaign for its 2006 season. Instead of getting members of the public to poke, prod and pontificate about the finished ads, the designers got a group of art students involved in creating the campaign from the outset.
Behind the campaign were Anthony De Leo, 29, and Scott Carslake, 30, directors of Voice, a boutique visual communications firm in Adelaide. The pair, both design graduates from the University of South Australia, answered an open call from the ASO to define a new identity for the 57-year-old symphony, one that would help them reach out to new audiences. The designers, known for their experimentation with typography and their interest in process, were faced with the tough job of representing the experience of listening to music in a two-dimensional graphic form. It was a tall order and time was limited, so they decided to follow an uncharted route and devised an experimental design process based on collaboration.
We knew that the ASO was seeing other designers so we really had to identify how we could do something different straight away, says Carslake. We also realised we were a small studio that didn’t really have the capability to do a lot of work quickly. So we thought, why not collaborate with a group of people’ We also thought that it would give us the ability to produce something really different from what the orchestra would be used to seeing. Ultimately we had to try to represent what music looks like. It’s quite a challenge but it is also interesting and exciting. We thought we could make an impact by taking a totally different direction.
Another challenge was speaking to new audiences. Subscribers tend to be an orchestra’s bread and butter, but the problem for most orchestras is their longtime subscribers are ageing. The ASO knows that if they are to remain vibrant in the future they need to reach out to a younger audience, they needed a campaign that would speak to them, without alienating their core subscribers.
To capture what the experience of music felt like for young people, Voice held two sessions with 25 students of visual communication, none of whom knew what the project was for the designers did not want to prejudice or influence them in any way by revealing their prospective client, and the students wanted to challenge themselves in a creative workshop.
In the first session a variety of music was played, from popular music which the students were familiar with (The White Stripes, Sigur Ros, etc.) to classical pieces they may not have heard before. They were asked to ‘make marks’ draw, paint, stencil etc. that captured what they were hearing; to create a kind of visual listening, if you will.
De Leo and Carslake planned to take these marks back to the studio and make compositions with them that related to specific musical series; to visually remix the students’ work and then make something new.
During the whole process we were thinking that if we didn’t reconstruct the artwork and build our own compositions we could have just gone to stock imagery or a particular artist. But we felt we needed to take a whole selection of different marks and make them work together to get the result we needed, says Carslake.
Problem was; it wasn’t working.
What we found was that the students tended to make an entire composition based on what they were feeling. When we took that back to the studio we found it was hard for us to use because it was quite a full-on piece, says De Leo. So a second session was scheduled.
In the second three-hour session, the designers played four different pieces of classical music for the students and asked them to isolate a sound they heard in one of the pieces and represent it. This approach was more successful.
We sat down with the ASO and worked out the demographic for each series and then responded with appropriate marks and styles for each of those identities, says De Leo. The Master Series artwork is very delicate and soft in colour, whereas Showcase is extremely loud and bold because it has people like Nigel Kennedy and Ben Folds. These are big performances and big events so the artwork had to feel like that.
Ultimately the experiment was a success, with television ads that foreground the process, the compositions in the print campaign unfold as a motion-graphic accompanied by music. Says De Leo, I think the most interesting thing about capturing both extremes of the demographic is that the older audience really understood what we tried to do and the younger audience was excited by it as well. It was extremely rewarding.
You can see the graphic identity Voice created for ASO in the new exhibition In your face: contemporary graphic design, 5 August-5 November at the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Design 06.