Branding the Lean Event: how we created the visual identity

How we created the identity

Working closely with our long-standing clients – conference producers Software Acumen, Bureau designed the identity for The Lean Event, a new conference covering lean business practices and principles, first held in April 2016. On the anniversary of the event, we’re revisiting the project to talk about how we got there.

When we first started looking at branding, our starting point was some posters of various socialist leaders that the Software Acumen team liked. They were inspiring not because of the political ideas of the subjects, but for their use of portraiture as a striking visual device to inspire revolution, progression and change.

The idealism of these portraits was something we wanted to draw on. We wanted to apply the same approach to speaker headshots – often a big part of a conference’s imagery.

We also looked at Roy Lichtenstein and the Stenberg Brothers for a more colourful and energetic take on large illustrated portraits.

Software Acumen were very interested in venue design and site-wide graphics – to make a deeper mark on the conference venue with more involved and extensive branding than we’ve used at other events, so we needed to consider this eventual use in our initial ideas.

I went away and did more research, looking at other political imagery, cinema posters (both contemporary and early to mid-century) and magazine covers. I wanted to get a feel for typography and portraiture in unison in a variety of contexts. I also looked at other conferences and events to see what they were doing – we wanted to be distinctive.

After I’d collated the research, we discussed it amongst the event team. Visuals from competing events had a mixed reaction – some were a bit ‘vanilla’, but others were much more striking and memorable. We wanted to be in this category.

We noticed that conference speaker photography was almost always black and white. The photography we liked best, though, came from The Wire. We also liked the idea of using illustrations instead of photography, but worried about falling into the pastiche of the propaganda materials.

Covers reproduced with kind permission of The Wire.

Our favourite materials used typography in a confident, minimal way and had an extremely restrictive colour palette with one or two very bright accent colours.

After looking at what other events were doing, we now felt confident about the sort of feelings we wanted to communicate, and how we wanted the conference to be perceived. We wanted participants to:

  • feel inspired, empowered and energized
  • leave with the knowledge and drive to create and deliver change and make improvements to their work/business/products

We knew that getting the visual identity right was an important part of this. However, there were some practical aspects to consider:

  • photography had to have the right mood: lighting, processing and the subject’s poses and facial expressions would all contribute to whether a photo felt right
  • photos submitted by speakers can vary wildly in quality: we were nervous that it’d be very difficult to achieve the right mood and consistency
  • a photo shoot would probably be impossible due to the locations and schedules of the speakers we had in mind

A rough consensus started to emerge. Photography, in the right style, would provide a reference to the posters but feel more contemporary. We decided to use a constructivist approach to layout and typography and felt that a bright or neon colour (but definitely not red) would be distinctive in the lean landscape. It would also help to avoid any material becoming too close to a pastiche.

Before going too far, we did a quick test. I borrowed some higher quality headshots from another event I’d worked on with Software Acumen, looking for close to neutral expressions, as well as a few smiles so we could test those too.

The photos were quickly processed to black and white and some very rough poster compositions were put together. There were a few very obvious problems.

First of all, the typography was not working. The vaguely constructivist feel of the compositions was way too over the top, and very much in the realm of pastiche, which was so crucial to avoid. We were trying much too hard.

Secondly, the photographs in greyscale alone were not right: they didn’t have enough texture. There was no obvious connection to our reference points. Generally, the test felt like a very poor fit for what we were trying to achieve; it didn’t create the mood we were looking for.

So we went back to the drawing board. We left constructivist-inspired typography behind and adopted a much more geometric font and a more visible grid system. We also stripped back the photography by isolating the subjects on either a black or white background. We kept 2 of the ‘smiliest’ portraits, as we theorized that these would be the most frequently occurring expressions in submitted photography.

The new typography was an improvement, but the photos still weren’t right. We experimented with halftone effects to reduce the image’s resolution and create a poster-like feel. This still didn’t feel quite right, so we started to think about illustrations again.

When provided with a few options, the client liked Joel Benjamin’s style. I’d worked with him before, so we contracted him to produce some test illustrations of our first speaker, Jeff Gothelf. To test the theory that submitted photos wouldn’t necessarily have subjects in suitable poses, we gave Joel a handful of photos and asked him to recompose Jeff so that his pose and expression fitted the mood we wanted.

We tested the resulting illustration in a range of different colours and it instantly felt much better than anything we’d tried before. We knew Joel would be able to work round any facial expressions that didn’t fit the mood we wanted, but to try to avoid giving him too much work, we also created photography guidelines for speakers.

It’s noticeable that by this point we haven’t mentioned the logo. While it’s an important part of the event’s identity, the lean event’s speaking roster was a carefully selected group of high-profile leaders in lean, so we wanted to strip back other elements to pull the focus in their direction. The imagery came first.

We knew we wanted to use a (c)lean, minimal, and simple wordmark. Something that would underpin the wider identity system. Its evolution can be seen over the early drafts of the posters, each time matched to the font in use.

Things clearly started to progress once we settled on GT Walsheim as our typeface of choice. An initial idea featured some indented lines to reflect our intentions with layouts, and some joined characters as a small flourish, both later stripped away to be replaced with a couple of small customisations on the L and H characters.

Moving on to layouts, we anchored the logo using a horizontal rule which would also become a feature on the event’s website denoting navigational elements. The website, along with the creation of smaller visual assets to help promote the event, were our first few opportunities to put the various elements into use as the speaker portraits rolled in.

We had a lot of fun playing with combinations of type and imagery to find interesting layouts which worked both with and without speaker images as a focal point.

In the weeks leading up to the event our attention turned to printed collateral and to the design of the stage itself. The conference handbook allowed us to continue experimenting with layouts to deliver information in interesting and playful ways. We also created some supporting material to be delivered in goody bags at the conference.

Designing the conference’s stage was our final challenge. Most of the conference would take place inside the Corn Exchange which contained a pre-existing truss structure from which we could hang or mount our material.

Our clients brought an idea forward during our initial discussions – Large individual banners, each containing a single speaker’s portrait. This seemed like a great way to come full circle to some of the political posters that provided an initial influence, and we were keen to try it out.

With measurements of the truss taken during an earlier site visit, we started planning how best to use the space working around the placement of the screen and stage and in consideration of the audience’s movement through the room.

We really wanted to make full use of the room’s height and long banners felt like they’d create an impact. However to install these at a meaningful size, we’d need to have a pair of speakers on each banner.

The approach seemed to go down well with the conference’s participants and speakers alike, with many speakers waiting at the end of the conference to take home their portrait banner.

The identity as a whole was very well received and was largely interpreted in the way we’d intended, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Participants really liked the difference that the portraits offered, and many picked up on the intentionally “Lean” aesthetic.

The Lean Event looks set to be biennial event so we’re really looking forward to getting stuck in to the next event to see how we can improve and develop the identity. It’s going to be difficult to wait so long!