Ark brand identity project - how we encouraged objective feedback and used audio samples in graphic design

By Alex Traska on 9th Jul

Manchester, shrouded in medieval weather, was the host of our first official meeting with the founders of the Ark project in 2013. Over coffees, Chinese food and probably too much Sake than is sensible for a weekday lunch, we were filled in on the aim of the Ark project.

Ark wished to establish a base for a plethora of audio related activities, a stones-throw from Manchester and right on the edge of the picturesque Peak District, in Glossop. At their modern and inviting studio space they planned to develop their offer of workshops, courses and casual 'drop-in' facilities. They'd be supporting people of all abilities interested in electronic music production, software development, gaining hands-on experience with hardware and even tinkering with soldering irons, circuit boards and oscilloscopes.

Doing away with a traditional recording studio or a learning programme adhering to a strict curriculum, they hoped to avoid being perceived as intimidating or too institutional. What was unknown was exactly who would wish to use their facilities, or indeed how.

Although founded upon years of combined experience in their field and in teaching/lecturing, Ark had a major challenge that could be solved by a successful branding exercise. At its inception, Ark would lack formal accreditation from well known educational establishments, or the boost in credibility that notorious success in the music industry of its founders would invite. Hence, for the launch of the business, Ark's brand identity would be solely responsible for communicating the legitimacy and credibility of Ark's learning opportunities.

Streamlining the identity development process

We used to fear words to the effect of 'we don't know what we want but we'll know when we see it', as said by a client. The reason it would incite fear was that in the past our process made the common mistake of front-loading too much work that risked being trashed if it was completely barking up the wrong tree - at least in the eyes of the client.

If you really think about it, why should the client know what they want? It's actually not an unreasonable thing to say. If you have a client that trusts you as a creative agency, you should probably EXPECT them to say such a thing. What is important is to try and establish a visual direction before committing to it for creative development.

To begin the development of a brand new identity, we collate everything we know about the client and their business. This is usually a mixture of...

  • What we've learned in meetings about the clients' tastes
  • What we've learned about their business and its 'product(s)'
  • Who is likely to use the business and what might visually appeal to these people
  • Visual media the client has shown us that they like or dislike (websites or printed materials)
  • What challenges the identity must overcome
  • How direct competitors to the business are presenting themselves visually
  • How similar or complimentary businesses are presenting themselves visually

Armed with (hopefully) enough of this information, we pull together visual examples that follow two distinct and suitable directions we could take with development of the identity. We present typographic ideas, examples of photographic styles, logo marques and identity systems, signage and various printed output, as used either in our previous projects or inspiring works by others.

ark-inspirations
A selection of examples of work by other designers, originally shown to Ark

There's three enormous benefits to presenting your first ideas to a client in this way...

1 - You've not spent hours of studio time working blind on a concept that the client might reject out of hand. Presenting concepts can be nerve-wracking for you and the client and now isn't the time to take unnecessary risks. Taking a more gentle approach is less costly if it fails.

2 - Presentation of these ideas helps to visually frame the brief for both client and designer, giving quick and valuable substance to discussion.

3 - By showing the client visual directions made up of examples unrelated to their own business, they are more likely to give an objective evaluation of your suggestions. Objective feedback at this stage is magnitudes more useful than an emotionally charged, subjective reaction.

Developing the identity concepts

We now felt confident in charging along with developing identity concepts for Ark. The founders of Ark shared a scientific bias to their creativity and we were keen to bring this into the designs. There was also a clear preference for a minimalist colour palette (shades of grey and black with perhaps a single key colour) and we were pleasantly surprised how keen they were on some exciting typographic styles, both in terms of typefaces and layout. It was important to balance the clients tastes with our experience in how a brand identity should 'feel'. Pursuing this route towards actually beginning development of the first concepts guaranteed that our 'feel' for the project was in line with the clients expectations.

Scientific 'rigour' had a strong connection to the air of credibility we aimed to establish, so we began to consider the audio and electronic aspects of their business from a scientific point of view. Sound waves and electronic components were too obvious, but what about light diffraction patterns? Or the blocks of audio and MIDI data on sequencer software's arrangement page? What about the 'shape' of a sound?

Unusually, the first idea we explored at length saw us turning to audio software and subsequently Microsoft Excel to 'draw' shapes for us. It was originally a possibility that Ark would be made up from a group of sub-brands, perhaps 'lab', 'workshop', 'course' and 'event', so we produced a recording of a person saying each word, which underwent spectrum analysis in audio software. The analysis of audio output in 250 logarithmic frequency bands was then imported into Excel, so that the numbers could be visualised as a radar type graph. This would give us a solid shape, unique to each word.

ark-audio-plots
Clockwise from top left, the audio analysis comparison for the words Lab, Workshop, Course and Event

Unfortunately, as can be seen from the blue shapes in the analysis visualisations shown above, there wasn't a great deal of difference in the 'shape' of one word to another. We needed more 'variance' in the results. After some experimentation this was achieved by working out the difference in audio output between recordings of male and female voices, in each of the 250 frequency bands, and then plotting that difference. The female plots are shown in pink and the differences in yellow on the visualisation.

We were really excited about using audio analysis and mathematics to 'draw' these shapes. It was important, however, not to let the concept cloud judgement of the final output. After experimenting with the four 'difference shapes', we were struggling to present them as anything more than a blob (...a well researched blob nonetheless). It was a painful admission that this concept had come to a dead end. In the long run it was no loss; the client later dropped the original plan of dividing Ark into sub-brands.

Another direction

We went back to 'the science ideas' we'd initially had and decided to explore light diffraction patterns more thoroughly. We liked how the pattern of the lines resembled other suitable concepts such as sound pressure waves, the organisation of arrangement pages in sequencers and the tracks of printed circuit boards.

It was during this stage that we started experimenting with the typeface for the final concept and how it would form part of the logo, as opposed to having a separate logotype and logo marque. In the interests of developing an identity 'system' we also start experimenting with how the identity can be extrapolated across printed media, which often helps focus efforts in pursuit of the final concept.

ark-development
Early versions of the logo concept and sources of inspiration, originally stuck to the wall of the Makermet studio

Choosing colour

Rather than printing colour onto white paper, we're really keen on working with coloured stocks; the final printed objects produced from them just feel more 'designed' and carefully finished. Unless you're working with Easyjet or The Bank of America, your clients budget probably won't stretch to having bespoke colours milled in your favourite paper stock, so it's important to choose paper stocks BEFORE you choose your colour palette. We always develop palettes complimentary to colours available to us as physical stocks.

Ark was no different. Arjow Wiggins excellent Pop'Set Sunshine Yellow and Recycled Grey were used for the sublime and inviting yellow and the cool, sincere greys respectively. A supply issue later necessitated swapping the Sunshine Yellow for an Antalis Coloraction Sevilla stock. The Sevilla joined Fedrigoni's Sirio Colour Black Black in a triplexed business card, with a black litho print; a finishing job undertaken by one of our local suppliers A14 Print Finishing. Litho printing the whole set of stationery guaranteed a colour density that we felt wasn't being reproduced by digital presses.

ark-final-logo
The finished Ark logo, as seen on the business card against the Pop'Set Recycled Grey stock

Launching the brand

After delivery of the printed stationery, Makermet were immediately set to task creating new assets that would test our identity system, including exterior signage, advertisement posters and stickers, course literature templates for InDesign and social media graphic templates. Our contrasting colour scheme and selection of the FFMark typeface worked equally well in small pt size paragraphs of text and large exterior signage read from a distance. The colours we had chosen were also easy to duplicate in acrylic and other materials.

ark-iphone-53bd3c6269702

Following successful launch of the Ark identity, we were pleased to be hired for their web build. This gave us the opportunity to continue our work and further develop the brand experience for digital uses. One of the most exciting aspects of the build was our insistence on a custom-built audio player, the realisation of which we owe a huge thank you to our developer Dave Coggins for the extra build effort! It would have been a shame to throw a Soundcloud widget on the page, so we worked with Waveform.js as a starting point, which was integrated with the Ark CMS and their soundcloud page. The final player, kitted out in Ark colours and minimalist block styles was a perfect finishing touch to the project.

About the author

profile-alex

Alex Traska

Founder / Creative Director

Alex's works with clients as brand consultant and strategist, and with the in-house team and a large network of collaborators as creative director and art director.

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