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Branding by Making: Inside the Design of ArtPrize 7

Posted May 19, 2015 in AlumniArtPrizeGraphic Design

You may dislike John O’Neill’s latest work or you may love it. Either way, he’s totally cool with it.

The KCAD alum (’01, Graphic Design) and his team at Grand Rapids design studio Conduit are behind the recently unveiled branding for ArtPrize 2015 (dubbed ArtPrize 7), and they know that controversy comes with the territory.

“ArtPrize does tend to be a bit contentious,” said O’Neill. “People are going to be divided on our design, and we’ve embraced that.”

One thing we can all agree on though, is that this year’s design differs radically from the six that have come before it. In fact, O’Neill says, departure from the past was really the only caveat in ArtPrize’s design brief.

inside Conduit Design StudioO'Neill (right) and his co-workers mulling over deisgn concepts for ArtPrize 7 (image courtesy of Conduit Studio)

“The request for proposals was very vague, and that’s how I like to get them. It allows you to bring in your own goals and visions versus having explicit expectations. ArtPrize just wanted us to put our own mark on it.”

The new branding for ArtPrize 7 features seven variations of a clean, uncluttered convergence of the letter “A,” the number “7,” and minimal type, with each of the event’s seven different neighborhoods getting its own color palette. From the project’s onset, Conduit’s five-person team pursued what O’Neill calls “exuberant simplicity.” Their design process, however, was anything but simple.

inside Conduit Deisgn studioConduit is powered by a small team that aims to make a large impact with its work (image courtesy of Conduit Studio)

“Our philosophy is branding by making, so we started with a really raw exploration and literally just made thousands of posters,” said O’Neill. “We went very broad in our explorations. Nothing was hypothetical.”

To arrive at the final design, O’Neill and his team developed no less than 75 type studies, over 100 color studies, and whole mess of ideas. As you might expect, that mess included a lot of ideas that were downright bad, but O’Neill believes this process of rapid prototyping and learning from failure is what ultimately drives great design.

inside Conduit Design StudioTwo of Conduit's designers pouring over color studies (image courtesy of Conduit Studio)

“Honestly, you need to make a lot of bad stuff while the good stuff is working itself out, and you need to not judge yourself while you’re doing that, because if you get hung up on perfection that can lead to creative paralysis,” he said. “We made a lot of s**t, and good stuff eventually came out of that.”

Typically, Conduit prefers to keep its methods to itself, only showing clients the finished product. However, O’Neill felt that the ArtPrize team would appreciate seeing the depth with which he and his fellow designers explored ways to give ArtPrize 7 a distinct visual identity.

“We think our design is radically simple, but we wanted to show them the whole process because a lot of times, it’s hard to understand how long it takes to make something that simple work,” he said. “There was a high degree of emphasis on the visual expression and just making sure it was unique.”

iniside Conduit Design StudioA brainstorming session inside Conduit's offices in downtown Grand Rapids (image courtesy of Conduit Studio)

As just the third design studio to work on branding ArtPrize, Conduit has undoubtedly put its stamp on the event. But just like ArtPrize itself, O’Neill and Co. are more interested in conversation than they are in competition.

“The design community in Grand Rapids is one where we’re all definitely colleagues,” he said. “I would never say that our ideas are better than these others studios’; I just think we bring a different perspective, and that’s great. It’s good to shake it up every once in awhile.”


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