We get to know the Barbican’s small but prolific in-house design team
Buried deep inside the brutalist expanse of the Barbican estate, a compact team of four designers are turning out a huge range of visuals for an even bigger mass of visitors. This is the in-house design department for the Barbican Centre, which currently stands as the largest performing-arts centre of its kind in Europe. Hosting everything from plays and concerts to major exhibitions, talks and screenings, the building welcomes well over a million people every year. We talk to the studio about what it’s like to work on posters, animated branding, architectural products and fun-filled GIFs for the iconic institution.
As the Barbican Centre’s in-house design team, we create most of its online and offline campaign collateral, along with most of the visual material you see in the Barbican foyers – from plasma-screen displays to signage.
The Barbican has always had some of its design work created in-house. However, the studio really became a viable team during the initial Barbican rebrand project with North studio, which began in 2011. At that time it became apparent that the Barbican needed an in-house team of designers, initially to implement the new brand.
The philosophy of the team is still strongly linked to the visual guidelines North created at the time. They set out a flexible system influenced by the Centre’s vision of ‘arts without boundaries’, with strong visual elements that allow freedom and diversity.
The studio was originally created to supplement the design needs of a much smaller marketing team. The work has grown over the years, particularly with the increase in digital content. The marketing and design teams have also gradually grown to reflect this, and now most of our design work is done in-house.
The full team is just four designers in total: two digital and two print designers – and if we’re adding to the team, we look for designers who have an interest in the Barbican or the arts, experience of designing for the arts, a diversity of styles, someone who can talk easily about their work.
OpenFest was one of our most exciting recent projects. It was a packed weekend of everything the Barbican does best, from visual art, music and dance, to free tours and open rehearsals around the Centre. After making a pretty unsuccessful initial illustration of the Barbican, Peter Hope-Parry stumbled across the simple abstracted building letter forms when deconstructing the illustration. It was a nice, happy accident that was really brought to life by the digital team.
Another great project was The Television Will Be Revolutionised: a season of oppositional films from Channel 4’s first decade. It’s rare that graphic routes get selected for cinema, but for this season it felt appropriate to play with the iconic logos and colours from the 1980s Channel 4 logo. This was discussed very early on after looking through lots of old documentation relating to the season.
We also made a range of architectural products earlier this year, to be sold in the Barbican shop to celebrate the Brutalist architecture. A number of routes were explored for this but we felt the isometric approach worked best as you can build up layers of different parts of the building making quite a nice pattern for fabrics.
For a large project, which needs its own creative – including for a visual art exhibition or a film season – the design team are usually briefed as a group by the art form marketing team. This meeting may also include members of the programming team. Print and digital work is booked separately so, if print collateral is needed first, then one of the print designers will usually work on the creative. Like any other agency we will present several design routes to the marketing team. Then a period of feedback follows when they liaise with the programming teams until a final route is approved. The marketing team will usually manage this process.
The Environment and Culture
The team are based in the Barbican Centre itself, which was built in the 1970s. The office is a very functional, open-plan space, which we share with our marketing colleagues. Just outside our office is Whitecross Street food market which is perfect for lunch. There’s a lot of green space nearby, so we tend to eat outside when the weather is nice.
We have a team lunch a few times a week, and have also been camping and climbing and occasionally do yoga together. We are constantly updating how we communicate with colleagues outside the design team. Currently we’re working on a self-initiated, digital project which brings together all of our brand guidelines and assets.
The Barbican is owned by the City of London, which means thats holiday allowances, pension schemes, training facilities are all very good. The design team have regular (usually monthly) away days when we visit other arts venues. Our staff passes get us into most arts venues for free, so that’s also a massive plus!
Meet the Barbican design team
Claudia Toia, designer since 2017
Previous employment: Penguin Books
Graduated with a BA English Literature from UCL, 2013
“My job revolves around creating visual marketing materials for the events happening in the centre. I work with the wider marketing team and with my print colleagues to make sure the design meets the brief and is consistent across all the different parts of a campaign.
“On any given day I could be working on anything from a short animation to promote the latest exhibition to a trailer edit for a contemporary dance show. Having access to so much great culture is a great way to introduce fresh ideas into my work. As a team, we also organise weekly skill-share sessions, which is a very fun way of learning on the job and keeping abreast of the latest digital developments.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Claudia in the coming weeks.
Paul Heading, digital design manager since 2013
Previous experience: Appaloosa Agency, Skye Creative, Brandwave Marketing, Publicis
Graduated with a BA in History from Goldsmiths, 2005
“I manage the digital half of the design team (myself and Claudia), and focus more on project work. The latest being a redesign of the online shop, for which I was the sole designer, and I’m now working with the team to build an online library of Barbican guidelines. A lot has changed since our rebrand in 2012 and we’re going to provide a living document that can respond and adapt to that.
“I usually also have a couple of personal projects on the go. I often run freelance projects with another designer (Chloe Ings) who is based in Toronto. Together we’ve been doing animations for the identity of the National Youth Orchestra, the Barbican Estate (and then Leeds Town
Hall) as an 8-bit style game, plus we created an online shop and print identity for
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Paul in the coming weeks.
Peter Hope-Parry, print designer since 2015
Previous employment: NWN Media, Intelligent Media Solutions
Graduated from University of Wales Newport in 2009
“I’m one of the two print designers at the Barbican. Alongside making sure everything stays on brand, the design work can range from show posters and flyers to art form brochures and shop ranges. We work with all art forms within the marketing department so there is always something keeping us busy.
“Not a week goes by where there isn’t a project I’m excited to be working on. Being able to pop into the Centre after work and check out a gig, concert, theatre show, exhibition or film any day of the week is also a pretty great perk (the Basquiat and Ragnar Kjartansson exhibitions were particular highlights).”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Peter in the coming weeks.
William Allen, multimedia design manager
Previous employment: Freelance illustrator and designer
Graduated with a BA in Graphic Design from Camberwell School of Art
“My role is to design most of the print for the Centre, manage the use of the Barbican brand and help to ensure what we produce is of excellent quality. In terms of how I landed my job – I helped create the in-house team, so I guess I got my job by default!
“My advice to anyone wanting to design for an arts venue, is to have an interest and knowledge of the arts; just being a good designer isn’t enough. It’s a good idea to do some research about the artist or the show before you meet your client, practice explaining your layouts and have a good reason for everything you’ve done, and never let anyone stand beside you and ‘design’ on screen!”
Interview by Indi Davies
Photography by Andy Donohoe