Reinventing an icon: how DBLG transformed the BFI’s “cascade” symbol for London Film Festival

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Eagle-eyed passers-by to London’s British Film Institute (BFI) will almost certainly have clocked the “cascade” sign adorning what was previously called the National Film Theatre. While most will have admired its retro glamour and strolled on, for designers DBLG this was the kernel of its entire rebranding of London Film Festival. Its visual identity for LFF 2019 is the agency’s third in three years, having first rebranded the festival in 2017, and represents the next stage in its brand evolution – one that continues to draw from the BFI’s enormous archive.

A London-based creative agency, DBLG is best known for its motion design work for Channel 4, Freeview, giffgaff and Adobe, plus its passion projects, including Hey Pressto – a stop-motion animation using the human body as a canvas – and more recently Hidden – a triptych video installation showing the debut collection of fashion designer Vincent Lapp. This project, therefore, sits somewhat outside the norm for the studio, but (like most creative briefs) it saw the design team first delving into the brand’s history.

Creative director Will Mercer remembers when the brief first came in from the BFI, along with a back catalogue of its posters and identities harking back to 1957: “There was just so much heritage material, everything from the start of the festival to the present day. We instantly loved the early 60s posters, of course, because they stood out as being so timeless. What’s great about this most recent identity is we’ve really gone back to that, brought in some of that 60s-esque design.”

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BFI London’s “cascade” sign, after its 2018 renovation

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DBLG “cascade” graphic experiment

The archive was so illustrious that Will actually admits he doesn’t even remember seeing the iconic “cascade”, which appeared prominently as an icon in 1961, amid the festival’s early posters. It was in fact a visit to the BFI’s brutalist Thames-side building itself that sparked the creative process, when agency founder Grant Gilbert spotted the original sign. Somewhat dishevelled now, the sign was originally designed by Norman Engleback in 1957 as nothing more than an elaborate arrow pointing to the theatre’s entrance.

“It was just a derelict sign on the side of the original theatre, but with all the different colours and triangles converging and coming together, it feels very filmic; a good starting point for a festival identity,” says Will. “Once we had that core symbol to play with, the rest of the identity spun out from there. We came up with all sorts of different iterations of what we were calling ‘the fish’ at that point (later renamed the more sophisticated ‘cascade’), even a 3D model which we were going to shoot. The challenge then became about how to visualise that image in a modern way, one that the LFF could own.”

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

Will describes the next stage of process for 2017’s identity like “chipping away” at the tonnes of concepts they had, making it “ownable” for the festival team, and flexible for the many outputs on which it would be emblazoned, from the sides of screening tents, billboards and buses to the fronts of programmes and, of course, the all-important tote bags. The BFI was reticent about DBLG’s favourite concept – a photograph of a 3D sculpture of the “cascade” – reasoning that a computer-generated image would be easier to adapt to the myriad applications of the brand. It was, however, excited about the idea behind that visual: reimagining two of the triangles as lightboxes reminiscent of the industrial lamps used on film sets, emitting rays of light and hence creating a kaleidoscopic pattern of colour and shadows across the rest of the triangles, which appear as silhouettes. DBLG also redesigned the festival’s logo lock-up, using type that graduates in weight, widening towards the centre of the word marque to focus on the word “film”.

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2017

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2017

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2017

The first rebrand rolled out at the 2017 festival, and was clearly a success; not only has DBLG returned to brand the festival the following two years, but after 2017’s event, the BFI invested in renovating and rewiring the original “cascade” sign, so it now glows proudly in full colour. They even sell “cascade” pin badges in the BFI shop.

Having earned the BFI’s trust, 2018’s identity took these original ideas a few steps further, rendering the triangles of the symbol in 3D. Each one pops out from the background, referencing the festival’s heritage with its art deco feel, as the colour palette of indigo, purple and fuchsia is fanned out in a more defined spectrum, alluding to the dramatic spotlights of a film premiere.

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2018

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2018

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DBLG: BFI London Film Festival identity 2018

This year, the identity has been pared back to its most graphical essence. It is actually close to what DBLG pitched in 2018, but the BFI felt it was “too much of a step” at the time, Will explains. “They were conscious of having a more gradual development [of the brand]. Stripping it down to four triangles at that point was too much.” Now in its third year, the identity is established enough to move on to something radically different. Drawing inspiration from other film festival identities, such as Sundance, Berlin (“that bear is such a great symbol”) and Sheffield Doc/Fest, DBLG plucked elements from the “cascade” to create a new icon for the festival: four triangles in four translucent colours, complete with dotted textures, layered like they are for CMYK colour imaging. Rather than just four clean vector triangles, this subtle change evokes the tactile quality of film reels.

“In the first couple of years, we created an image for them to use almost as a background across everything, but this year we could create more of an icon, a logo in itself,” Will says. It’s much easier to use as a design object, he explains – the “cascade” filling the screen “in an awkward way” – and truly gives the festival team something to “own” as a device to use across all its visuals. This, coupled with the new colour palette and its adaptability to a white background, makes the festival identity more representative of the types of events that it includes – in other words, not just the cliché of evening premieres, but daytime screenings, events and talks.

“I like that it started as a light sculpture, and over time has become a much more bold graphic identity, slightly removed from the original inspiration. It’s become independent,” says Will. “Whoever gets this brief next can push it more and more. We did come up with an even more abstract route, but they said, ‘That’s for like five years’ time!’”

The BFI London Film Festival runs from today until 13 October 2019.

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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Courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival archive

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on news@itsnicethat.com.

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