Studio Lowrie’s Sundance Film Festival identity proves small studios can take on projects of any scale
The concept for this year’s identity centres on a series of symbols which represent the beam of light from a film projector, the way your eye reacts to light, and the Sun.
Sometimes, things just all fall into place. So much so, that you can’t quite believe your own luck.
That was certainly the case for London-based Studio Lowrie when it received an email, claiming to be from someone at Sundance. Mike White, the studio’s founder and creative director, and design director Callin Mackintosh had finished work for the day, when Callin saw the notification pop up. Assuming it was fake, he checked the sender and lo and behold, it really was from Luis Farfán, the world-renowned institution’s creative director.
Primary festival logo lock-up
Generic vertical composition
“I was texting Mike at 8 PM or whatever it was, asking if he’d seen the email and was getting no reply. Annoyingly, Mike always switches off his read receipts in WhatsApp, so I had no idea if he’d seen it,” Callin recalls. Frustrated and eager to discuss the email, he called Mike – who was in Liverpool Street station at the time – who instantly hung up and read Luis’ request.
It read: “I’m a big fan of your work. We wanted to know if you would be interested in possibly partnering with us on the branding for next year’s Sundance Film Festival…”
With the authenticity ascertained, the duo realised it was time to knuckle down and deliver a pitch that Sundance couldn’t turn down. Mike and Callin were asked to come up with three different routes and, if they won, their designs would be plastered all over Park City, where Sundance Film Festival takes place each year. The festival is attended by over 50,000 people – a mixture of industry juggernauts and your average movie buffs – so for two guys whose studio is based in a shipping container in east London, the pressure was on.
“[Sundance is] a platform, to show films and artworks from around the world that are pushing the limits and boundaries of storytelling.”Luis Farfán
Sundance Film Festival is the biggest programme that the Sundance Institute organises every year and was started in the lates 70s by actor Robert Redford (AKA the Sundance Kid). 2020’s edition took place between 23 January and 2 February. “There’s this perception that the festival is a for-profit entity, but it’s actually a not-for-profit event, it’s a showcase – a platform, to show films and artworks from around the world that are pushing the limits and boundaries of storytelling,” says Luis Farfán, the very creative director who contacted Lowrie in the first place. In his role, Luis is in charge of creating a vision and developing the overall visual language and tone of Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival – all three editions: US, London and Hong Kong.
“The programming is made up of work that the programming teams have carefully selected and identified as works that need to be championed,” Luis continues. “The Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival has a remarkable tradition and trajectory for providing a consistent, stable, safe place for independent storytellers to master their craft and develop work that is of importance – all we humbly do is provide a platform for this type of work to be shown and shared with audiences.”
These ideas of promoting and advocating for anyone and everyone whose work deserves attention made their way into the brief that was set to Studio Lowrie. This year’s identity needed to reinforce Sundance as a vital, inclusive cultural event of the global stage that celebrates and connects a huge range of people and mediums across multiple locations. The Institute was keen to draw a younger audience and also wanted to explore modernist, minimal themes while having fun.
From this concise brief, the two words which Lowrie used to guide its ideas were “connectivity and celebration”. As the most well-attended leg of the festival takes place in North America, meaning that a lot of people are unable to attend, Sundance was keen to “bring in people of all different cultures and all ages all over the world as well,” Callin explains. “It wants to make sure that everyone from anywhere knows that they’re invited.” Contrary to what a lot of people probably think, Sundance Film Festival isn’t an invite-only event, reserved for celebrity actors and directors – anyone can buy a ticket and pitch up.
While Mike and Callin drew up three routes, as requested, there was one route that they really went to town on. “Sundance asked for two to three routes with four to five applications for each, but we probably did about 40 applications for the route that we knew we wanted to go with,” Callin explains. “It’s something we’ve been doing with a lot of clients these days, even though a lot of people don’t really do it anymore,” Mike adds, “just doing lots of implementations, that technical Otl Aicher Munich style – like a little person next to flag schematics, for example.”
It’s an approach the pair picked up while both working at Bibliothèque, and is clearly one that works, as Sundance opted to go for this route. Mike grew up in Wales and was introduced to Bibliothèque’s work when the studio gave a lecture to his graphic design class at Bath School of Art and Design. He went on to work there for six years before founding Studio Lowrie in 2016. (The studio takes its name from Mike’s Scottish 91-year-old grandmother whose middle name is Lowrie. “[It’s] been passed down to all of the women in my family and now it’s our studio name,” Mike explained, when the pair spoke at February’s Nicer Tuesdays.) Callin is from Dundee in Scotland and spent time freelancing at Bibliothèque before a long stint at Spin which eventually led him to Lowrie.
These respective backgrounds clearly combine in Lowrie’s identity for Sundance Film Festival 2020, which took place in January of this year. It’s typographically led, bold and incredibly distinctive, bearing all the hallmarks of the pair’s industry experience. “It was an incredible project for us and was a year in the making,” Mike explains, expressing a sentiment that only becomes clearer throughout our interview: that this was something of a dream project for Studio Lowrie, and marks a real step for the studio, both in terms of the scope of the work, but also the kinds of clients it wants to work with.
When asked what kinds of projects Lowrie enjoys the most, for example, Mike continues, “Sundance was the exact definition of that. It’s a really interesting client doing unique things and which wants to challenge people’s perception of film and how they interpret it. But it also wants to work with people who it respects and loves to listen to, and trust. Sundance gave us the opportunity to push and do what we wanted to do. And that’s quite a rare thing.”
“Sundance gave us the opportunity to push and do what we wanted to do. And that’s quite a rare thing.’Mike White, Studio Lowrie
GallerySundance Film Festival 2020
Despite their respective years of experience, this was the biggest brand identity either of them had ever worked on and also the most recognisable. “I told my mum and my gran and they knew what it was,” Mike jokes. “My gran was like, ‘Oh Robert Redford.’” Callin then adds: “My dad was just like, ‘Say hi to him for me!’”
It’s not that the job wasn’t in their skillset – Mike, for example, had done a lot of work previously with Covent Garden so was used to such large executions – but it was more that they were two guys and Sundance is a huge world-renowned entity. “When we had our first meeting with them, we were obviously in a shipping container,” Mike says, laughing. “There’s two of us and we have no idea how many people they thought work for us. When we got on the call, there was at least seven of them in the meeting room, round a big table, with a big screen looking down – it was all quite legit.”
This year was actually the first time that Sundance tasked such a small studio with its identity. “We kicked off 2020’s festival in 2019 – it takes about a good nine months or so to get the festival all sussed out creatively,” Luis tells us. “Last year, I went down a traditional ‘request for proposal’ (RFP) route to land on a partner to help us with this year’s festival identity.” With a particularly tight brief, Luis only reached out to studios and individuals that he “respected and was fond of”; about six in total. He’d seen Lowrie’s work online and “the simplicity of its work was attractive to me. I thought that maybe these guys were up for it and that aesthetically they were a good match for how I wanted to present the festival.” At the end of the RFP process, “Mike and Callin from Lowrie were the ones that hit the brief the hardest,” Luis recalls.
The concept for Mike and Callin’s identity for Sundance 2020 revolves around the way beams of light come from a film projector but also the way that the human eye reacts to light while watching films. “So you might have action, suspense, drama or romance – your eye always reacts, it’s all about light,” Callin explains. From here, the pair looked at how they could represent this idea graphically and in its simplest form. They landed on a symbol – a solid black circle formed by a series of lines coming together in one point, representative of creativity and connectivity but also an eye, the film projector and, of course, the Sun.
The next stage was to create a typographic lockup to go alongside this symbol and Lowrie opted for a sans serif typeface called La Nord, designed by Raoul Gottschling. “We designed this lockup to fit within the standard US movie poster size so it means that our actual logo lockup is a poster itself, we don’t need to add anything else to it,” Callin explains. From there, Lowrie created a supporting seven symbols to represent the diversity of the festival and a set of bold colours were selected to go alongside these. Symbols were combined in a series of tessellating and mesmerising animations, again referencing how the pupil reacts to light in a cinema screening.
In combining all of these elements in different combinations – one symbol could appear on one poster with a purple background, while another symbol could be on yellow – Lowrie created an instantly recognisable identity which avoids repetition and feels fresh at every touchpoint. This was a major reason why Luis opted to work with Lowrie after its pitch. “I wanted to create a visual language that was simple and flexible, a design system that would lend itself well to large scale Out of Home executions and the smallest of digital assets,” he tells us. “The thing that people sometimes don’t see is that developing the brand identity for our festival is more (much more) than a nice logo and colour scheme. It’s an entire brand system that has to work through digital, motion, print, and experiential executions. It’s not unlike developing the brand identity for the Olympics or World Cup... Except we do it every year, instead of every four.”
“It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re going to recognise it.”Mike White
With the consideration of making something that works in so many contexts front of mind, another major challenge for Mike and Callin, and one that led their design decisions, was the location of Sundance itself. Park City is a hodgepodge of architecture, with many of its buildings built during the 19th-century mining boom, and so Lowrie’s identity needed to cut through that noise – not add to it. “There’s just so much going on in the space already,” Mike adds. “So we started stripping it back to the use of one solid colour.” What’s more, it snows almost every day in Park City during January, so utilising such a bold colour palette meant the identity stood out even more. “With white snow in the background and these mayhem buildings, you couldn’t not notice the banners and the flags,” Callin says.
It was more than just a response to the architecture, however; it was Mike and Callin making their mark on 2020’s festival in an unapologetic manner. “It’s that unwavering confidence in repetition,” says Mike. “A lot of the previous identities were all about layers and textures changing. Every banner was different, basically. And our reaction to that was to actually make it all the same. To just have these incremental differences like a colour, or a symbol but ultimately from a distance, that shape is going to look the same. So it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re going to recognise it.”
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Street pole banners
All of this thinking was compiled into a brand guidelines document (which is over 130 pages long, not even counting the separate document that exists for all of the sub-brands) which was then handed over to a team of eight designers working at Sundance. It’s one of the reasons this project actually felt manageable for Mike and Callin, as without this team to work with, the duo would have had to implement over 1,500 applications of the brand themselves. From cars to snowboards, bottles, puffer jackets, tote bags, scarves, posters, booklets, umbrellas, lanyards and T-shirts – you name it, there’s a version of it that exists with Sundance Film Festival 2020’s branding on it.
This way of working did, of course, present its own challenges, though, as Mike and Callin had to design these guidelines long before any of the films showing at this year’s festival were announced. “It’s very hard to test things out for the longest and shortest word length,” Callin explains. “It could end up being a documentary that’s got 40 words in its title – you just don't know.” Their workaround, therefore, was to ensure their designs were as flexible as possible, introducing a line into the design which in turn creates a simple grid. “So the idea was that it could just flex greatly,” Mike says.
A major facet of the project, but one which was introduced fairly late on in the process, is a series of animated trailers and a brand launch video, which bring the visual identity to life through motion graphics, soundtracked by Beach House. These trailers were to be played before every single film throughout the festival. For this part of the project, the pair worked with motion designer Connor Campbell who looked into ways of bringing movement and personality to the identity. Each trailer sees Connor taking elements from the identity and expanding upon them, breaking the repetitive nature of the identity in its static form. With a different colour palette for each, Connor’s animations adhere loosely to the styles of jazz, Italo, disco and rock – and Beach House responded to his work, creating a different soundtrack in each of these styles for each trailer too.
For Luis, bringing in Beach House to work on the project was yet another way to extend Sundance’s overall mission – working with independent artists – and to bridge the gap between different creative communities. “The relationship with Beach House has been amazing, as it’s been with Studio Lowrie and the dozens of photographers, videographers, writers and motion graphics artists that make up the entirety of the creative team that executed this year’s festival visual language,” he adds.
Reflecting on the project, Studio Lowrie is clearly proud, if a little shellshocked that the whole thing even happened. “The biggest thing to take away is being able to say we can do a project of any size,” Mike says. “You don’t have to be a massive studio. And while it seemed very daunting to start with, it’s now a massive confidence booster.” Looking forward, having undertaken such a huge project does leave Mike with some apprehensions, though: “It’s like a footballer scoring their best goal in their first game – they’re never going to do something as good as that.”
Despite Mike’s worries, the branding has received brilliant feedback both from those who attended the festival and from the design community. “Apart from the pilot from Utah,” Callin jumps in at this point of the conversation. “He said it was amateur and shit.” Laughing, Mike adds: “OK, so apart from that one pilot, everybody has been really positive. It’s really humbling that we can create something which is what we wanted it to be, and people actually like it.”
Finally, on how he feels this year’s identity helps to support Sundance’s mission and ethos, Luis tells us: “This year’s identity relies on the use of icons to translate the connection between our institute and artists, artists and audiences, and between our institute and audiences. At the centre of the identity is a nucleus, an eye, a centre from which everything else radiates outward. It’s the kernel of an idea that develops into a motion picture, it’s a simple harmony that becomes a score. At the centre of every great idea was a simple thought that then blossomed in many ways, it’s also a home, not just where ideas go forth but where ideas can come back to and recharge and re-engage – so the cycle continues.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.