The old and the new collide — the thinking behind the Globe’s new visual identity
There’s a magical story at the heart of the new branding for the ‘wooden O’, Shakespeare’s Globe.
“Shakespeare reminds us what it’s like to be alive.”
You may already have noticed the new ‘circular’ symbol appearing across digital channels this morning, alongside a new typeface and red, black and white livery, all of which are part of the fresh look for Shakespeare’s Globe, launched today.
But few would guess that behind the sharp logo and handsome graphics there’s a trail of hidden Shakespeare connections — one of them involving a hallowed piece of oak — that will delight scholars as much as newcomers.
The new identity is the work of The Partners, an international branding agency whose team spent a year immersed in the culture of the Globe.
‘We did this wonderful philosophical enquiry,’ says The Partners’ Creative Director Nick Eagleton, who co-led the team alongside Design Director Katherina Tudball. ‘We approached it like a research project and asked everything there is to ask about the Globe and all the work it does.’
The Partners worked alongside Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM), an agency which specialises in cultural strategy. Together, the two agencies were commissioned to review the Globe’s mission statement and explore fresh ways to communicate its work.
‘The original logo, designed by Pentagram, had been in existence for many years,’ explains Globe Commercial Director Mark Sullivan, referring to the familiar roundel of the playhouse with its raised flag. ‘The visual identity was refreshed in 2010. It has worked very well for us, but with the introduction of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the £30m forthcoming project to develop a new library, archive and exhibition space, we decided it was time to revise that.’
What followed was a process of intense workshops and interviews with staff and audiences before all the different elements of the Globe’s work, including its two theatres, exhibition, tours, education department and scholarly research, could be distilled into three core themes, summarised as ‘alive’, ‘shared experience’ and ‘wonder’.
A new mission statement, billed as ‘our cause’, was also developed, beginning with the line: ‘We celebrate Shakespeare’s transformative impact on the world by conducting a radical theatrical experiment’.
Then the really fun part of the project began as Eagleton, Tudball and other creatives at The Partners began to work on refining the mood boards from workshops and translating them into the Globe’s new identity.
‘They said to us, “just make sure you have a completely open mind”,’ remembers Eagleton. ‘They wanted it to be different and unique. And when you think about Shakespeare’s time, it was complicated, confusing and messy, and we knew it had to be a bit like that, not tidy and neat like most design.’
For Tudball, the lesson from all the conversations was that ‘everything about the Globe has been an experiment’, right from Sam Wanamaker’s original idea to reconstruct the theatre to the current programme of staging new work alongside plays by Shakespeare and other dramatists.
‘It was built as an experiment to see what it’s like for actors and directors to work in, to collide old and new,’ she says. ‘And that spirit of pushing things is still there, so the idea of radical experiment became the foundation for our approach. We did hundreds of mad experiments with images and typography and let the answer emerge. It was alchemy if you like.’
A key word to come out of this process was ‘alive’, ‘because Shakespeare reminds us what it’s like to be alive,’ says Eagleton. ‘His work is not historical, it’s magical; a performance of Hamlet will be as alive today as it was the day it was written. So when we were working on this we would look at the images and say “which one is more alive?” and that would be the one that was right for the Globe.’
At the centre of the new identity is the logo, an image that at first looks like a simple circle. But behind it lies an enchanting story that gives it a special link to the playhouse at the heart of the Globe’s work.
‘We did lots of experiments around circularity,’ explains Tudball, ‘because it’s an obvious shape to explore.’ But something seemed to be missing, until the team had a breakthrough moment. This was the realisation that the Globe, described in the prologue to Henry V as ‘this wooden O’, isn’t actually a circle. ‘It’s 20-sided,’ says Eagleton, ‘a polygon. And as soon as we started working with this distinctive shape we realised it was something ownable.’
Once the creatives had the 20-sided shape as a concept, they began to explore its possibilities. ‘All along we had this idea that the Globe was about the old colliding with the new, and we said “wouldn’t it be great if the logo was somehow made of the same wood as the theatre?”’ says Tudball. ‘And the Globe team said ‘actually, we’ve got this piece of wood’, and they sent it over.’
The wood turned out to be a circular piece of oak which had been on display in the permanent exhibition devoted to the reconstruction of the theatre. ‘It’s like a holy relic,’ says Eagleton. ‘It appears to be the only remaining circular piece of oak from the timber used to rebuild the Globe.’
For Tudball and Eagleton this was another breakthrough. Here was a hunk of oak which was probably once connected to a piece of timber that is now a beam or column inside the building. ‘So we decided we wanted to make a print block out of it,’ explains Tudball, ‘and print the logo from it.’
What followed was a delicate process in which Eagleton’s wife, the furniture maker Nathalie de Leval, sawed into the oak to make a 20-sided polygon. This became the surface from which the new logo would be printed.
The next stage was to take it to the St Bride Foundation in Fleet Street where printmaker Peter Smith covered the block with red ink and rubbed paper down on it to create the logo. This was a moment for deep breaths because it wasn’t clear how much of the texture of the wood would be visible in the final print. ‘But what came out shows an incredible grain,’ says Tudball, ‘the level of detail is amazing.’
This hand-crafted image is now the Globe’s logo, and if you look closely enough you can see the pattern of the grain in the printed versions, alongside the spaces left by the original cracks in the oak.
You may also notice on new brochures and posters that the logo has no fixed place, but interacts with images ‘so that all the action emanates from the symbol of the theatre’, as Tudball puts it. And once you know the secret of the symbol’s connection to the building, it gives it a whole deeper level of meaning.
While the logo is the central element in the new identity, there are other key parts which also have strong links to Shakespeare and his time. The red, black and white palette derives from the colours used in early printing processes. The Globe’s new typeface, Effra, which is an updated version of a typeface from 1816 called Caslon Junior, has also been chosen for its historic roots.
One of the final pieces in the puzzle has been the devising of a grid for the layouts of the Globe’s brochures and other printed material. For inspiration, the creative team turned to the First Folio, the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. ‘We spent a lot of time looking at the First Folio,’ says Tudball, ‘like how they squeezed the type to fit the space, or how it suddenly gets bigger. And we thought it would be nice to take the spirit of the First Folio and see what happens when you treat it experimentally.’
The result of this experimentation can be seen in the brochure for this summer’s season. What you see may appear modern, but if you examine it more closely you will notice that blocks of type sit in the middle of pages, that indentations and margins are wider than you might expect, and that pictures are sometimes long and narrow like the decorative panels in Jacobean texts.
What you are looking at, in other words, is a riff on First Folio principles. Another innovation this season is to list all the activities of the Globe in one brochure. ‘Everything is there, workshops, education and lectures, as well as theatrical productions,’ says Eagleton. ‘Because everything the Globe does is experimental and everything it does is alive, not just what appears on the stage.’
The new identity is already highly visible around the Globe site and on its printed material, and will be an integral part of the new website when it launches in April. Keep an eye out too for exciting uses of different paper stocks and print formats, which will also hark back to the Jacobean age (‘Fixed sizes like A4 didn’t exist then,’ points out Tudball).
A decision has yet to be made about how to display the magical piece of oak which is now the woodblock for the Globe logo. One idea is to sink it into the floor somewhere prominent on the site. Meanwhile its printed image will begin its job of spreading the message.
‘It stands for energy and experiment and for being alive,’ says Tudball, ‘ just like the Globe.’