John O’Neill is the Principal and Creative Director at Conduit, the graphic design and branding studio who has shaped the look and feel of ArtPrize since 2015.
ArtPrize: What is the process like for creating an entirely new brand identity each year?
John O'Neill: The process starts with conversations with the ArtPrize team. A dominate theme usually emerges out of those early discussions. Sometimes the theme starts out of a simple concept, such as seven neighborhoods for year seven. Other times it is more conceptual, such as exuberant celebration for year nine.
Everyone in the studio then starts to rapidly iterates on that theme. We create a lot of work fast and fill the studio with ideas. Through a series of critiques, we figure out what ideas are worth exploring further.
We begin to narrow in on the ideas that excite us the most. It’s important the concept not only makes a great poster, but also has enough legs to work with over 300 individual deliverables. We explore how different concepts could be applied to key items such as street banners, t-shirts, signage, and even video. This exploration quickly informs which ideas are strong enough to stay in play.
After another few weeks of exploration, critique, and refinement we have several concepts that we are ready to present. At this design presentation the concepts are very flushed out and the ArtPrize team can clearly see how each direction would carry through the event.
With additional input we typically have 2 more rounds of refinement. At this point the poster is ready to go to press and items are ready for the unveiling at the premiere event. Ten items down and only 290 more to complete in the following 5 months.
What happens to all of the “b-side” ideas that don’t make it into the final designs?
A lot of designs that we love that have never seen the light of day. We’re thinking of opening up an online reject store to sell limited edition rejected merch.
How is designing for ArtPrize different than the other clients you work with?
ArtPrize feels less like a client and more like a creative partnership. We are giving a lot of creative freedom and really operate as part of their team. ArtPrize’s Design Lead, which for the last 2 years has been Amy Nieuwsma, works most of the week at our studio. This close working relationship allows for a lot of quick informal decisions and keeps the project moving at a rapid rate.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in designing for such a huge, experimental event like ArtPrize?
The nature of ArtPrize means that we are designing the event as it is being planned, and in the case of the awards show may not have final content until moments before it is announced. This takes some pretty careful scheduling so that we have the right information at the right time for each project and are providing printers and other vendors enough time to produce everything.
You’ve designed for ArtPrize for four years now, what is something you have learned through the process that you applied to the following year(s)?
In all honesty it’s that my personal favorite item in the retail line will not sell. If you want a Third Coast Life sweatshirt or Dot t-shirt I’m sure there are still a few around.
Seriously though, we participate with the whole ArtPrize team in an event debrief where we go over every detail of the event from public transportation usage to individual venue attendance. Out of that comes a list of items that worked well and should be repeated and others that can be improved in coming years.
What has been your favorite part about working on this design project?
I still get excited when the street banners go up and downtown begins to fill with our design. Within a matter of days 8 months of work suddenly appears and people are interacting with it throughout the city. Our studio is also situated on Monroe Center and during the event we can hear the rumble of thousands of people on the street below. I guess all of this is to say that it is quite interesting to feel surrounded by ArtPrize for 19 days.