Adelaide Festival of Arts 2006 Poster

The 2006 Adelaide Festival of Arts, one of Australia’s pre-eminent art festivals begins in early March, the poster for it has been up and around for a couple of months now, so I thought I’d take the time to review it in the context of the forthcoming event.

A bit of history for the uninitiated on the festival. It was established in the 1960s as the first major arts festival in Australia, in recent years it’s seen its ‘pre-eminence’ dampened somewhat by arts festivals in Sydney and Melbourne, some lackluster programmes, poor artistic director choices, and lack of funding. The 2006 event finds itself back on it’s feet a bit more, finally out of debt and with increased sponsorship, 2006 Artistic Director Brett Sheehy has promised ‘a more exciting and quality filled programme’, but then he would wouldn’t he.

The thing that has impressed me about past Festival posters is how important a part they have played in establishing the very character of the event. The unveiling of the design is one of the few graphic design stories that is deemed ‘news-worthy’ in Adelaide, and usually the design will stir some controversial reaction, whether it be the religious backlash over 1998’s poster featuring The Madonna playing an accordion or 1988’s with it’s not so subtle pencil/penis graphic. The important thing to me is at least people are taking notice – a poster advertising an Arts Festival should be confronting, it should be quirky and even difficult to understand, in effect it should convey the personality of the programme, without excluding a warmth that encompasses the populace it is aimed at. It shouldn’t crawl up it’s own backside so much with it’s cleverness. The two posters from 1988 and 1998 I feel were very successful in establishing both what the personality of their respective festivals would be, and an insight into what would be on the programme.

Which brings me to this years poster. Designed by local firms Detour and Parallax, headed by Matthew and Abra Remphrey and Cathy Packer, it’s great that the festival decided to go with a couple of the many great young design firms in the city. Both Detour and Parallax have been racking up awards nationally & internationally for their design efforts, they’re good designers, passionate about what they do, I should know, I studied with them!:)

Festival Artistic Director Sheehy describes his festival as ‘a merger between technology and art, minimalist, futuristic and reflective of the giga-faceted world in which we live’ I’ll have to take his word on that! He describes the poster as ‘a decorative mirror image, sized to fit a fridge door(!?) positioning Adelaide as the backdrop to this steadily reviving arts event, bold high tech lines with letters built from Adelaide’s streetscape, what you see at first is a mirror, a pure reflection of yourself looking into it, a reflection of humanity and the world around us, as all festivals should be, simple and clean.’

Technically it’s brilliant, a designer’s wet dream to both execute and examine. Building the letters out of an overlay of Adelaide’s streetscape is a clever idea. Adelaide in one of the few cities in the world, pre 20th century to be planned out, the grid of it’s streets and parks are a pervading influence on the everyday life of the people who live and commute to the city centre, so kudos for incorporating a feature so linked to the very heart and history of Adelaide itself. The only problem is that maybe it falls into that category of being to clever for it’s own good, the only way I new it was an overlay of the streetscape was when I was told it was such, I just thought it was an interesting circuit board type effect, perhaps some inclination that this festival would be embracing insights into new technology (which is the case). It’s effect seems somewhat diminished when you need to be told, suddenly it doesn’t feel all that inclusive, it feels like you’re not smart enough to get it.

As an identity the letterforms carry over well (as would be expected from designers well versed in corporate identity) onto many varied applications from press ads, to stationery items to apparel, a feat that distinguishes it from many festival identities past.

The other major feature of the poster is the reflective, mirror like stock it is printed on, it’s intention to mirror the viewer, to include them as part of the poster and hence the festival itself. It’s a nice idea, done many times before. It reminds me of a poster for a play from the Adleaide Fringe of the early 90s, a psychological pastiche of old B-grade horror movies titled along the lines of ‘The Eyes of Dr Mabuse’ (or something like that). The poster was printed on reflective silver stock, with a pair of staring, intense eyes as it’s main graphic. The ‘fun-house mirror distortion’ effect worked well for that plays subject matter, an hallucinary journey into the psyche. I’m not sure it’s as effective in the 2006 Festival update – looking into it, is it saying the festival will lack focus? It’s programme will distort the views that you currently hold? (I mean that in a good way!), or that by looking into it’s reflective surface, that I need to lay off the cherry ripes and twisties. The choice of stock for the posters doesn’t help much either, I’ve noticed that the posters have begun to distort and look kind of ragged in many a shop window over the past months due to being printed on what feels and looks like festive wrapping paper (hmmm, maybe this is intentional come to think of it?) The design fares better on one of the promotional postcards I picked up, I hope that they’ve printed some of the posters on that kind of thicker stock.

I can look at the poster as a designer and say it’s a great technical piece of graphic design. My regret with it is that unfortunately it feels a little cold and detatched, it’s technically too brilliant, too clever, there’s no quirk that moves me beyond the coolness of it’s execution. It instills in me the impression that this festival is to be very serious, very calculated, ‘leave it to us, we know what is good for you’, the poster states ‘Your Festival’ but somehow I don’t feel that included.

I think the designers have done a good job following the Festivals brief (as outlined by Sheehy above) and in creating a strong corporate identity for the event. Perhaps that’s where my position falls down. I look upon the Arts Festival as a chance for me to broaden my horizons, to be shocked, surprised, enlightened, to view and experience things I wouldn’t have contemplated. The thing is, the Adelaide Festival has grown to the point it is expected to ‘pay it’s own way’ it’s a corporate event as much as an artistic event – probably even more-so. It’s been through tough times where it took chances that weren’t successful, it needs to reassure rather than shock to guarantee it’s continued existence, to play safe in a lot of ways to continue it’s sponsorship.
I’m looking at the poster in too much in an artistic sense, rather than as an effective business tool

From all reports tickets sales for the festival so far have been impressive – so perhaps a strong cool corporate identity is working for them. For me though, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for graphic design to really lead the way – roll on Festival 2008.