The National Theatre

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Behind the scenes with the National Theatre’s Graphic Design Studio

We recently spent a very interesting afternoon in conversation with the team from the Graphic Design Studio at the National Theatre.

They create campaigns for all the theatre’s productions as well as its education, fundraising programmes and catering outlets. That can involve graphic design, moving image, photography across print and digital media.

We talked to Senior Designer Louise Richardson to find out more about what the Graphic Design Studio does:

Could you tell us a little about your role within the Graphic Design Studio?

My main responsibility is to design and art direct show campaigns for the productions that are staged in our three theatres on the South Bank. I work on around 10 campaigns a year, alongside other projects for the organisation supporting our learning initiatives, fundraising department and other commercial projects like restaurants and bars.

How many people are there in the team, and what are their roles?

We are a small, busy team of nine, made up of one studio manager, two junior designers, one midweight, one digital designer, two seniors, a design director and creative director. There is always a real breadth of work going through the studio, so designers will work on multiple projects for different departments at the same time. The bulk of our work is to promote our shows to audiences, which will see the junior team rolling out the campaign assets created by the senior designers. But because there’s such a wide variety of projects we make sure that everyone in the team gets the opportunity to work on creative briefs. We do everything from security uniforms to exhibition design.

Do you need a background in theatre to work within the studio?

Most people in the studio have an interest in theatre, but it’s not a requirement of working here. The team is currently a mix of people with previous experience across arts organisations, commercial theatre, publishing or branding. We like to have a range of designers with different approaches to make sure that our work stays fresh and diverse.

Are you based in the National Theatre?

Yes, it’s a very special building to work in as everything you see on the stages is made here, so it’s a real hive of activity. We’ve got everyone from Finance to Wigmakers, and a walk in between meetings can take you past a scenic artist painting a new backdrop, or a prop designer making a puppet.

What are the team involved in producing for an average production?

For each production we’ll create one lead image, often with some moving image element to the campaign. We have an in-house content team who we collaborate with when we’re producing trailers, but we’ll usually commission external photographers and illustrators for the key image. Our work used to be very poster focused, but as we’re constantly aiming to develop our audience, our reach has to extend past a poster in the building. Our artwork now stretches across formats for print, online, Transport for London campaigns, outdoor advertising and merchandise.

Are you involved in productions from an early stage?

We work about six months in advance of a show going on stage. The discussions that we have with the show’s director are often some of the first that they’ll have about the production, which is a great privilege to be part of such early conversations. But it also means that they can still be developing ideas and a vision for the piece, so we have to gather whatever information is available to us to help form the brief.

Who provides your brief? Do you work from the script of a play?

We have a very collaborative process. We develop the brief together alongside our marketing team and director, writer or set & costume designer working on the production. We’ll get a steer from marketing around what we need to achieve from the campaign, whether that’s audience development or if we know there’s a famous face attached to the production that we’ll want to promote. Then we’ll get more context about the production from the director/writer, who we’ll discuss themes, aesthetic and storyline with.   

Do you collaborate with the director or actors directly?

We will always try to engage with the director or writer as early on as possible. We have an initial briefing meeting with the team and then develop usually two or three concepts to present back to them. Once we’re decided on a direction, whether that’s photography or illustration, we have regular check-in points with the director, who will often attend the shoots to direct the actors. It’s much rarer to collaborate with the actors as they’re so often not confirmed at the early stages when our project starts.

What do you work on outside of theatrical productions?

The National Theatre is a charity, so there are a number of departments in the organisation that have the responsibility to raise funds for the organisation. That means we’ll always have interesting projects knocking on our door, from designing an identity for a fundraising gala to spray painting an ice cream van to appeal to South Bank tourists. We do a lot of work for our Learning team, especially our yearly youth festival Connections, and our Development team keep us busy designing invites for our members’ events. We also do everything for NT Live, which sees our shows broadcast live to cinemas worldwide. This summer you’ll see our new identity for our free outdoor festival River Stage, opening in July.

Do you all work on the same project or are teams assigned to particular productions?

We’ll have one lead designer for each show, and then multiple designers will work under their direction once the campaign is signed off. This will include poster roll-out, programme design and developing a digital campaign.

Are you involved with the stage and scenery at all?

We often collaborate with teams from Costume and Wigs, Hair and Makeup but our work is usually too far in advance to collaborate much with our Construction/Scenic Arts teams, although we have called on them to help out with ambitious shoots. For ‘An Octoroon’ we worked with our Rigging team to suspend actor Ken Nwosu upside down into a bowl of thickened coconut milk. Our construction team also built a contraption which was filled with sugar to release over actor Isabella Nefar to look like sand, for our production of ‘Salomé’.

How do photographers and illustrators fit into what you do?

We commission photographers and illustrators to create the imagery seen in our campaigns. When we develop concepts, we’ll present the writer/director with a mood board, sketches, and an art direction. We’ll then use this brief to commission the artist whose style best suits the project.

Do you tend to have favourite external artists you come back to, or do you seek out the right person for a specific idea?

We love working with new collaborators but we also like re-commissioning people that we’ve done successful projects with. We have so many new briefs that there’s a good balance between developing new relationships and nurturing existing ones. Finding new creatives is such a brilliant part of my job, but there’s also something very satisfying about working with someone who you trust to take on a challenging brief.

Are you involved with marketing teams once the work starts being rolled out?

All the roll-out is briefed in by our Marketing team, they’re probably our closest ‘client’. They’re involved right from the beginning of the process so they have a great understanding of the concept and how it might shape their side of the campaign.

Are there any pieces you’ve worked on that stand out for you?

Designing campaigns for theatre gives you access to such a wide range of stories, so each project is always very different. Memorable jobs include sourcing an antique china doll for Annie Baker’s ‘John’, shot by Felicity McCabe. We also recently worked with Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane for Martin Crimp’s ‘When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other’ – which meant tracking down a vintage Mercedes with photographer Gillian Hyland. Another memorable but less props-focused shoot was for a new production of Peter Gynt, by David Hare, where we asked photographer Mads Perch to capture actor James McArdle running, cartwheeling and dancing across a large studio space, to create an image filled with physicality and energy.

Photos credits in order as shown:

Gillian Hyland

Sebastian Nevols

Felicity McCabe

Mads Perch