An improv festival in your home city is a magical thing. It’s a chance to dress up nice and welcome performers from around the country who made the pilgrimage to your home to celebrate improv with you. It’s a chance to expose a whole new audience in your town to something special. It’s all consuming and exhausting and in an instant, it’s gone again. But something happens around year four. The festival doesn’t go away. It stays on the lips of your students and performers and audience members. It’s something exciting to look forward to and wonder what surprises the next year will bring. That’s because the mindset switches. Your city doesn’t have a series of festivals that happen to share a name. Your city has something special with a unique voice and a unique set of expectations. It’s your own Super Bowl.
As a producing board for an improv festival, it’s a mindset you need to adopt from year one. If you want the festival to grow in the years to come; to have bigger audiences, better press coverage and more volunteers, you need to start promoting it as an ongoing institution. There are many ways beyond the scope of this post to start building that attitude. Many posts in the future will discuss them, but there’s one thing simple thing you can do right from the start that is easy to dismiss in the heat of planning, but which will have tremendous return. Create something visual that people can attach to the festival. Visually brand your festival.
For theatre owners, this idea comes much more naturally. A logo is one of the first things created. It’s a unifying symbol attached to everything the theatre does. This idea is too often not part of the festival process. A festival logo is discarded each year in favor of a new one. The sense of consistency is lost. So how do you create a festival logo that will adapt to your festival in years to come?
Simple and Print Friendly
I’ve seen beautiful and elaborate posters for festival weekends. They catch the eye and draw attention. That’s wonderful. But that is an advertisement. Not your brand. Your brand needs to bring instant recognition. Think of the brands in your day to day life; Apple, Nike, Pepsi. These brands are instantly recognizable for their simplicity. The simpler your logo, the easier it will be for designers to include it in any size on your promotional posters, television commercials and letterheads. Yes, letterheads. As your festival grows, you will reach out to sponsors, grants, media partners, media, community organizations, etc. A good letterhead for a single letter doesn’t make a huge difference, but as time goes on, it will help bring recognition to your festival. The phrase “Oh yeah. I went to this last year.” Will be heard with increasing frequency.
Out of Bounds from Austin, TX has a great simple logo for their festival. Let’s look at it.
The logo is simple an aesthetically pleasing. If the logo was small enough, the text might not be legible, but the circles of OOB would still be recognizable. The logo in monotone and would look fine in black and white. This logo has been the basis for their marketing for several years. Conversley, this was the marketing for the 2013 Del Close Marathon.
As a poster, this is a stunning piece of artwork. It’s even more beautiful in person – as a poster. This entire image (minus the text) was included on all DCM materials, sometimes smaller than it appears on this page. At that size, it’s incomprehensible. More to the point, the poster is replete with imagery from Del Close, his albums, his life. But aside from the thematic inclusion of Del, there is nothing that connects this to any past artwork for the festival. Eagle eyed viewers may spot the UCB logo in this image. UCB is the producing theatre of the festival and ostensibly deserves some recognition. But the inclusion here isn’t branding, it’s an easter egg buried in the elaborate artwork. At best, this image reminds us of Del Close – the man, and of the UCB theatre, but not of the event itself.
Home Town Pride
Your logo will reach many different audiences. With the exception of submitting troupes, most people you want to see your logo often have two things in common; they live in the city the festival is happening and they may not know exactly what improv is. You can play to both of these. You logo can embody both of those ideas; improv and the city it’s housed in. This has the potential to catch attention through familiarity and then promise more with the unknown. You are a part of your city’s culture. Respect that. Try to find an image that honors the spirit of your city while also introducing the ideas of your festival. Let’s look at the logo for The Phoenix Improv Festival. (Disclaimer: I may be biased towards this logo as it is from my city. But I still believe it to be a good logo.)
The Laughing Phoenix has been a part of the Phoenix Improv Festival since 2002. A visitor may or may not make the connection that the city was named after the mythical bird, but residents will recognize its similarity to the official imagery of the city.
The mixture of Phoenix imagery with laughter is a simple connection to make with the logo.
Variations On A Theme
Once your ongoing logo is established. It makes marketing from year to year simple. A simple logo can be tweaked in small ways to match the individual marketing of a year’s event and promotion. OOB in 2012 decided on an apocalyptic theme and included a slightly battered version of their logo, but still clearly identifiable with the brand. Here are some logos from past years’ events for the festivals mentioned in this article as well as The Denver Improv Festival. Each one has a different relationship with the inclusion of their logo from year to year.
Each festival has a slightly different way of incorporating their logo into marketing for individual events, but each clearly has an identifiable mark.
Pro Tip: Be An Improvisor
Any organization has to figure out how to brand themselves visually. Sometimes they hire outside companies to do it for them. You have a very distinct advantage over all of them. You’re an improvisor. There are many books and lectures out in the world on how improv makes you better equipped to run a business and it’s absolutely true. You have skills that many small business owners cannot possibly grasp. The issue is that there isn’t always a clear description on how to use those skills. So here’s one right here. The goal of using a logo is to express ideas through symbols. In fancy college words, you’re using semiotics and simulacra. You’re attaching meaning to symbols. This is what you do every weekend when you ask for a suggestion. Unless you’re one of that rare breed of performer who takes every suggestion literally, you take suggestions and discover their meaning with your audience. You put out a hand to the audience and discover together why their suggestion is pregnant with possibility. Every suggestions has connotations and undertones waiting to be discovered. What tools do you personally use to do this? Armando? Invocation? Do this. Your suggestion is your festival. You may be surprised to learn what your festival means to you. What it means to others. The things that are unique and wonderful about your festival will come to the surface and you’ll have a much better starting point for creating imagery.
Keep On Truckin’
Every year, your festival will grow and change. That’s wonderful. Each year should be unique and have it’s own voice. But remember that your festival is important to many people and you want it to become important to more people. A consistent iconography is a strong way to keep this happening. That sticker on someone’s laptop from the 2010 festival will be a reminder that the 2014 festival is coming. It will become part of your city’s pride.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.
POSTSCRIPT: As a pleasing coincidence, when looking for a link to invocation for this blog post, I found Kevin Mullaney’s blog post. As an example he included a video of an invocation of an improv festival. So you can see that this idea is not a new one.