Design in Art series: Castlefield Gallery

Daniel Cookney

For the first in our new Design in Art series, we take a look at the visual identity and branding of Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery.

Art and design are inextricably linked. Not just in terms of the creation and display of new work, but in how we think and feel about exhibitions and even arts organisations themselves. Thus it follows that graphic design has played a major part in the rebirth of Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery. Rising from the ashes of the funding cuts that closed it in 2011, Castlefield reopened a year later with new business-led purpose – and a new visual identity created by Newcastle design studio, Supanaught. It was an exercise that might have highlighted tensions between artistic expression and the pragmatic and often uniform approach used in branding. Instead, Supanaught’s Simon Canaway favoured “functionality and simplicity” over “the overtly illustrative” for the redesign of the Castlefield’s branding. “It is understated but authoritative,” he says of a visual identity that hints at the new, quiet confidence that the gallery exudes.

Graphic design changes how we think and feel about exhibitions & arts organisations themselves

That confidence came in part from the outpouring of support that greeted news that the Arts Council planned to withdraw all funding; an outpouring that managed to secure Castlefield Gallery’s future and helped shape its new incarnation. It provided the gallery with opportunity to relaunch while also keeping some of the things that made it work, such as the original entrepreneurial spirit of the founding artists who opened the arts venue in 1984. Yet it was also a welcome chance to reconsider how the gallery interacted with its audience, how it used language (both verbal and visual) and how it could better use new platforms, such as its website, to highlight the behind-the-scenes work it does in supporting and guiding the careers of emerging and new artists.

So how did that translate into a new visual identity for the gallery? By stripping things back. The new logo is based on a sans-serif letter “c” with, below it, an “open box” Unicode character (the little bracket-on-its-back shape). Simon Canaway describes this as a simple visual gesture that echoes the identities of similar arts organisations (such as Sheffield’s Site gallery and Birmingham’s Ikon) while, at the same time, nods to the new openness of the gallery. An interesting twist was the rendering of this symbol: its slightly rough, hand drawn feel provides a nice counterpoint to the sharp lines and pristine finish of the accompanying typeface.

“The cultural sector often uses a predictably safe and trend-driven visual language,” argues Canaway. “Often, it’s the start-ups that are more open to exploring new ideas, as the need to create impact and establish recognition is business-critical.” It’s an interesting point and one that perhaps explains why Castlefield Gallery has resisted the temptation to go for a louder identity and instead choose one that is so simple. It may now be over 30 years old, but it seems that Castlefield Gallery has embraced the chance to start over visually, choosing a design that does indeed sum up its relaunch.

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