Launching a SHAPE brand – the new ARC identity

Chris Fellingham, Director of the Aspect Research Commercialisation Accelerator (ARC), and Steven Woods, Creative Director, Studio Mundo discuss what it takes to create a SHAPE brand.

We caught up with Chris Fellingham, Director of the Aspect Research Commercialisation Accelerator (ARC), from the University of Oxford, and Steven Woods, Creative Director, Studio Mundo to discuss the development of the new, dynamic and much improved ARC brand.

Thank you both for joining us today Chris and Steve. The ARC rebrand is arguably the first SHAPE brand – why did ARC need a new identity and what did you hope to achieve in this process?

Chris – ARC is gaining traction among universities as a place for way SHAPE ventures and innovation are occurring. Universities and research councils are keen to see what SHAPE ventures look like and how they are supported. With rising attention among researchers, universities and a broader commercial ecosystem we need a brand that helps communicate what ARC is about and trying to do to help people engage.

It is not an easy job creating a new identity, what are some the key things people should be considering when they embark upon this journey? 

Steve – When creating or developing a brand, from a design perspective I find the main challenge to be striking the right balance between doing something creative and original, but not so radical that it alienates the audience. In order to do that, it helps to learn as much about your customers as possible – and to test out ideas and concepts with target groups. It can also be challenging to define certain brand attributes – mission, vision, values, brand personality etc. Often the business owners or organisation heads themselves won’t necessarily have clear answers for these. Fortunately, in the case of ARC, work had already been done on Mission and Vision statements which gave us something to work with and develop further.

With the growing recognition and embracing of SHAPE as a term, a lot of people will be considering how their brands can develop in line with this, were there any challenges you faced in defining a SHAPE brand in particular?

Chris – Audience is key. ARC works with lots of different people and organisations, at the core are researchers and universities, then research councils and then investors, businesses, charities, foundations and other organisations. This isn’t surprising, most accelerators will have a fairly broad ecosystem but SHAPE is especially broad – you could go from a social venture creating microfinances in Sub-Saharan Africa to on set safety in film production to Fintech innovation in Insurance. We had to work across all these priorities.

Steve – The challenge of priorities was also reflected design-wise – which Chris warned us in advance about! – in that the social sciences and humanities are notoriously very difficult to represent visually, in part due to how broad they are. We tried several ways to solve this but settled on the use of photomontages / collages comprising images loosely tied to the subject matter e.g. philosophy, law, economics, society etc. The end result allowed us to create striking, surreal images that covered a lot of different areas but still remained broadly on topic.

The other challenge, touched upon earlier, was knowing ‘how far we could go’ in terms of creative freedom. We knew from research that to attract our audience we needed to steer clear of corporate design and business language and push the brand more towards ‘social good’. We explored lots of options on this, incorporating elements we found in protest movements and activism (such as homemade banners, hand-drawn fonts, grunge textures, torn edges, and doodles). In the end, it was about striking the right balance – our target audience included more traditional academics and researchers, and although we wanted to be as disruptive as possible, it was equally as important not to deter key groups. Our final identity retained some of those ideas but much more toned down.

You mention research, how did you go about gathering this?

Chris – It was crucial that it not just be myself and Steve feeding into the brand although we were both passionate about it and had ideas. I wanted to get the rest of the ARC management team involved – Morven Fraser-Walther, Tony Walker, David Ai and Julian Jantke – both because they support ARC and because they will bring their own unique understanding of SHAPE and what it means and that will broaden the idea and hopefully make it more resilient and appealing.

Steve – Bringing people together helps us to learn, so before we could do any work on brand messaging, or even on design, we needed to learn as much as could about ARC. We also needed to identify problems with the current (previous) ARC brand identity. To that end a questionnaire was drawn up and shared with key members of the ARC team that Chris mentions. Broadly it asked simple questions about what ARC is, why it exists, what ARC’s customers want or need etc – overall it got the team thinking more deeply about ARC from the customer perspective. We also got the team to list adjectives that they thought described the brand, eventually coming to a consensus and shortening this to five brand descriptors; Progressive, Bold, Friendly, Disruptive, and Idealistic. The fascinating part was when we compared these words with the then current brand – none of them matched the visual identity! We knew then that we needed a completely new visual identity for ARC that better represented the team’s vision.

This must have helped a lot in defining the ARC brand, were there any takeaways that you think might be transferrable across the development of SHAPE brands?

Steve – That’s right, from a design perspective we weren’t necessarily thinking broadly about SHAPE brands from the outset of this – this exercise was specific to the ARC Accelerator brand, although it taught us a huge amount about SHAPE characteristics and I’d imagine that many of the responses would equally apply to other SHAPE brands. The main takeaway was that our target audience was not motivated by a desire to increase profits, or enter the corporate arena – rather they were keen to make a positive difference in the world and to see their work and ideas brought into reality. This had a big influence on the look and feel of the brand, and in the messaging style which avoids mention of more typical motivators such as ‘we’ll help you build and grow a successful business’.  Instead we opted for something we hoped would be a bit more inspiring  –  ‘Helping SHAPE ideas into reality’.

‘Helping SHAPE idea into reality’ is very inspirational and to the point at the same time, it’s great, what was your process in visualising this?

Steve – Before starting on any artwork I like to spend a few hours researching competitors, analysing their brands, and generally gathering random images I find inspiring that relate to the brief. I remember one example was imagery from activist movements, handmade signs/typography etc. Next, I start grouping them into themes and filtering them down until a short list is made. This usually sparks some ideas and I can start working on concepts for the brand identity.

We had about four or five initial concepts which were worked up into visuals – a mock webpage, social post, or letterhead. These were shared with the team for feedback. We had unanimous positive feedback for one of the concepts, but it still required lots of further development and adjustment – from the colours used to the overall style and its application. We went through several further iterations ‘testing’ out the new branding on website homepage layouts, each time receiving critical feedback and discussing progress with frequent group Zoom calls. We created a high fidelity web page mock up in Figma that was shared with the team, and eventually approved. Once we had the visuals ‘locked in’ we were then able to put together brand guidelines using the selected colours, fonts, icons etc – showing examples of best practice – and to create further collateral using the new ARC brand style.

It has been a pleasure to witness this process, reflecting on the results how does this now help “SHAPE” ARC and ARC’s ambitions moving forward?

Chris – ARC has been very inwardly focused for a while as we focused on core-deliver – training, programme structure etc and not thinking as much about communicating the findings from the programme and what SHAPE venture can mean more broadly. Having the website and the brand behind it creates a home for SHAPE innovation and that’s the challenge going forward, to help paint the picture of what SHAPE ventures can be, how they help impact society and the economy so that researchers, universities and everyone in the commercial ecosystem can understand and get involved.


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