Brand: Channel 4
Award: Wood Pencil / Branding / Brand Expression in Moving Image
Award: Graphite Pencil / Branding / Channel Branding & Identity / 2016
Award: Yellow Pencil / Graphic Design / Integrated Graphics / 2016
Channel 4 is a unique broadcaster. Funded by the taxpayer in the UK, it is a non-profit with a remit to challenge the status quo. This has historically given it the impetus to produce some of the most unapologetic, diverse and divisive programming in the world. For the in-house creative team, a rebrand was an opportunity to embody that remit.
Leading the creative team are Chris Bovill and John Allison. Having worked together at agencies including TBWA and Fallon, since 2012 they have been bringing Channel 4’s creative output to new heights.
John traces the rebrand back to the first time they met their future boss, Channel 4 CEO David Abraham, in their interview. “He door-stopped us with the question “If you were to rebrand Channel 4, what would you do?” And it was a total brown-trouser moment, because we hadn’t prepared for any questions like that.”
The pair got the job, but that final question remained with them for a number of years. Before they would get to answering they were to oversee rebrands for All 4, More 4 and Film 4, and launch 4seven. Their Film 4 work even earned them a rare D&AD Black Pencil.
When the time came to tackle the main channel, the existing branding was seven years old. In Chris’ view, “The channel itself had moved on, the world had moved on, the media landscape had moved on.”
Part of their previous work had seen them re-establish the Channel 4 brand under the strapline ‘Born Risky’. This has seen manifestations such as Prototype (the launch of the world’s first one-legged pop star) and Alternative Voices (where underrepresented groups were handed controls of the channels continuity announcements). Chris explains, “We’d had the same remit since 1982, and we were just reframing it slightly and being noisier with that message. Suddenly ‘Born Risky’ was a filter we could pass everything through.”
Both Chris and John felt that they needed to break down the monolithic impression of the brand by deconstructing the number ‘4’ itself. Or, in Chris’ words “It’s Channel 4 – it’s 4 from the top, people can count. So instead of telling people what they were watching, we wanted to tell them why they were watching.”
The identity would run beyond idents and on-screen branding, to posters, website, social media and signage, as well as hero content such as The Grand National and Channel 4 News. For John, this was quite a realisation “It was like uncovering a conspiracy theory – “oh my god, it’s got to go everywhere.” Because we’re concept freaks we wanted it to run through everything, if it didn’t it wasn’t going to work.”
With the concept of shifting identity, schizophrenia and breaking down the logo in mind, they went out to creative agencies for ideas. It was Grant Gilbert of DoubleG Studios who came to their office and poured a box of blocks onto the table.
Keeping the essence of Lambie-Nairn’s iconic 1982 logo, but breaking it down into blocks embraced continuity and change. John expands, “It was saying we’re more than just a number. Our constituent parts make up so much more. So we went to town on what we could do with the blocks”. A typeface inspired by the blocks was developed by Neville Brody, and programme reminders and schedule updates would feature tumbling blocks.
The team were tempted to even destroy their headquarters’ iconic sign… “Outside the building there was a huge 4, at one point we wanted to get the chainsaws out and chop it down.” John claims “I’m glad we didn’t, there are 900 people who work here and they’re all really passionate about the channel”.
CHANNEL 4 Rebrand - block identity
But for John and Chris there was a bigger story to be told. A year and a half into their rebrand project, and it was time to brief the idents. “Part of the brief was that we wanted everything to be tactile.” Chris says, “We didn’t want it to feel like graphics, we wanted it to feel touchable. Because Channel 4 is a real thing, it has a real impact. It’s human.” John continues, “Channel 4 changes laws and attitudes and perceptions, so we wanted to show how that can exist in the real world.”
Having briefed the job to a select few directors, it was Jonathan Glazer who came back trumps.
“The fact that it didn’t have to be ‘nice’ was a good hook for Glazer. We’re not the BBC. Because the channel splits people, it’s shocking for some and liberating for others. You can argue that it changed public perceptions for the better. So part of the ident was capturing some of that approach.”
For John and Chris, Glazer understood this insight, and how to make it happen executionally. “All the best directors have this ability to boil things down to the absolute hard kernel of truth. He came back with a great solution which was ‘let’s portray the blocks as if they were naturally occurring geological objects, like kryptonite… Let’s begin with showing them as a special unique objects that have an impact on the world around them’.
Jonathan’s vision would see the blocks embody ‘power’. As Chris explains, “We thought ‘let’s give them an origin story’. Batman and other superheroes are always doing that, why can’t we do that with our channel?”
Chris and John proceed to explain, for the very first time, the story behind each of the four idents, and the shoots.
“It has a logic to it, an arc from nature to science.”
Channel 4 Brand Identity | Waterfall, Shaman, Quarry & Science
Discovering this untouched beauty, it needed to feel like we were conquistadores. There’s this beautiful waterfall. But at the end there’s a threat as the stones come down.
“So location was key for this one, and [production company] Academy absolutely delivered on it. There aren’t many places like that left that you can get to and film.
This waterfall was in a remote part of New Zealand. To get there we had to climb up on ropes in the middle of nowhere.”
…And then once you’ve found the blocks it’s about the influence they have over people – that’s the Shaman character… the Shaman who basically weirds everyone out.
“The Shaman’s mask had about 1000 blocks in it. I think we used all of the resin in New Zealand to create that mask. There’s no big close up on those things, but the detail is incredible. The material for the Shaman was entirely natural.
The Shaman was filmed in Spain in a cave you access through a hole. We all got lowered 80 feet down to get in. Insider the cave are a load of non-descript bones … there was definitely a monster in there.”
Then it’s “alright this stuff is good, let’s get more of it”. Because that’s what we do – we’re humans.
“You’ve got the epicness of the explosion, and then hundreds of people crawling around like ants.
The toughest thing was finding a mine that would allow us to blow it up. Not many places would allow you to do that. It’s a testament to Academy and the work they put into it.
It exploded out of the side of a cliff, and that became the stage. We exploded it one day and came back the next day with all these people and filmed it.”
…And then it’s “alright, let’s understand this stuff, we want to know more about it… let’s experiment on it.”
“The Nano technology laboratory was in Surrey, England. This technology out-NASA’s NASA. They make a blacker-than-black material that basically eats light. It’s like magic. We used the machines that make it to make the graphite block.
They put it into a machine that changes the molecular structure of it. What you see in the film – that happened, no special effects. You don’t hear Glazer go ‘Wooah’ very often. But he did at that point.
It was those lengths we went to to make the things real.”
Whilst a lot of the effect of the spots being built into their location and content, there were experimental techniques which played an important role too. For example the spots were shot in stereoscopic cameras, with infrared being over-layed with normal film. Chris details what effect this had, “It gives it that slight otherworldly feeling. It’s graded to pick out certain colours. So you know it shouldn’t be like that… but you don’t understand why.”
There was also music to consider. And with the team behind the feature film Under The Skin already working on the project, for John it made sense to use the film’s soundtrack artist Mica Levi. “Jonathan Glazer almost uses her music as a way of cutting… it’s part of the creative process. Her sound led how we treated the sound and the grade and the edit.”
Distribution / Response
John remembers the day of launch “Everyone bought into it from the top – David Abraham, Dan Brookes. They said release it at 9 O’Clock. And be brave.” The idents went out during the commercial breaks in prime time show Educating Essex, one per slot.
For Chris, the response was on-message “It came back as a resounding “that is Channel 4. No one else could do that”. And that is all really we wanted to say. We’re here to prove why we’re here.“
Measuring the success of idents and branding is near impossible, or as John puts it, “You can’t measure it. But people knew what channel they were on.”
Brazilian Airton Carmignani summarizes the response from the international judges on the Film Advertising Crafts Jury at this year’s D&AD, “I remember there was not a consensus in the beginning. Some of the members didn't understand what they were about… Although I'm not from UK these pieces struck me the first time I saw them. The execution is super fresh, so I really didn't care what they were about. Only after our first discussion some UK Judges contextualized the meaning and the importance of them to non-UK members.”
Clearly it cut through as the whole rebrand project (including idents) won three Pencils, including a Yellow in Graphic Design. The idents themselves won two Graphite Pencils for Cinematography and Direction. But most importantly for the creators was the Mum test, “Without sounding like Forest Gump, there was something for everyone. My mum HATES the Shaman. But she loves the Waterfall. Kids love the explosions…”
In summary, it was creative bravery that got the team there. As Chris says, “Nothing’s as big as the pressure you put yourself under. Let that fear drive you. Because if you get it wrong, everyone in the country sees that you’ve fucked it up. The self-made barriers are the biggest thing.”
If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Professional Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.