“To O or Not to O: There is no Question”
Established in 1997, Shakespeare’s Globe is “a radical theatrical experiment” that “celebrates Shakespeare’s transformative impact on the world” in London, UK, in a faithful reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, an open-air playhouse designed and built by William Shakespeare’s playing company in 1599. Founded by actor and director Sam Wanamaker, Shakespeare’s Globe stages plays in its main stage during the Summer and serves as an educational and research hub the rest of the year and stages productions in its smaller indoor theater. With an upcoming £30m investment to grow the theater, Shakespeare’s Globe introduced a new identity designed by London-based The Partners.
At the centre of the new identity is the logo, an image that at first looks like a simple circle. But behind it lies an enchanting story that gives it a special link to the playhouse at the heart of the Globe’s work.
‘We did lots of experiments around circularity,’ explains [The Partners’ Design Director Katherina] Tudball, ‘because it’s an obvious shape to explore.’ But something seemed to be missing, until the team had a breakthrough moment. This was the realisation that the Globe, described in the prologue to Henry V as ‘this wooden O’, isn’t actually a circle. ‘It’s 20-sided,’ says [The Partners’ Creative Director Nick] Eagleton, ‘a polygon. And as soon as we started working with this distinctive shape we realised it was something ownable.’
Once the creatives had the 20-sided shape as a concept, they began to explore its possibilities. ‘All along we had this idea that the Globe was about the old colliding with the new, and we said “wouldn’t it be great if the logo was somehow made of the same wood as the theatre?”‘ says Tudball. ‘And the Globe team said ‘actually, we’ve got this piece of wood’, and they sent it over.’
The wood turned out to be a circular piece of oak which had been on display in the permanent exhibition devoted to the reconstruction of the theatre. ‘It’s like a holy relic,’ says Eagleton. ‘It appears to be the only remaining circular piece of oak from the timber used to rebuild the Globe.’
What followed was a delicate process in which Eagleton’s wife, the furniture maker Nathalie de Leval, sawed into the oak to make a 20-sided polygon. This became the surface from which the new logo would be printed.
The next stage was to take it to the St Bride Foundation in Fleet Street where printmaker Peter Smith covered the block with red ink and rubbed paper down on it to create the logo. This was a moment for deep breaths because it wasn’t clear how much of the texture of the wood would be visible in the final print. ‘But what came out shows an incredible grain,’ says Tudball, ‘the level of detail is amazing.’
The old logo, designed by Pentagram, was great. It referenced the building in a slightly abstract way and reproduced it in a concise and crisp drawing that was tightly wrapped with the name in a full circle. It was a lovely and efficient roundel. All this praise doesn’t lead to me bemoaning its retiring as it is being replaced by another great logo that operates on a different wavelength conceptually and graphically, offering a completely new way to represent Shakespeare’s Theatre.
Obviously, the backstory is everything: the logo being built from a piece of wood of the same batch that was originally used to build the theater is the stuff concepts dreams are made of and the fact that a slice of oak existed, that it withstood carving, and that it printed beautifully, is a production success in itself. Even without the backstory, the logo easily reads as a wooden, circular structure that echoes the shape of the building and its materials, so there is a clear relationship. Graphically, I love the Wabi-sabi-ness of the “O” and how it captures the uncontrollable grain of the oak and embraces its cracks and ruggedness. At small sizes, unfortunately, most of the detail is gone and what’s left is a wobbly ring but that problem should be easy to overcome as the applications make good use of the “O” in large sizes. The “O” is accompanied by a slightly dry wordmark typeset in Effra, which also serves as the main typeface in the identity.
[On] new brochures and posters the logo has no fixed place, but interacts with images ‘so that all the action emanates from the symbol of the theatre’, as Tudball puts it. And once you know the secret of the symbol’s connection to the building, it gives it a whole deeper level of meaning.
The limited applications shown display an interesting flexibility for the “O”, serving as a framing element, an initial cap, or an anchoring device. To a degree I like that it’s treated so freely but I also wonder if it’s too much and could potentially dilute its place as the logo. Overall, though, this has a great energy and potential to communicate in different ways all anchored by, literally, a piece of the theater’s history.