V&A Dundee

Dundee Pride: Creating a creative identity

Dundee held its very first Pride celebrations in September 2018, one week after our museum opened. (It was quite a week.) Our Digital Producer Russell Dornan talks us through the visual identity he accidentally created for Dundee Pride.

Before I begin, I have to say one thing: I am not a designer.

I’m not saying that to be self-deprecating or humble. I’m also not implying that anyone can just “do graphic design” (at least not very well). I think it’s important to understand the context in which I created Dundee Pride’s visual identity and that as I talk through my choices and train of thought that brought it to where it is today, you know I’m not coming from a place of design authority, expertise or training.

I worked on the creative identity in the same spirit that other Pride and protest materials have been made for decades: using any time I managed to spare, by teaching myself (while failing often) and leaning on learned friends for support and advice.

Six colours of the simplified Pride rainbow.
The Pride rainbow, a stalwart of LGBTQ+-related design.

It all started because I volunteered for Dundee Pride in 2018, helping with the website, editorial materials and social media. At the same time, I was working intensely on preparing to get V&A Dundee open and telling that story online in my role as Digital Producer. It was a manic few months and I knew I wasn’t giving as much time to my voluntary commitment as I wanted.

Despite all this, Dundee Pride still needed a visual identity. For unavoidable and not surprising reasons on projects like this, timelines got crunched and I found myself with only a week or so to present a concept to the committee. Without a budget, and reluctant to ask a designer to work in treble time for free, I wondered if I could produce something fit for purpose myself.

But I’m not a designer! No, but I’ve worked in digital roles for museums for a long while and know my way around Adobe’s bits and bobs.

But I'm not a designer! Correct, but I’ve dabbled with design here and there and know what I like.

But I’m not a designer! Well, no, but I’d been using some holding patterns and assets I’d knocked up and thought they could be further developed.

But I’m not a designer! Yes, fine. But I didn’t have the wherewithal to appoint one and produce the material in time, so there.

END SCENE I hope you enjoyed that little play about the nagging doubts inside my head as I worked on this. They cropped up more than a few times. It was important for me, as a queer person, to get this right. I knew I wouldn’t set the graphic design world alight, but I needed something that wasn't naff, that was fit for purpose and, vitally, was inclusive and representative of the diverse LGBTQ+ community.

The previous assets Dundee Pride had been using on social media and across other digital channels featured the rainbow, as many Pride-related activities do around the world. It’s an important symbol of queer protest and celebration, and a quick identifier for that too. My first instinct was to try something different; did pride-related design have to always to feature a rainbow, I wondered?

I was initially drawn to the shape of a triangle. The iconic pink triangle, first used in Nazi concentration camps to label homosexual men, has resonated with me for a long time: a pure and simple symbol heavily loaded with death and persecution. A bold graphic punch reflecting so much horror and heartbreak.

A pink triangle against a black backdrop with the words 'Silence=Death' representing an advertisement for the Silence=Death Project used by permission by ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Colour lithograph, 1987.
An advertisement for the Silence=Death Project used by permission by ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power.

It was subsequently reclaimed as symbol of self- and community identity, eventually used by ACT-UP (The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in their powerful campaign drawing attention to the impact of AIDS on the queer community. More recently it has been used in different ways to signal safe spaces or as symbols for bi identity. Read more about the pink triangle’s history in persecution and resistance.

Something about using the triangle alone didn’t feel right to me, though. Perhaps it was the weight of its history. Or the fact that its albeit rich history didn’t fully reflect the diversity of the queer community today. With that in mind, and inspired by the triangle, I started thinking about other shapes.

I’ve always been a fan of bold graphic prints and the playful use of shapes. This was an opportunity to see what I could come up with and if I could create something appealing and, at least somewhat, meaningful. [But I’m not a designer!] This line of thought led me to one of my favourite artists, Kazimir Malevich. The Russian artist was the inventor of suprematism, a bold visual language of abstract geometric shapes and stark colours.

A series of colourful shapes painted in formation with coloured lines in a pleasing composition.
Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich, part of my inspiration.

As I started playing with the idea of geometric shapes and colour, I started to get excited. The different shapes in different sizes and colours felt like a nod to a diverse range of people and sexualities and cultures. Something I felt a singular triangle lacked.

Something wasn’t quite working, though. I was a little bit stuck. I needed something to pull the shapes together; something to make sense of them. And that’s when I remembered the rainbow.

The rainbow flag, created in 1978 by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker, has become an almost universal symbol of LGBTQ+ identity, protest and pride. Designed to be inclusive (but not always perceived as such), the flag has an interesting story, along with its recent update to make it more inclusive. Find out more about this in our Twitter thread from earlier in the year.

By using the rainbow as a backdrop and making the shapes black, something clicked for me. It felt appropriate to use the rainbow, the instantly recognisable queer symbol, for Dundee Pride. I started to see something on the screen in front of me that could be used in different ways across a range of assets. It felt simple, colourful, bold and flexible. And, importantly, obviously queer.

Pride rainbow with different-sized black shapes over the top, like triangles, squares and circles.
Adding black shapes over the rainbow felt like I was on to something.

The black shapes gave me an easy way to layer text over assets and meant that different shapes could be used in different positions, offering flexibility within a set of structured rules. I used the font that Dundee Pride had already been using for their interim logo. I set it in a black hexagon at a slight angle and felt like I’d landed on the new logo.

The words “Dundee Pride” written in white across a black hexagon, itself against the rainbow.
Dundee Pride’s logo.

I chose the typography to always be at an angle. [But I’m not a designer!] Normally, I hate it when copy is squint; it almost always looks lame, like a forced playfulness. In this case, though, straight text just didn’t feel right (no pun intended). It clashed with the shapes and always ended up being awkwardly aligned with the rainbow behind. [But I’m not a designer!]

While I recognise it's a bit on the nose, the different sizes and angles of the shapes and text just felt right for Dundee Pride, a celebration of difference and diversity, a community that in many ways steps outside of societal norms.

The rainbow with black shapes over the top and words written in the style of a poster for Dundee Pride’s Monthly Blethers.
The black shapes helped structuring assets when adding lots of info over the top. It’s busy and a bit daft with all the angles, but it felt free and fun.

My biggest challenge after landing a visual identity I was happy with, was manipulating it for its many different uses. [See, I’m not a designer!] I’m a dab hand at Photoshop, but InDesign was more mysterious to me. My friend and erstwhile colleague Amber Keating, a clever and talented egg, was instrumental in guiding me in using the latter program, empowering me to wrestle with my designs and create what was needed, from banners to bus decals, merchandise to letterheads.

The rainbow with black shapes over the top and words written in the style of a poster advertising the first ever Dundee Pride in 2018.
The general poster I designed for the first ever Dundee Pride last year.

Soon after creating and rolling out this visual identity, due to work commitments, I chose to step down from volunteering with Dundee Pride. But when I attended Pride last year, a little tired after V&A Dundee’s opening busyness, I saw my wee attempt at producing a creative identity plastered on a double decker bus. I couldn’t quite believe it. My thoughts and ideas, inspired by so many people before me, manifested in real life on real things.

After a bit of time, I’ve grown fonder of the visual identity I created. [But I’m not a designer!] It’s great to see Dundee Pride still using the design today and, while I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’ve had some nice feedback.

No, I’m not a designer but, fittingly enough, I’m proud of it.

Russell Dornan is a Digital Producer at V&A Dundee.

a person in a rainbow-sequined top hugging a bus with their rainbow visual identity on it that says "Dundee Pride".
Russell having a moment seeing his work on a massive bus.