Acme Art & Design captures the spirit of a unique cultural experience with visual identity for Against the Grain Theatre
Case study by Michael Barker RGD, Acme Art & Design
Since 2010, award-winning Canadian opera company Against the Grain Theatre has produced daring re-interpretations of classical repertoire in nontraditional spaces — courtyards, bars, Victorian mansions, wedding halls — with scaled-back accompaniment, such as a string quartet or piano, to bring out the full force of operatic singing in close quarters.


"The future of opera."
− Alexander Neef, General Director, Canadian Opera Company



I met Amanda Hadi — Against the Grain Theatre’s stalwart Editorial and Digital Media Manager — when we both worked at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was in the creative department and Amanda was in editorial and we worked very closely together on many projects. I left TIFF around the same time ATG was thinking about refreshing their visual identity and website, and Amanda asked if I’d be interested in taking it on. The scope of the project quickly grew to include print and digital promotional materials and creative collateral for two critically-acclaimed shows: Death & Desire and AtG's Messiah.



The goal of the redesign was to increase audience engagement and win new audiences with a clean, consistent visual identity that would reflect the matured sophistication of the company. The identity needed to highlight the inimitable experience Against the Grain Theatre offers its audience, one they will never get anywhere else in the operatic world: the experience of hearing refreshed takes on operatic classics performed by world-class musicians — all in small venues with the feel of an intimate local bar (and local-bar offerings, like beer and popcorn).


AtG wanted the website redesign to be user-friendly, eye-catching, mobile-friendly and built on the Wordpress platform (a familiar environment for the staff responsible for the website). The company conducts most of its marketing and all ticket sales online, so the site is at the centre of their marketing and communications toolset (alongside social media and their e-newsletter). The new site would have to both promote upcoming and past shows, build the AtG brand and make ticket buying as smooth as possible.



I don’t always work with a formal brief — sometimes an informal conversation is enough to get started — but on this project we did. We discussed the brief as a group in an enthusiastic Prosecco-fuelled meeting where I was impressed with both the passion and uniqueness of the company. According to the brief, opera is at a crossroads both as a relevant medium and as a revenue generator for huge national companies. It is also in a transitional moment in terms of its audience. AtG's role is not just to provide entertainment, but also to encourage younger audience participation and emerging performer development. They are a company keenly aware of the history of opera and the prevailing preference for an “old guard”, both onstage and in the audience. As a result, they are deeply invested in the search for a sustainable and creative solution for opera's future.


The target audience identified in the brief included a portion of their current audience, which is a mix of young, arts-engaged, musically-literate urbanites and more conservative and seasoned art patrons. They also hoped to attract opera newbies: those who are interested in classical music, but who have never been to an opera. At times the brief identified an audience that was very precise. For instance: “Enjoys classical music that is not strictly traditional (e.g. Verdi), but also wants their music to be a bit comprehensible — don’t seek out composers like Britten or Janáček, but wants exposure to them via AtG.” Despite tendencies towards this kind of laser precision, it was important to the company that their brand appeal to audiences beyond the classical/avant-garde opera scene.



At a follow-up meeting we went through a wine-hummus-and-Pinterest mood board exercise with key stakeholders in the company. As you’d expect from a sophisticated arts organization, everyone had excellent and thoughtful taste. We looked at a wide range of images — from Bjork to woodgrain prints — but we also reviewed some inspirational opera identities including The New Zealand Opera (Alt Group Auckland), the English National Opera (CDT Design), Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Dinamo Design), the Welsh National Opera (Hat Trick), The Metropolitan Opera (Pentagram), the Dutch National Opera & Ballet (Lesley Moore) and (my favourite) Opera Australia. All of these identities explore the potential for a new visual language for opera. In the mood board exercise I think we all got excited about being part of that exploration. It was an exciting framework to work within. More practically, the mood board exercise quickly defined our colour palette (printer’s colours: black and red) and a preference for minimalist logo marks, clean typography and dramatic photography.


I presented a half dozen concepts — all of which were well received — but to my delight they chose the most adventuresome one. Playing with references to wood grain, sound waves, vinyl grooves and the letterform 'O' (for 'opera'), the concept uses a simple circular device as the jumping off point for a logo system of infinite variations of 'bent' logo marks — a riff on the exploratory, playful metamorphosing nature of the company. It is an unconventional visual identity for an unconventional company; an identity that bends expectation; an identity that is consistent but constantly changing; playful but sophisticated.







The client was hoping that the new visual identity could be rolled out very quickly, but it was a slow and necessarily iterative process. While the identity was still in development we did a complete redesign of the website from scratch, designed new promo materials and stationery for the company, and produced digital and print creative materials for two shows — there was always something to work on aside from the identity. We did have a soft launch of the identity when the website went live, but even then the logo system was still being refined.



I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the limits of the mark were on different channels — it’s easy to produce moire patterns with a concentric circular motif like this on lower resolution screens, so testing the system at different sizes, varying the number of concentric circles, and playing with stroke thicknesses was necessary. I made hundreds of variations of the circular device to try and find a balance of beauty and irregularity without being overly mannered about it, or producing "hero" versions.


It has been a real pleasure to work with AtG — it’s a real creative partnership and that’s an ideal situation for producing the best work you can. The identity is still evolving — there are some areas that need more attention, and some things we’d like to add back in, like AtG’s legacy cheeky bird mascot. I’m also working with an animator on a motion expression of the identity, that’s a new and exciting opportunity for me.



“We came to Michael with a challenge: design a new visual identity and a beautiful, responsive website for a start-up indie opera company looking to reach wider audiences. He was so thorough, insightful and joyful to work with from start to finish. First, he took time to educate the whole team about how to express our vision and think about our audiences, competition and strategy; in addition, he provided an incredible overview on what a design process like this involved, from colour selection to typography. He brought us in as a collaborator rather than a spectator/client, and the result is a refreshing, one-of-a-kind look in the opera industry. For us, Michael’s identity isn’t just a piece of creative, but a symbol and celebration of the scrappy, DIY-team that grew into one of the country’s most exciting and innovative opera companies. We couldn’t be prouder to show off our new look.”

— Against the Grain Theatre



Designer Takeaways:

  1. AtG is a passion project for the members of the company, which is volunteer-run. They do this out of a deep love for opera and an incredible depth of knowledge of the medium’s history, a sensitivity to its cultural location in the present and real concern and excitement about where it might go in the future. It was important for me to try to understand and reflect that deep commitment with respect and sensitivity.
  2. When you have the honour of being made a true creative partner by a client, be sure to recognize and embrace the opportunity it affords.


Client Takeaways from Against the Grain Theatre

  1. Be clear about your objectives and vision. Try to narrow down your target audience as much as possible — secondary audiences can come later. Identify the persona of your audience, their characteristics, etc.
  2. Trust your designer or agency, and trust their opinion.


Interested in submitting a case study? Download 'Guidelines for Contributing Content' and email