Creating a production company’s brand identity. A conversation with designer Nick Burns.
As a kid, I remember getting goosebumps watching the Universal Pictures logo appear at the beginning of Jurassic Park. As the camera raced through space across the Earth’s surface, it signaled I was about to embark on a journey of epic proportions.
In 2018, I decided to begin my own journey of creating a brand identity for my newly founded production company. With the upcoming release of two short films, I wanted a brand that uniquely expressed my identity, as well as evoked the tone and mood of films I would create.
I landed on Negative Split Films.
First off, what is a “negative split?”
A negative split is a racing term that involves running the second half of a race faster than the first half.
There’s something poetic about a negative split. As an avid runner, I find long distance races to be analogous to filmmaking. The road is long and full of steep inclines that will test your patience, but the path is also chalk full of joyful downhill sprints and beautiful scenery that makes you want to be fully present to enjoy them. And the end is often the hardest. It requires an extraordinary level of grit and perseverance to finish a film.
In order to bring this brand identity to life, I tapped colleague Nick Burns, a designer and associate creative director at Red Hat. I video chatted with Nick last month about the project and his creative approach. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
“Nick, thanks for speaking with me today. Let’s dive right into the ‘ask’ of the project.”
“Thanks for reaching out. Because of this project I will always know what a negative split is, so there's that, haha. This project was really cool, because I've never worked on a brand identity for a production company before. Unlike the current trend in tech, many major studio logos are very complex. But because film is such a visual medium, production companies have the space to capture an entire screen’s worth of their brand. It can be totally different.”
“One important observation we made early on is that most established studio logos are probably best remembered by their brands in motion at the beginning of films. A drawback, however, is that sometimes these designs don’t transfer well in other static and digital formats.”
“You shared studios that you admire and when we started looking at those logos, it seemed like they were stripping away a lot of the extra complexity. Companies like A24 or Sony Pictures Classics really leaned into the simplest identity that they can create, and there's something really interesting in that. It felt like it connected with what you're describing on how you wanted to show up.”
“To get started, I shared a mood board of adjectives I wanted the logo and company to convey. How important are keywords in building a mark, in your opinion?”
“I think keywords are very important. They help ground the idea of tone because, I think, the desired tone is sometimes really tricky to arrive at without that preliminary guidance. If you're both aiming at different targets, it's hard to get to the right solution if you're not aligned on what the tone should be. For instance, having words like ‘serious’ and ‘elegant’ helped us set a baseline. The logo needed to feel refined, but without a lot of ornamentation.”
“And we also looked at company adjectives. How did the company adjectives influence your process alongside the logo adjectives?”
“The logo adjectives were helpful in putting the design in the right arena. The company adjectives felt richer for diving into and exploring different conceptual ideas to develop the company’s own character. I think ‘sci-fi fantasy’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘craftsmanship’ stood out to me as an interesting place to work from.
I remember we also got into a conversation about inspiration and your personal history with film. You brought up movies you loved from the early eighties, like Back to the Future. You also told me you’d personally be working on films in the sci-fi genre. The early eighties were a cool jumping off point because of that era’s unique design sensibilities. There's a lot of examples of really bold uses of sans serif font and a lot of line work. They appear like iron brands. There’s an interesting minimalist approach that I thought we could weave into our logo in a subtle way.”
“When you shared the first round of designs, I remember it being a spectrum of approaches. Can you speak to why you cast the net wide at first?”
“Through conversations, you can start to formulate ideas in your head and sometimes you anticipate what is the right answer. But a lot of times, for me, there is a spectrum. Sometimes it feels like there's a duality to what you're trying to accomplish especially if you’re trying to represent multiple things.
In this case, we had the challenge of balancing negative split as a running term versus a visual mark for a film production company. I think it's helpful to almost aim at the two ends of the spectrum and see where they take you, and then come somewhere in between. Sometimes you end up on one end or the other, but often I’ve found the solution falls somewhere between.”
“What were the three main approaches you decided on?”
“Once we paired down to three direction, the first one leaned the furthest into this idea of negative split being a term that's associated with running. We took a quarter mile racetrack, and took a crop of it where you would see the straightaway continue on and curve to the top.”
“The next option saw a blend of the racing theme with film iconography. This option used rectangular bars divided by a 45 degree angle to create two opposing triangles. From a racing perspective, I wanted to abstractly represent the idea of finishing strong. I used that bold teal triangle rising to the right to convey that idea. From a film angle, I did a lot of diving into the actual film editing programs like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut, so the idea was to mimic a crossfade between two clips in the timeline. It’s an interesting area to play with and a little inside baseball.”
“The third option was pushing even further into fim and away from racing. In the editing platform, like Adobe Premiere, you have actual track lanes on the timeline and boxes that represent the clips. Splitting up the words evoked the idea of splitting the film in a more literal way.”
“I remember feeling strongly about option 1 with the racetrack, because it's bold and powerful. Options 2 and 3 are very ‘inside baseball’ if you’re not familiar with how editing looks and works. That led us to our next step where we shared the logos with a trusted group of friends and colleagues to get their outside opinions.
“It was interesting to see how many people liked the racetrack version. It was certainly our favorite. It translated as the most memorable, whereas option 3 with the blocks tracked as more generic, despite the hidden symbolism.”
“You had the racetrack going in many different directions and we settled with it going up into the right. It was incredibly intentional on your part.”
“There's something in ‘finishing strong’ that was visually interesting. We have the track moving at a consistent pace and then at the last moment, we just launch up and it just takes off. I love that it just feels like it lifts everything up.
I also looked through marathon runner photos and saw the type treatment on their bib numbers. A lot of them had very thick sans serif fonts, some of them had condensed fonts, but that was a big inspiration for getting the right typography.
Everything tied back to the original inspiration board. Words like ‘bold’, ‘simplistic’, ‘minimalist’ and then ‘sci-fi’ and the '80s stuff, all of that came back together with a central concept of racing. The crop of the racetrack, the bold line work, and minimalist type all echoed 80’s production houses. We were able to pull through those pieces that we were gravitating towards in the beginning.”
“How did the different applications of the racetrack logo help solidify our decision?”
“In my opinion, the icon itself is the smallest part of branding. It's the period at the end of the sentence. How does that branding extend across all applications? What's the color palette? How do elements from the mark show up in the rest of the work? How do you make it all feel like one cohesive system? That's the most interesting and exciting part to me, and I really loved that we could enhance the racetrack version. It didn't feel like just a static logo. It felt like a visual device that we could extend and really have fun with, and it feels new and ownable.”
“Thanks so much for your time, Nick. Do you have any final advice for others who want to create a brand identity?”
“I think it’s helpful to go deeper with your conversations. For this project, we didn’t just look at logos you liked or brands you admired. I learned what films you love, how you wanted to present yourself, and what excites you creatively. I also learned a lot about running culture. That helped provide much more creative, rich territory to mine. I recommend diving deeper into different worlds outside of design and researching what’s there. You’ll be surprised at what you find. Thank you, Kieran! It’s been a pleasure to dive back into this project with you again.”