Festivals need defining features that make them unique events and spaces for people to explore, experience and enjoy.
This may seem like an obvious necessity for any modern event. However, this seemingly simple task belies a deep relationship between events and guests. People are drawn to venues, concerts and festivals that reflect and reinforce their own self-image through design, architecture and culture. I see this as my primary task as a festival designer. To take the vision of festival producers and the unique expectations of the audience and craft a custom tailored experience that speaks directly to them both. I design everything from site motifs and signage to central defining features that capture the imagination. This is a process called placemaking and it is the primary way to make a festival truly magical and keep people coming back, year after year.
First, when considering festival placemaking I try to be most mindful of my audience. What speaks to them, what gets them motivated and what imagery do they respond to? No matter where I begin, my goal is always to key in on the 5-10 things that really set my guests apart and build on them as a foundation of my theme, stage design or site plan. The idea is to create a common visual language that is easily read by my guests and easily implemented by my production team. For larger enterprises this means diving deep into established social media analytics and identifying shared interests, buying patterns and habits that will inform my choice of inspiration. If I am starting work on an entirely new festival I rely on my personal experience, friends and family and lots and lots of research. I do my best to devise systems that are easily expanded upon in the future so that good work is not duplicated or disposed of when I have great new ideas.
"People define places"
In any case, I always center my placemaking efforts around the guest experience and basic human level interaction. I could have the best musical acts, the best food the best everything at an event. But, if the tone and overall experience of the festival does not match the expectations of my guests the festival will not be successful. Especially with the heavy premium that people place on the experience as the main reason for attending a festival. Placemaking is not a one and done project. It is a living, breathing part of your event, just as much as your guests are and it deserves the same care and attention as they do.
Second, I think about the actual materials used to build placemaking elements. Materials are deeply connected to ideas, history and people. Their effective use can really help to reinforce the theme of a festival or totally undermine its goals. Plastics utensils and flatware are a perfect example of this effect. While they may be cheap and accessible, they are quickly becoming unwelcome at events because of their negative environmental impacts. However, this is only one part of the festival equation. Plastics are often used for signs, stage decorations, etc. If your event has a strong environmental message, consider all of the elements of the event that use plastic and could be replaced with sustainable materials. Making sure that your material decisions are consistently applied throughout a festival site is key to successful placemaking.
Lastly, I consider the festival site as a whole. Because even the layout of a site is deeply connected to placemaking. I think about the adjacency of certain festival features and how they come in contact with each other in the site plan. Does the main entrance align with the best viewing angle of the gorgeous mountain behind it? Are there places for people to sit and eat without congesting main walkways? These interdependent pieces of a festival site move and fit together like a Rubik’s cube. If I push just one piece, the whole thing moves with it. I find that it is best to first “lock in” certain site elements that are adjacent to permanent site features. Such as the site’s parking entrance connection to a paved road, where the main stage will be placed or a particularly large natural feature. These anchor points serve both as site planning aids for me, but also navigational landmarks for my guests as they move around the festival site.
People define places, people are the festivals they go to. And placemaking is the expression of this relationship between them. By understanding this relationship, my goal is to craft experiences that will last a lifetime. Because when people see that a festival is invested in them having the time of their life, they’ll want to come back. And that is what makes an event truly successful, people coming back to their favorite festival, year after year after year.