The Red Carpet is Just the Beginning— Pulling the Curtain Back on Awards Show Design

Posted inCulturally-Related Design

We’re officially in the thick of awards show season, with the world’s biggest stars donning their best garb as they flounce about on red carpets and pose in front of Cold Stone Creamery-branded step-and-repeats. While many tune into awards shows like the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Critic’s Choice Awards, and the Academy Awards for fashion, viral ridiculousness, and meme fodder, there’s another, less appreciated aspect of these productions to pay attention to: their design. 

2022 Golden Globes by Imaginary Forces
2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams

The design of an awards show might be something you’ve never even considered before, but there are a litany of designed elements required to make each awards show hum. As in any branding project, every awards show has its own unique look and feel that sets the tone of the show through carefully considered visuals. The color palette, typography, motion graphics, and many other elements all come together to create a cohesive vibe for the program that’s typically envisioned by the show runner and brought to life by a team of designers. To get a better understanding of the nuances of awards show design, I picked the brain of Alan Williams of the production company Imaginary Forces. He recently served as the creative director behind the glitzy design of this year’s Golden Globes, and is also responsible for the vibrant collage-esque design of the 2021 Academy Awards.  

2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams

What are the main components of an awards show design package?

These vary— sometimes more, but rarely less. For one award show, we delivered over a thousand assets. Regardless of the number, the key is to make them feel fresh, cohesive, and appropriate.

  1. Opening Sequence
  2. Transitions
  3. Lower thirds
  4. Loopable Backgrounds
  5. Mortises
  6. In Memoriam
  7. Category Headers
2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams
2022 Golden Globes by Imaginary Forces

What is the process typically like for designing an awards show?

First, the client briefs us and I ask to see early sketches of their set design, one of the most critical pieces of intel. You want your graphics to accent and celebrate—to be a garnish—and never overpower. The 2021 Academy Awards were unique because they wanted the graphics to be an ever-present character, like living art pieces. We got to own it, but usually that’s not the case, and it requires significant restraint. My art director on this year’s Golden Globes, Elizabeth Steinberg, found that perfect balance of accentuating the show’s vision, which played a key role in the elegance throughout.

2021 Academy Awards via Alan Williams

Next, we begin designing look frames. It’s beneficial to incorporate these visuals from the beginning— to help you and the client never lose focus of how these will live. A gorgeous loopable background may look fantastic full frame, but if it’s going to be living on a screen behind an actor giving a heartfelt speech, it can feel distractingly busy.

2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams

Once designs are approved, we work with a team of animators to start bringing life to these graphics. I can’t stress enough the value of multiple check-ins with both the producers and the directors during these stages. What looks great to one person may technically be impossible in a live broadcast. Having all the voices in the room weekly to review the progress saves so much time in the long run.

2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams
2022 Golden Globes by Imaginary Forces

What’s the most challenging part of awards show design? What’s the most rewarding?

Every show is different— even the same show a year later with a new show runner will be different. The hardest part is making sure you understand the show’s overall vision. By listening, asking the right questions, and pulling out what truly excites the show runners, you can create a parameter to play and explore. Early on, you can challenge those parameters, but until you at least understand the clients’ vision, it’s a dangerous game of pretending the show is yours.

2021 Academy Awards by Alan Williams

The most rewarding part of awards show design is what follows the research stage, where I work with a brilliant team of creatives who abstract and rearrange the vision into something that hopefully exceeds our clients’ expectations.