Cover to cover

The undergraduate prospectus 2021 is hot off the press. The striking new cover has a strong photographic element with text and graphics. It’s been an exciting project which kicked off in September last year.

The concept

This is the hard bit – coming up with an idea that will represent our university, our student body and our values. We focused the concept on  contrasts – academic life and social life.

The cover design has been largely the brainchild of our Senior Graphic Designer, Phil Roberts, who wanted a vibrant, energetic and relevant look that would appeal to our potential students. We took a robust belt-and-braces approach to developing ideas and seeking approval from key stakeholders, cross-checking ideas and generating a clear direction. 

We used a double exposure technique to visualise the student models’ individuality, an approach that has been successful in celebrating the wide variety of academic study at York as well as our varied student cohort. The goodwill and energy we got from the student models was invaluable to the whole process and finished design.

Testing the idea

We produced some visual examples to help us identify the strengths and weaknesses of the concept and how we might need to adapt our approach. It helped us make decisions about how to photograph the students such as the lighting, the pose, and explore whether I can photograph them in a way that helps our designers construct the cover.

The key things we wanted to explore were how to enable a potentially self conscious person to feel relaxed and, let loose in front of camera, and create the energy we needed for the shot. Generally, what looks interesting and appealing are poses that are a little unusual and quirky, so we needed to tap into ways of creating these poses.

Marketing team member Jenny Jones helping with test shots

These poses varied from subtle movement to exaggerated and I was really keen the movement, no matter how fast would be crisply frozen in the photo.

We also wanted a way of capturing the academic and social sides of university life. One method we considered was a long exposure blended together with a second exposure.

From the design mock-up we felt this would be difficult to represent clearly, so the designers tried a more graphic approach using two separate exposures.

Both images were edited in Photoshop with the academic image layered over the social image.

The test shoot also highlighted a need for a more controlled environment. Lighting needed to be consistent and the background needed to be clutter free for cutting out the subject.

The students

Gathering students is probably the trickiest part of any shoot. For this project we wanted to represent a wide range of individuals from our student cohort from as many of our departments as possible. Our team of student bloggers stepped in to help, as well as student ambassadors from academic departments.

The shoot

The 3Sixty exhibition space in the Ron Cooke Hub became our studio for a few days, which gave us the space to set up lights and photograph the students. Because the images were going to be heavily treated by the graphic designers I kept the lighting neutral with highlights and shadows balanced evenly.

The biggest challenge, 99% of the time when photographing people is not the technical side, it’s making the model feel relaxed and confident in front of camera.

Communication and direction is really important and I quite often demonstrate the pose I want the model to take in front of the camera. The camera is set up on a tripod and I use a wireless remote shutter to take the photos. This allows me to walk around freely and talk to the student so their gaze is not just transfixed on the camera.

I find this technique works really well because it feels more collaborative, bouncing our conversation back and forth naturally rather than directing a shoot a more traditional way.

It can also result in the subject letting their guard down and expressing themselves in a way they might find difficult in front of camera.

Props are also a really useful tools, they can be used to control gaze, give them something to do with their hands and also give a photo some context.

This can be done in a big and obvious way with lots of energy

or using a more subtle approach.

After four days of shooting, we amassed 900 photos to choose from for the prospectus cover and inside pages.

The final cover

Pulling together the photography was a team effort. It was a collaboration between the Creative and the Content Teams within Marketing. One of our Content Producers, Jenny, volunteered to model for the concept art which helped visualise our ideas and present them to stakeholders. Departments also helped us find willing students to feature on the cover. And of course last but not least the students themselves gave their time, energy and a willingness to express themselves in front of camera.

Take a look at the new prospectus (PDF)

Our focus has now moved on to the postgraduate prospectus. We’re looking at how to develop the concept for a postgraduate audience who have different needs.

Watch this space…

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