The Collaboration Behind the Development of the 2016 Kalamazoo Blues Festival Poster
by Sue Weaver
“I wanted to capture the feeling of the blues,” says Allison McKenna, the design artist behind the arresting graphic representing this year’s 23rd Annual Kalamazoo Blues Festival. The vivid image of a female singer, head thrown back, eyes closed and voice raised before a background of sunset colors illuminating birds scattered along power lines like musical notes on staves, will appear on the 2016 Kalamazoo Blues Festival poster, t-shirts, entrance passes, billboards, and everything else that defines the “look and feel” of the Festival. “I listened to a lot of blues, spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say with the poster, and used some of my personal experiences as a woman to try to capture the depth of the emotions and the meaning behind the music.”
The vibrant, eye-catching images that make this year’s festival instantly identifiable are the
result of a collaboration between the Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association, Portage Printing, and Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Center for New Media. The three community organizations have come together to create the Blues Festival designs for several years now, carrying on a process that began in the early days of the Festival when Portage Printing, a locally created and owned business for over thirty years, produced some of the very first posters for the Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association. In recent years the involvement of design students at KVCC has added a new element to the process, giving students the chance to compete to create the visual identity of the Festival—a cohesive “look and feel” that emphasizes and promote the main points of the Festival.
This year’s design was one of three submitted by students in “Design Crew”, a new program at the Center for New Media initiated by KVCC instructor Mark DeYoung. Currently in its second year, the merit-based program selects students on the strength of portfolios and other application requirements, and provides them the opportunity to work directly with clients in the nonprofit sector as a way to gain hands-on experience. The class’s focus fit neatly with Allison’s personal interests and her eventual employment goal of working in graphic design for nonprofit organizations.
“I took part in a group project in Design Crew for the Edison neighborhood, where I have former family ties,” says Allison. “That meant a great deal to me. Then Craig Vestal from Portage Printing and Nick from the KVBA came to the class to outline the Festival project and present the challenge of creating an original, unique concept that would define the 2016 Kalamazoo Blues Festival. They wanted something immediately recognizable, but without cliche’s, that would stand out and call attention to the posters, billboards, and every other representation of the Festival anywhere they appeared.”
For Allison, whose lifetime love of music had never specifically included the blues, beginning the project meant listening to a lot of blues music, absorbing the passion and the power behind the uniquely American art form. She researched the history of the blues and played with different ideas, and found herself visualizing a crossroads, a common theme in the blues symbolizing a defining moment in life. “I was driving home home one evening, and I was struck by an amazing sunset—the colors were incredible, and the power lines were lit up and lined with birds. I began thinking of the the transition between the hard work day and the evening’s release, the crossroads moment when you turn from one thing to another. I knew I wanted to incorporate those colors and ideas into the profile and cover images for the Festival, and using a female figure gave it personal meaning for me.”
Once Allison’s design was selected by the KVBA for the 2016 Festival identity, Craig Vestal of Portage Printing worked with her to guide her in tailoring the basic design to meet the various needs of the Festival, from large billboards that will appear at locations around the city to the t-shirts and buttons that will be available to festival-goers. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity working with Craig,” says Allison. “It was great fun, and I learned so much. It was a lot of work, but worth it. The whole process—the collaboration between the KVBA, KVCC, and Portage Printing, has been a marvelous experience.”
As in previous years, the KVBA is thrilled to have had the experience as well, and to have emerged with an outstanding design and marketing plan for the 23rd Annual Kalamazoo Blues Festival. Thanks to Allison McKenna, Craig Vestal, and Mark DeYoung, and all others whose involvement has helped make this possible. And now—see you at the Festival!