DixonBaxi: the business behind Formula One’s broadcast branding

On-screen graphics are part and parcel of any sports broadcast, intended to present relevant information and enrich the viewing experience. But employed poorly, they can become a confusing and unwelcome distraction. Walking that tightrope in Formula One – perhaps the world’s most graphic-reliant sporting series – is London-based branding agency DixonBaxi.

On-screen graphics are part and parcel of any sports broadcast, intended to present relevant information and enrich the viewing experience. But employed poorly, they can become a confusing and unwelcome distraction. Walking that tightrope in Formula One – perhaps the world’s most graphic-reliant sporting series – is London-based branding agency DixonBaxi.

The shabby chic of London’s Hoxton district feels a world away from the polished chrome and million-dollar budgets of Formula One. Despite the obvious contrasts, the area is home to an agency which continues to play a major role in shaping the look and feel of Formula One’s on-screen brand.

Having cut their teeth with creative agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, Simon Dixon and Aporva Baxi founded DixonBaxi, a branding agency which, to start with at least, had no particular designs on breaking into sport. “We set out to create a brand and design company that was very much about creating really powerful experiences; we weren’t industry-specific,” says Baxi, a self-confessed petrol head who admits landing Formula One as a client was the “dream job”.

The agency picked up Bernie Ecclestone’s global racing juggernaut as a client at the back end of 2003 and was tasked with updating the series’ race graphics system and reinvigorating the viewing experience. As far as briefs go, Baxi explains, Formula One’s was relatively straightforward since the series hadn’t updated its “antiquated” race graphics for 20 years. “There was no real sense of excitement to [the graphics],” he says, “They weren’t revealing a deeper story, and I think graphics nowadays need to do that. They almost need to drill down and give you things that you might not be able to see on the screen.”

The project initially lasted around three months and saw DixonBaxi produce over 300 graphic components in total. The end result – a new “graphic language” – was created by redesigning existing graphics, such as the line-up screen, course map and championship points table, and introducing new features, including the now-familiar speedometer and G-force meter.

The new graphical components were logical additions given the reams of data produced by Formula One’s technical teams at every race, but it was the ability to express that data in a logical, discreet manner where the previous graphic system was lacking. “The process was, at a granular level, walking through every element so that we could understand it,” Baxi recalls. “Then going into their technical teams and understanding how they’re going to take our graphics and plug them into their systems. We were creating something, we animated everything, and they had to then reproduce that in their system – that’s where the collaboration came.

“Essentially what we’re doing is giving information about the race – without those graphics, the race doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, for anyone,” continues Baxi. “Funnily enough, the graphics that we produce are seen globally by the journalists and the commentators, so they rely on those to know what’s going on as well.” The design and animation phase, which took around six to eight weeks, was heavily invested in streamlining and was influenced by some unlikely sources: “We took inspiration from LCD watches, when it’s a pre-printed circuit on a watch. It’s this idea that we’ve designed everything and it just turns on when it needs to.

“We also took some inspiration from head-up displays in video games. The idea that there is pertinent information at the right time to enhance that experience. Now, in your first-person shooters, you’ve got your head-up displays and stuff – those things add value.”

In order to avoid the issue of information overload, DixonBaxi’s team of designers used a two-dimensional grid system to divide the screen into squares, where each square represents one piece of data, to avoid cluttering the screen. Once that framework was in place, animated graphics could be fed into it. However, in live TV, there are added complications.

Pressure of time can be problematic as some graphics have a very short onscreen lifespan and need to be absorbed by the viewer in a matter of seconds. “Those graphics come on, then three seconds later they’re off,” says Baxi. “You’ve got to just get it.” Meanwhile, there is also an issue surrounding data input. “With Formula One the telemetry that is streaming in, the data, has to go through a system that encapsulates it, re-skins it and plucks it out immediately,” Baxi explains. “The latency on that has to be fractions of a second.”

Formula One uses a content production tool called Vizrt, which is also used by a number of major news channels. The Norwegian system takes live data, repackages it in an animated “skin” created by designers like DixonBaxi, and projects it on to the live action. Exactly which graphics appear on the screen at a given time during a race is decided by a director, who can select any of DixonBaxi’s 300-odd pre-produced components at the appropriate moment.

“As the race is playing out you can pull up a head-to-head graphic or the stat of who’s leading or the line-up,” says Baxi. “They have the ability to punch in stuff and it immediately comes up. That’s a very fluid and live environment but all our work is obviously done beforehand so it’s all preset.”

Legibility is also a chief concern when developing live race graphics, especially given that Formula One broadcasts are watched by a global audience of around 500 million each year on almost every type of device. “It’s great on an HD screen but what about in Brazil on a black and white, small, four-by-three TV? We had to design almost for the lowest common denominator.”

Having redesigned Formula One’s race graphics and passed the series’ rigorous testing procedures, DixonBaxi essentially handed over the reins to the new system to an in-house team who now handle the technicalities on a day-to-day basis. However, the agency’s work was far from done once the race graphics were completed, and they have gone on to create a new brand signature, the global event titles, race environments, and the online landscape, as well as reworking all interstitial graphics for broadcasts.

“They’ve got a bunch of people on their end that know this stuff inside out now,” reflects Baxi. “For an agency like ours, sometimes we’re retained or we’re brought back on special projects, but for race graphics we’ve supplied the thing, it’s done, they’ll iterate from there. Once we’ve set the foundations, supplied everything, then they can add value to it as they go on. The key for us was really to set that benchmark and then it’s really over to them.”

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