Monday, May 5, 2008
Respect? Oops, wrong career. Become a dentist and drill your way to the top
I was recently lunching with my consultant counterparts (distinguishable from creatives like myself for their use of business-speak and symmetrical haircuts) when the topic of a company blog was mentioned. There was a casual accusation as to why I had not contributed to the archive which I parried back with that I could write a provoking design related article to stimulate conversation and intense over-coffee debates. The slow blink response however, was less than encouraging. Whilst not word for word, it ran along the lines of ‘We are not a design agency, we are a branding agency. We don’t want an article describing how to make a colour wheel.’
Oh my poor heart. These cutting words were like a nipple twist from a high-school bully who lacks the judgement on when to let go. I was shocked, appalled, horrified and shocked. Firstly, because I hadn’t used a colour wheel since my blurry university days and secondly, because of the flippant and dismissive attitude towards mention of a purely design related entry from my highly regard peers. I felt like I’d just been dismissed as a one-night stand, ‘Sorry, but it was just a moment, I don’t actually want to see you naked again. Especially with a colour wheel hanging off anything.’ Here I was thinking we had something beautiful together. That I was the ying to their yang, the peanut to their jelly, the cancer to their cigarettes. Did they really think that design was simply a logo on some stationery? I had always suspected this attitude may be hiding under the cool exteriors of my left-brained colleagues but they were usually polite enough to sugarcoat it or politely dismiss it in an confusing myriad of business terms that meant by the time you realized they’d insulted you the lights were out. Alas, it was nowhere to be found and I felt I’d been subjected to the classic retort that design is all style and no substance…and therefore, less than desirable reading to the intellectually rather than artistically gifted.
Luckily my iceman features betrayed none of these microexpressions and I kept a cooler than cool poker face. Unluckily, my choice of words didn't quite have the same neutrality. ‘Not purely design? What the f*** do you think we do on the other side of the room in between youtube surfing and vice fashion do and don’t reading? We do design. The stuff that makes people ohh and ahh. That makes you buy products you don’t need. The stuff that makes people fight over the last pair of manolo blahnik shoes at the end-of-year sales. The stuff that gets into books and wins awards and is remembered when everything else is forgotten in the sands of time you evil money hungry bastards.’
And there it was. I had aired my passionate frustration to only receive a few dismissive shoulder shrugs and blackberry checking but the thought stayed with me… That design within a branding agency was deemed less important, or more relevant only to the poorly dressed side of the office, than if I’d hinted at presenting a thesis of disagreement with Al Ries positioning assertations, disapproved of Aakers strategic analysis tools or mentioned any of the brand mascots; purple elephants, innovative foxes or consistently consistent hedgehogs.
Where oh where does design credibility lie? Must it be sandwiched between the sheets of a strategy and business threesome, waking up feeling used and dirty? That argument might be true if only it were true. Sometimes, at the best of times, it is true. But the fact remains that some of the greatest brands of the last fifty years were based on great design as well as a business strategy that was the sole invention of the business owners. Design that didn’t speak about three throw-away brand values that seem to be echoes of the last three hundred jobs you’ve worked on. Design that was just … good design…for the sake of good design ... and told a story about the company.
Sacrilege! I can hear the nervous typing of emails from across the room that independent designer thought has occurred without strategic direction to temper the flames. Wait, hear me out. Of course a brand (and design) should stand for something. It should make the business strategy visible, or tell a brand story or be a unique insight into the company. It should be more than just being pretty … it should inspire and have relevance to the company for which is stands. But it can do even more than that. Research has shown the correct interior colour scheme can improve productivity. Acoustic design can do the same. Considered layouts improve retention of information and environmental design can increase instore consumer spending and at point of sale areas. Good design is both function and form, and usually being the first touchpoint (and just as often the last) for consumers, it better be more than just pretty…because as the entrypoint into a brand it may just be the most important device to trigger recall in your arsenal. Fortune 500 companies that are heavily branded make more than those that don’t. Simple fact. Good design makes money.
But does that design have to reflect the usual brand value and proposition methodology? Maybe not. There might be credence in the words of Steff Geissbuhler when he says ‘We have run out of marks representing artificially adopted notions of growth and forward moving values for business, because when it’s everybodies strategy, mission and vision … it becomes meaningless. Audiences react more directly and emotionally to recognizable symbols and cultural icons with clear connotations, characteristic and qualities.’ Perhaps he’s on to something … if I have to design the brand of another innovative, flexible, next generation, partnership driven company ... I might have to pause to reopen the concept files of the last few jobs and start recycling. And that hurts. Down low.
So what’s the conclusion? Is it still about making strategic values and propositions visible … or is it about telling a company story that will inspire employees and create loyal customers? Easy answer is that it can be both and for the sake of a regular paycheque, it should be both. No designer can be arrogant enough to say that a good logo alone amounted to business success, but the idea that got there certainly helps. A good strategy, well, icing on the cake my friends. Tango time… and that takes two.
The argument shifts then to the need for creative strategy, emotive brand values and a broader definition of design. A call for company values that aren't from the brand dictionary and a request for connections with consumers. Brands that have real, distinctive, unique meaning. Brands that people will become loyal advocates of. Brands that want to be great. And yes, brands that are made visible through good, considered design that tells this story.
And thus we arrive at a vague conclusion. You may well be thinking ‘thank god, what is the point of this ramble?’ Well, my call to action is to acknowledge that design deserves more respect than if it was simply the final product on the strategic conveyor belt. Whether in a branding agency or design studio, this broader definition of design is an integral part of business success. It might be a long road to get there, but rest assured … it’s the good design that ends up in museums being discussed by post-modernists and art students (they can be one and the same if appearance is disregarded and only review of their comments is accounted for). If museum worthy design and strategy are able to balance like libra scales, we arrive at brand utopia. So designers, here ye here ye … go forth and strive and draw and argue with your counterparts for respect and professional recognition. They will respect and loathe you all the more for it. They may even let you write articles about colour wheels.