Category Archives: Branding

I’d like to thank…

I was at the Museums + Heritage Awards show in swanky Northumberland Avenue in London last night as the Goes to Town project I worked on at the Museum of Natural History was shortlisted for an award in the marketing campaign category.

Happily, we won, and against tough competition – places with more people and bigger budgets (at least, I think they have bigger budgets and more people).

So as well as everyone at the Museum, I’d particularly like to thank Simon Meek at Okayso and Charlie Piggins at Mode of Thought, who worked on the branding and designs for the displays, mobile website and also on the promotional videos. Here’s one:

I also got to wear a Goes to Town labcoat on stage and  make a silly speech about a rabbit, hedgehog and flamingo. And look beardy and bespectacled with Marcus Brigstocke.

Open source – the art of creative collaboration

Collaboration is very much a part of the zeitgeist. Social networks, open innovation, crowdsourcing and an emergent co-design philosophy all point to a breakdown in silos of professional practice and a coming together of previously disparate parties. Across the world, groups with shared interests are using social media to debate, collaborate and act on their ideas in a way that has never been possible before.

In consumer branding too, collaborations, whilst not exactly new, are becoming more prevalent and are taking on new forms, in particular by engaging consumers to generate creative ideas. Over the last few years, companies have started to draw the public into the process of design and development by using crowdsourcing initiatives and open design competitions. The idea, says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design agency Stocks Taylor Benson, is that online crowdsourcing and design competitions allow customers to feel part of the brands they love and use.

‘There is no doubt that crowdsourcing and competitions can be used to generate a buzz around a brand and make customers feel involved and I’m sure it can offer certain small-scale and short term benefits for the brand,’ says Bakowski. ‘By throwing design open to a multitude of people, the brand may also end up with some very good ideas. In fact, with thousands of people submitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them in isolation might be better than those from the brand’s design agency.’

A crowdsourcing initiative recently run by Sony, called Open Planet Ideas, has gathered suggestions from people around the world on ways that Sony’s technologies can be repurposed to tackle environmental problems. ‘Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,’ says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. ‘It’s very interesting to use new ideas from consumers and it’s good for us to understand them better.’

To some, this may seem very appealing but there is plenty of resistance to crowdsourcing and open competitions when it comes to actual design work. As this article was being written, a closely balanced yet passionate debate was unfolding on the Facebook page of Adobe’s Creative Juices initiative, a forum set up by Adobe for professional and non-professional designers to share work, ideas, discussions and design techniques. The controversy stems from a competition thrown out to this community to design the new Creative Juices logo, where the designer of the winning logo receives a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 software.

Some in the community, many of whom are professional designers, feel that the competition is a ruse by Adobe to source numerous creative ideas for free. It can then select the best one and implement it across all its Creative Juices promotional activity, in turn promoting Adobe products to existing and potential customers. Others see the competition merely as an innocent method of allowing creative people to share their work, receive peer recognition and feedback, and ultimately to give the site a community-sourced logo.

Whilst Adobe Creative Juices is a relatively low-key open design competition, it does reveal some of the awkwardness which surrounds public design collaborations, especially on high-profile or commercial platforms. Detractors believe that open competitions devalue both the design process and the skills of professional designers.

Last year, Gap found itself dealing with the seemingly shambolic launch of its new, professionally designed logo. Almost instantly, the new logo – an oddly anachronistic Helvetica and gradient-square affair by New York agency Laird & Partners – was pounced upon by online commentators, many of whom decried it as a big mistake.

In a strange tactical shift, Gap then launched a fleeting open competition to search for a second new logo, asking people to ‘share your designs’. The crowdsourcing bugbear raised its head – free design work for a multinational corporation, anyone? – and in the end the whole thing petered out with a reinstatement of the original blue square logo.

Meanwhile, Marka Hansen, president of Gap brand North America, admitted a mistake: ‘We’ve learned a lot in this process. And we are clear that we did not go about this in the right way. We recognise that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community. This wasn’t the right project at the right time for crowdsourcing. There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way.’

The Gap debacle says a lot about both the power and pressure created by online social media – and brands’ willingness to bow to it – as well as the treacherous waters of crowdsourcing design ideas. According to graphic designer Ben Stott, brands that feel the need to ask consumers for designs are already lacking a necessary connection with their customer base. In Gap’s case, Hansen’s comments would appear to confirm that assessment.

‘I would be shocked if a client who didn’t already have this type of collaboration as a part of their strategy suddenly asked to do something like this,’ says Stott. ‘But then there are brands like Nike who do amazing things that involve people without [participants] really even thinking about it.’

Two things are coinciding here: the unprecedented ability of consumers to debate and respond to a brand’s behaviour, often en masse, and the increased access to creative technologies, allowing more people to design and produce their own content, whether graphics, film, photography, animation and so on. Crowdsourcing and open competition are one response of big business to these two developments. And whilst not everyone is a great designer, if the crowdsourcing net is cast wide enough there’s a fair chance of a catch.

‘Creativity has been democratised for some time and we are now starting to feel the effect of this on the design community,’ adds Stott. ‘Technological advances raise the bar on what everyone can achieve, making us all content producers. Photographers have had it far worse than designers: everyone is a photographer but, as we know, not everyone is a good photographer.’

So do crowdsourcing and open competition threaten design as a profession? The standard design industry response has been to admonish ‘crowdsourcers’ as devaluing design by holding what is essentially a gigantic free creative pitch. Yet most designers don’t really see the public as a threat.

‘Crowdsourcing is an amusing and enjoyable diversion; if in doubt, ask the populous,’ says Howard Milton, chairman of design group Smith & Milton. ‘But crowdsourcing can never belittle the design profession because we all know it is an amateur pursuit.’ According to Milton, we will ‘continue to dip in and out of this source, but it will never replace a well thought through brand design’.

Stott claims that the industry should react with greater poise to crowdsourcing and open competitions. ‘When the design community comes out and screams it looks like protectionism; like we’re saying that only we can design, using our special powers. I have no problem with it at all – and most examples are generally bad in any case – but I do think it will evolve to become something that is less obvious and unnatural than it is now.’

Design competitions and crowdsourcing may still be in their awkward infancy, but a more tried and tested method of collaboration comes through brands linking with high-profile artists and named designers. Coca-Cola’s tie-ups with fashion designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Matthew Williamson, Citroen’s special edition DS3, decorated by Orla Kiely, Issey Miyake’s and Paul Smith’s reworkings of Evian bottles and Adidas collections designed by Stella McCartney are just a small selection of these kind of brand-designer offerings.

Perhaps one of the longest-running and most consistent artist collaboration programmes is that by vodka brand Absolut. Beginning in 1985 with an advertising poster created by Andy Warhol, the brand has remained committed to strong links with the art world ever since, working with such figures as Spike Jonze, Jay-Z and Damien Hirst. ‘Absolut has a rich legacy of creative collaborations that have ensured the brand has continued to evolve,’ says Vlastimil Spelda, marketing director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, Absolut’s owner since 2008.

Of course, professional design agencies should also be capable of evolving a brand, so where do artist collaborations come into an overall marketing strategy? According to Spelda, they are complementary to the more brand-focused design work that is commissioned from agencies. ‘Collaborations provide an effective marketing tool through which brands are able to creatively express their personality. They drive consumer interest and deliver standout and presence within the trade,’ he says.

But Milton believes that if designers were offered the same freedom as artists, similar left-field results could be achieved. ‘There is an assumption that jobbing brand identity is incapable of taking a brave creative leap, yet the ability to grow a brand in the right direction – even in a massive jump – is far more likely to come from the designers who understand and work with brands every day. Regrettably, they are simply never given the chance to fling emotion into the mix because the marketer lacking in real creative confidence will seek to repress and minimise personal risk.’

Absolut’s Flavor of the Tropics duty-free edition was created by design agency Williams Murray Hamm, but agency creative director Garrick Hamm acknowledges that the brand gains something more than just effective design when it collaborates with artists. ‘For Absolut, working with artists is part of an overall strategy. It’s not necessarily about the design output itself – most good design groups should be able to push the brand – but it shows they move in these artistic circles.’

According to Milton, the artist-brand collaboration merely provides a ‘quick PR win’. ‘It’s the addition of cool and the quality by association stamp,’ he says. ‘Basking in the reflected glory of a renowned “creative” might seem attractive to some marketers. For once, they take a hands-off position and let the artist have centre stage, reaping the plaudits and admiration for their daring. This is something few can do when engaging with the “professional” designer.’

In the end, any collaboration rests heavily on the strength and synergy of the relationship. A weak link or a cursory ‘artistic’ flourish will be transparent to consumers, while a committed, long-running programme of focused artistic endorsement could prove very effective. And whether fresh design ideas are sourced from practicing artists, through open competitions and crowdsourcing, or from a standard design agency process, one thing is now for sure: the public, more powerful and vocal than ever before, will respond to the outcome, as Gap discovered.

‘[Technology changes] have turned the world on its head in the past few years and designers have to up their game,’ says Stott. ‘We can’t control everything and we’re no longer closed off from everyone. Younger designers know this – they try things out quickly and online, ditch what doesn’t work and move onto something else. But traditional design has this process: we go away and think and set up a structure. We may have to rethink our process. In 15 years’ time, graphic design will not exist as the profession it is now.’


Case study – Brancott Estate / Sarah Herriot Design

Wine brand Brancott Estate, creator of the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, commissioned jewellery designer Sarah Herriot to create a range inspired by the landscape of the company’s New Zealand vineyards. Herriot was selected partly because she was raised in New Zealand and has an affinity with landscape, but also because of the overlap between Herriot’s and Brancott’s customer profile.

‘Our customers are culturally astute, affluent and discerning so we have to work hard to connect with them,’ says Matthew Bird, marketing controller at Pernod Ricard UK wines, Brancott Estate’s owner. ‘A design collaboration is an effective way of reaching consumers. But to make it successful it was really important for us to take a lot of time to build a relationship with Sarah, establishing basis on which we wanted to work together. As a result, there was a lot more time spent upfront compared to a normal design agency process.’

Herriot’s designs include a women’s pendant and a pair of cufflinks, sold via the companies’ websites. ‘It’s important for me to be able to tell people why I’ve made things in the way I have,’ says Herriot. ‘These pieces capture the vineyard’s location and there is the story of where I’m from. But I wouldn’t necessarily do any collaboration; it couldn’t go against my design ethos and I need to feel happy with the process and results, as in the end it will have my name all over it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 14 April 2011.

Glitch & Drone Associates

Although this site is a collection of published articles on design and communications subjects, I have also just co-founded a new venture which I think is worth a mention here. It’s called Glitch & Drone Associates and is a bespoke sound and music composition service aiming to support other communications media – such as graphics, objects, spaces and words – with things sonic.

My partner at G&D is digital designer Simon Meek. We are both very much part of the design industry, but we bring a lifelong interest in music, sound and recording to the design and branding process.

There’s more about our thoughts on the value for this kind of service on the site itself, along with a few audio goodies to wrap your ears around. Email us at if you’d like to know more.

Radio heads

It is often remarked that design is everywhere. This is true not only in the sense that we are surrounded by ’designed’ objects, but also in terms of design coverage. The many and multiplying design blogs could feed even the most voracious of visual culture appetites, while sumptuous monographs and design bibles in print deliver a more tactile canon of work.

When we talk about design we usually also look at it. But what happens to the quality of discussion when designers are temporarily disconnected from the work and left without recourse to visual and physical examples?

Perhaps one of the best ways of exploring this question is to consider design on the radio. This is not a facile gag about ’having a good (type)face for radio’, but a question of how we might talk about design away from the glare of the objects themselves.

There aren’t many radio programmes or podcasts dedicated to the discussion of design, but there are a few. Adrian Shaughnessy’s Graphic Design on the Radio, produced for London’s Resonance 104.4 FM, is quite well known in the capital, and then there’s Design Observer’s Design Matters series, hosted by Debbie Millman. There is even a whole radio station dedicated to typography, Typeradio, which is produced in the Netherlands.

Another programme is 99% Invisible, a US design and architecture radio series produced and presented by reporter Roman Mars. For Mars, the audio format is well suited to design. ’Radio may not seem like the most natural medium for a design series, but it’s not as incongruous as you might think. It exposes all the thought that goes into creating things, which people scarcely ever think about, and the stories of what objects say about us. Thought and story are what radio is all about,’ he says.

Radio forces interviewees to adopt a more reflective take on their practice. Design is a process, not simply a finished ’thing’, yet often it is only the end result that we get to inspect. This sometimes creates tensions, even within the design community, because critics are seldom given access to the designers’ brief or creative process – the full story is rarely revealed.

’Designers are very happy to sit and show you work, but without those props they are actually forced to talk about something more,’ explains Shaughnessy. Mars agrees, saying, ’The programmes have to be driven by the narrative and not by the beauty or glory of the object. This is good – I have absolutely no interest in fetishising objects. And designers themselves have great stories and can tell you about every detail and the entire evolution of their thought process. They can provide the story, the big picture and a moment of reflection.’

Writing can also explore this deeper, more reflective look at design, but very often the text is accompanied by a spread of illustrative images. This is not a hindrance, but it is different to the audio format. According to Shaughnessy, only very rarely does a radio interview suffer from the lack of visual reference. One of those occasions was in Millman’s Design Matters interview with Canadian designer and illustrator Marian Bantjes.

’In the 100-plus broadcasts that I have done of Design Matters, I’ve never wanted so badly to be able to show something to my listeners as I do now, because there is really no other way to experience this book [Bantjes’ I Wonder] other than to see it,’ declared Millman during the interview. However, on the whole she says the radio format allows her ’to discuss the motivation for creating something, or the philosophy of designing, rather than [being] seduced or titillated by the thing itself’.

Moreover, Shaughnessy believes that there is a growing interest in the more ’theoretical and discursive’ elements of design. ’I couldn’t have done Graphic Design on the Radio ten years ago,’ he says. If the exploration of these elements is precisely suited to the radio format, then perhaps we shall hear more design on the radio yet.

This article was written for Design Week, 9 December 2010.

Profile: M-Four

Manchester is without doubt a creative heavyweight among UK cities. Musically speaking alone, the ’original modern city’ – as its creative director Peter Saville would have it – has spawned a number of triumphant movements and bands: Northern Soul, Factory Records, The Smiths, the ’Madchester’ era and, more recently, Oasis. Its share of successful design groups includes Love, The Chase, True North, Music and Code Computerlove.

Given its success in the creative and commercial arts, it is fitting that Manchester’s public sector should attempt to match this achievement when communicating with its citizens. This is certainly the belief of Ian Smith, creative director of Manchester City Council’s in-house communications group M-Four. Smith joined the department in 2008, about eight years after it was formed, at a time when its commercial services manager Paul Williams had decided to up the ante creatively.

’My background is in art direction in the private sector and when I arrived at M-Four there wasn’t a great deal going on here to dispel my preconceptions about what a public-sector in-house design department would be like,’ says Smith. Shortly after his arrival, however, the city council appointed Sara Tomkins as its first director of communications and since then the pair have set out to build a top-flight creative services ’agency’ operating from inside the council. Their aim, says Smith, is to turn out work that matches the best of the city’s private-sector design groups.

To raise the bar, M-Four began to recruit externally, bringing in people with experience of working in private consultancies who could foster the atmosphere of an independent studio. It probably does the team’s morale no harm that Saville pops in now and then to offer a guiding hand, in a role that Smith describes as ’executive creative director’.

Of course, unlike private-sector design groups, Manchester City Council provides M-Four with a high volume of constant work, only turning to rostered consultancies when there is overspill. So with 40 departmental clients handing M-Four communications work without a pitch, is it hard to maintain creative standards?

’We’re not spending time, money and effort on pitching for new work, but we still have to manage budgets carefully and prove our effectiveness,’ says Smith.

Everything here is measured really stringently because it has to be justified to the head treasurer that we are good value for money, now more than ever. And the spur to produce great work is really strong, partly because our customers are also us – we all live in the city – and partly as a matter of pride for me and the team.’

As a city council department, the bulk of M-Four’s work centres on services related to health, care and wellbeing – covering foster care, school truancy and crime. ’The stuff we work on makes a real difference to people’s lives – it’s not just selling a new iron or something like that,’ adds Smith. ’We’re working on services that generally improve the health, wealth and happiness of the city.’

One M-Four campaign to boost recruitment of foster carers led to a 52 per cent increase in enquiries, a result that could ease the cost burden of maintaining children in council-run care. Similarly, a vascular health-check campaign led to almost 4000 people requesting risk assessments for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease. Almost two-thirds of participants subsequently began to change their diets, while the campaign itself received a nomination at The Drum Marketing Awards 2010 and won a 2010 NHS Manchester Improving Health award.

Smith says that M-Four’s work is also being well received by the creative community in Manchester and beyond, and claims that this is just the start of its journey. ’Longer term, we are trying to be seen as leaders in best practice in creative communications for a city council. It’s public money so our work really has to make a difference, but I also want external design groups to look at our work and be amazed that we are producing it in-house at the council, he says.’

This article was written for Design Week, 18 November 2010.

Profile: The Council

Jeff Conrad, former head of design at Red Bee Media – and before that, head of design at BBC Broadcast – says he always expected to be self-employed. But after joining the BBC in the early 1990s, one year turned into two years, then BBC Broadcast turned into Red Bee Media and eventually Conrad had turned out a string of major broadcast rebrands, including channel portfolios for ITV and UKTV. A couple of decades later, the question emerged: where next?

’Things kept changing at the BBC and Red Bee, but I came to a crossroads really,’ he says. ’Early on I was effectively running an in-house creative department focused on title sequences at the BBC, but then it commercialised that department and we were allowed to go for commercial work. This included doing things like designing the first red button interactive banking system for HSBC. Then BBC Broadcast was sold and became Red Bee Media [in 2005] and by 2009 we had peaked with about £12.5m of business from global television and corporate brand clients. So I started to ask where you can go from there.’

The answer, of course, is into self-employment. But Conrad’s new vehicle, The Council, is in no way a solo show. He has teamed up with two Red Bee colleagues, creative director Kevin Hill and director of production Sophia Pendar-Hughes, all three taking equal ownership of the new business. In all, the consultancy is currently ten-strong – big enough, says Conrad, to handle most jobs, although key consultants and freelances will become occasional ’councillors’ where needed.

The pedigree at The Council is apparent from the trio’s shared back catalogue. Hill was the driving force behind the creation of UKTV lads’ channel Dave, a project that has won a string of awards and plaudits. More than that, its huge success with viewers and advertisers led to a mammoth 18-month project to rebrand all of the channels in the UKTV portfolio, a process for which Hill was creative director. Conrad and Hill also oversaw design for the global rebrand of the Discovery Channel network in 2005, the major identity overhaul of the ITV network in 2006 and a multi-platform relaunch of BBC Three in 2008. Pendar-Hughes was the senior producer on most of these large branding schemes, which Conrad describes as ’some of the biggest portfolio rebrands in TV history’.

Clearly, their background is firmly planted in the world of broadcasting. Current clients include Shine Group, the Home Shopping Service in France, Digital Plus and Canal Plus in Spain and MDR Fernsehen in Germany. But the world has changed rapidly over the past few years and The Council is not intended to be a purely broadcast consultancy, says Conrad. ’I think it’s very hard to define what a broadcast brand is now,’ he says. ’We are really about working with brands that use media to engage with their customers or audience, and that covers a very wide range indeed. It is multi-platform and integrated and all that jargon, but I don’t really care about those terms, because I think what’s important is originality and ideas and working hand-in-hand with the client and not just for them.’

One of the biggest changes in the five years since BBC Broadcast became Red Bee Media is the way technology has forced brands to embrace two-way communication with their audiences. In this sense, the days of ’broadcasting’ are all but over.

’Technology has had a huge impact and even five years ago the communication was one way, from a brand to an audience. Now it involves interaction. This creates huge opportunities for brands to talk to people in different ways and at different times. All brands have to be mindful of that now,’ explains Conrad.

And that’s the space into which The Council launches its offer. The landscape is different from the world of BBC Resources, BBC Broadcast and even the initial days of Red Bee Media. Communications channels are multiple, TV schedules are shot, but strong brands are imperative. As Conrad says, ’A good idea can be applied to any channel.’

This article was written for Design Week, 7 October 2010.

Visual boost

The word ’corporate’ can so often be a synonym for bland and monolithic, especially when it comes to offices. Think corporate headquarters. Think facsimile cubicle workstations scraping upwards layer upon layer toward the sky. The work may be interesting, challenging and dynamic, but workplaces seldom are.

Yet dull, homogeneous workplaces can have serious negative effects on staff, as well as on visitors. Movement and interaction can be restricted and staff may fail to feel a sense of common purpose or belonging. This can lead to poor productivity, low morale and high staff churn.

One relatively quick and low-cost way of addressing some of these issues is through well-implemented environmental graphics. A rising awareness of the influence of internal graphics is leading more organisations to take their visual identity and weave it throughout their buildings. The idea is that buildings benefit substantially – and measurably – from stimulating and functional visual elements, promoting the organisation’s brand personality at the same time.

’I think the growth in this area is driven by a few things,’ says Michael Johnson, creative director at visual identity consultancy Johnson Banks. ’The barriers and costs seem lower, the technology is better, and clients and architects are more prepared to let “graphics” come into a space. For a relatively low outlay, environmental graphics can make a massive impact.’

Design group Household has worked on workplace graphics for firms including pharmaceutical giant Astra Zeneca, Yahoo, Transport for London and Virgin Media. Consultancy creative director Sarah Page says internal graphics can be ’a quick, efficient way to refresh the workplace, adding personality and boosting the sense of a culture’.

Graphics, says Page, are a clever and relatively subliminal way to communicate a company’s spirit, without relying solely on words such as straplines and mission statements. Astra Zeneca took this opportunity in its new-build hospitality and training headquarters in Macclesfield. ’The business had a corporate palette, but not an environmental one, so extending the language of the business values into the environment was essential. Encouraging people to move around means they are more likely to network, share information and generally contribute beyond their immediate task in hand,’ says Page.

In the London offices of property developer Land Securities the company’s purpose and speciality is demonstrated in graphics based on London A-Z maps. Created by Hat-Trick Design, the bespoke maps are intended to reflect Land Securities’ detailed knowledge of the city.

’There are 52 maps in total, covering parks, animals, noise levels, bridges, lost rivers, markets, film locations, inventions, books, churches, archaeological finds in London and so on,’ explains Hat-Trick director Jim Sutherland. ’Several were produced plotting the staff’s favourite restaurants, shops and bars, so we involved them in the process. The maps have become a real talking point for staff and guests and a book of map postcards was given to all staff on the day they moved in.’

It’s not just corporate offices that can benefit from environmental graphics – colleges and universities are also often housed in rather insipid spaces, battered by heavy use from transient students. Here too, large-scale internal visuals can increase the appeal and functionality of buildings, benefiting current students and attracting new ones.

Westminster Academy, for example, sports bold, large-scale typographic treatments by Studio Myerscough and Hat-Trick has worked on similar projects for Brookes University in Oxford. Johnson Banks, meanwhile, is in the process of applying its identity work with digital technology college Ravensbourne to a new Foreign Office Architects-designed building in Greenwich.

’The Ravensbourne building is open-plan, so it needs really powerful graphics just to make it clear which floor you’re on and how to find what you need. We’re developing the visual identity so that the shapes work as large-scale “supergraphics” and signage within the building, acting as a mixture of wayfinding and brand reinforcement,’ says Johnson.

Well-implemented environmental graphics that truly reflect an organisation’s culture and ethos can offer tangible benefits to the people using the buildings – staff retention and loyalty, a sense of belonging, and increased productivity and interaction can all be measured to some extent, says Page.

But there are things to watch out for, too. Enthusiasm from management and staff is important so people don’t feel patronised by the branding. ’It’s very important not to over-brand areas. Putting big logos everywhere does nothing to get a personality across – you just feel shouted at,’ says Sutherland. Land Securities’ staff-sourced maps show how people can contribute to the process and Johnson Banks included Ravensbourne students in its identity development.

It is also necessary to work closely with architects or estate management teams which may be responsible for delivering and installing the final workspaces. And you have to get the basics right first or risk creating animosity. ’It’s no good looking at inspiring images if you are sitting on a broken chair,’ notes Page.

But in the end, like most design processes, it’s about drawing out an organisation’s genuine stories. ’Interviewing stakeholders is the key to unlocking the stories that sit behind businesses,’ adds Page. ’And ensuring the essence of a business is captured in a timeless way is essential to the success of branded environmental graphics.’

 This article was written for Design Week’s Opinions on Interiors supplement, September 2010.

Rebranding Wordsworth

A good brand development process typically means change, or at the very least a questioning of the place and purpose of an organisation. This process inevitably throws up hurdles to overcome, but in doing so, can produce some inspiring results.

This was the case with the Wordsworth Trust, an organisation founded in 1891 as a living memorial to William Wordsworth and his contemporaries in the Romantic cultural movement. Although willing to embrace the branding process, there were nevertheless some in the organisation who questioned its relevance and value.

‘Historically, the Trust had seen marketing as a necessary evil and had probably never really thought about the brand at all: things like Mars chocolate were brands, but not the Wordsworth Trust,’ says Paul Kleian, who joined in 2007 as head of marketing and communications.

The Trust’s properties include Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Wordsworth’s home at the height of his creative output, and the award-winning Jerwood Centre. Together they present the Trust’s Museum and Art Gallery and its extensive collection on Wordsworth and Romanticism. Its range of activities reaches academics, tourists and the local community through an ongoing outreach programme.

But despite obvious strengths as a long-established and invaluable cultural heritage organisation, the Trust lacked a coherent commercial strategy at a time when guaranteed funding was  becoming scarce. To reach more people, more effectively, this needed to be taken seriously, says Kleian.

‘We didn’t have a brand or a clear cut ethos of what the organisation was for. Staff and trustee perceptions all differed and in each case was different from what most visitors thought. But I knew we would have to set aside our own feelings in this because it’s about what our customers think—the scholars, tourists, schools, artists and poets who visit us and work with us. The Trust is actually a very complex organisation that isn’t aiming at any one of these groups but all of them, and that has to come across.’

The Trust agreed to engage a branding and design consultancy and three groups were shortlisted, including Sumo. ‘Two companies were just selling logos, even though they barely knew the organisation, but Sumo stood out in a class of their own,’ says Kleian. ‘I was insistent that we went with designers who would engage as many people as possible within the Trust so that staff had ownership of the process and results. This is what Sumo were proposing.’

While the visible outputs of a branding process are often a new logo and colour palette, this belies the value and depth of the process. ‘Anyone who is thinking of starting a branding process should be deeply suspicious of any design group which immediately starts selling logos,’ says Kleian. The process is actually a careful examination of who you think you are, what your customers think you are and where you would like to be, as Sumo creative director Sarah Hanley explains:

‘We held workshops that are designed to draw out the vision and values of the organisation and everybody speaks at these. We used image prompts and analogies with other things like celebrities or vehicles to examine the Trust’s attributes. This is a good exercise to get people to think about what they are. It turned out that the perception of the Trust was of a highbrow organisation for older, middle class people. But they wanted to offer a journey and experience that is open to everyone.’

Sumo’s workshop gave staff the opportunity to discuss what the Trust is all about, says Kleian. ‘The designers appeared to have completely open minds and this in turn opened minds in the workshop. It was very well done. It became clear that we all think of the Trust in different ways, but we also started to look at it as if from the outside looking in. It was a clever thing and by the end of it a lot of heads here were nodding.’

After the workshop, Sumo produced a document of findings, but no new visual identity. From these findings Kleian and the designers identified four fundamental ‘pillars’ for the organisation—accessibility, knowledge, creativity and heritage—and distilled these into an expression of the Trust’s purpose, namely: ‘Sharing inspiration from the past for the future’.

Once these unifying ideas were in place they could be reflected in graphic designs, including the logo. Informal research showed that the two things people most closely associate with  Wordsworth are writing and daffodils, the latter being the inspiration for his celebrated poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The designs for the Trust’s main visual identity captured these associations with symbolised renderings of a quill and daffodil. Along with the primary logo, Sumo produced a set of design guidelines that are now used by the Trust to create its own printed material, signage, exhibition graphics and so on.

‘We went backwards and forwards with these graphic ideas, selecting typography and a colour palette which reflected nature and the local landscape, for example, and also developed different visitor brands under a set of Discover icons,’ says Hanley. ‘It was important that everything is seen as academically authoritative to scholars, but the visitor brands need to attract tourists to the venues too.’

Much more than a new logo, the branding process gave the Wordsworth Trust an opportunity to look carefully at itself, from the outside as well as from within, and to forge a clearer vision of its identity and purpose. This identity is now communicated through bespoke graphic elements that are flexible enough to speak to its wide range of audiences and promote all its venues and activities.

But where the design process stops, the new Wordsworth Trust culture is only beginning to emerge. ‘It’s not over internally—it’s an ongoing process,’ says Kleian. ‘I think we’ve done a lot to make everyone think about our customers and people here now ask about the story behind the things we’re doing. Sumo’s consultative attitude really helped our own processes to become more consultative too; it was a really great way to work.’

This article was written for Sumo and features in its Insight: The Branding Issue, Autumn 2010.

Holistic ideas wanted

An attempt to globally crowdsource ideas on using technology to tackle environmental issues is being launched by Sony UK and WWF.

Open Planet Ideas ( will use an online platform to gather and discuss how Sony’s existing technologies, products and knowledge might be harnessed to meet a range of environmental challenges, with the most promising proposal being put into development by Sony.

The initiative builds on the current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing innovation ideas and extends Sony’s earlier exploration in this area through its Forest Guard project. It is also one of a number of crowdsourcing activities that WWF is currently undertaking, including a project with packaging company Tetrapak.

‘We have been working in the ICT sector to look at things like Green apps and how products can be made to deliver environmental benefits,’ says WWF head of business relations Dax Lovegrove. ‘We have also identified areas of big human impact – namely food, homes and mobility – where technology might be able to reduce carbon footprints. Sony had already joined our Climate Savers club and the Open Planet Ideas competition extended from that.’

Open Planet Ideas is delivered via the Open Ideo platform (, an online crowdsourcing and idea-development system launched last month by global design consultancy Ideo, which is also a partner in the Open Planet scheme. The process moves through five stages, from initial ‘inspiration’ gathering, where participants suggest possible environmental issues and their potential technological solutions, through to concepting, testing, evaluation, selection of a final idea and culminating in the realisation of that idea.

To structure the process, participants select from – and can combine – technologies in nine ‘seed’ areas, chosen by Sony. These are: wireless microphones, GPS, presence-sensing, peer-to-peer software, sweep panorama, PSPgo (a portable gaming device), remote video monitoring, dye-sensitised solar cells and FeliCa, which is a contactless wireless technology similar to the Oyster card system used by Transport for London.

Sony and WWF are hoping the initiative will generate novel applications and ‘mash-up’ combinations of these seed technologies to tackle environmental issues in four themed areas: water, fish and agriculture, climate change, and habitats and species. However, the initiative is not seeking ideas for completely new products or suggestions on how to make Sony’s existing products Greener.

Anyone can participate via the Open Planet Ideas online platform, either by submitting proposals or discussing the feasibility of other suggestions. Group involvement from schools, colleges or companies is encouraged.

Up to 30 of the best concepts will be taken into an evaluation stage during December, but only one proposal will ultimately be selected for development. Selecting this idea may mean choosing a concept that has no downside and that could be applied with efficacy in different territories around the world.

‘We want the final concept to hit some of the big-impact areas and hotspots and we will be looking closely to make sure any idea does not have a downside to it – it must be as holistic as possible,’ says Lovegrove.

During the challenge WWF will provide scientific information and facts and figures about what needs to be tackled and explain the various impacts on habitats and species.

The winning idea will be chosen by a judging panel drawn from Sony, Ideo, WWF and the Open Planet Ideas community and announced on 11 January 2011. Realisation of the concept will take place during January and February next year.

This article is the first in a planned series surrounding Sony’s Open Planet Ideas initiative, written in conjunction with Design Week.

Marketing’s Design Leagues 2010

In many ways, design’s star is rising.

Its strategic relationship with business continues to improve and its profile in the media and among the public appears higher than ever. As mass-market advertising flounders, design is inching its way into business structures and boardroom psyches, with major companies now regularly talking about the power of ‘design-led thinking’.

Projects such as the launch of London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville have sparked debates about design in the national press. Even mainstream TV is interested: in recent months there have been several design-related shows, including the BBC’s The Genius of Design and High Street Dreams, an episode of which featured the input of design agencies Pearlfisher and Blue Marlin.

The very notion of ‘design thinking’ is itself a leap forward because it shifts conceptions of the discipline from something that produces solely a tangible output – a pack, for example – to something that is an approach, a structured thought process that can be applied to many and varied issues. Design groups are keen to promote this strategic clever thinking because it helps them move up the client food chain, earning meatier projects with bigger budgets and a higher value.

Mixed outlook

On paper, the future may look rosy, but in the real world things aren’t so easy. As this year’s league tables reveal, 2009 was tough, with fee income falling significantly for many. ‘There is no doubt that the past 12 months have been an extremely challenging and pretty bloody experience,’ says Andrew Eyles, group managing director of Blue Marlin.

Last year was characterised by the postponement of projects, as clients waited to see when, or whether, the economy would start to recover. Top agency Imagination was one of many to suffer a double-digit fall in fee income and, while agencies of all sizes have been squeezed, those toward the bottom of the table seem to have been hit hard.

Some of that pressure will remain in the year ahead and agencies working for the public sector are bracing themselves for severe spending cuts. The good news, however, is that many private businesses have ended their freeze on investment, allowing NPD and innovation to continue and putting more briefs into the market.

Guy Douglass, managing director of packaging design agency FLB, agrees that things can only get better. ‘(Last year) was really tricky. We only just made a profit, and business and cash flow were difficult,’ he says. ‘But this year is looking positive. There’s lots of work out there, both from existing clients and new business.’

Continued investment during a recession can help brands appear strong. Argos’ brand identity work with The Brand Union, for example, is intended to position the retailer as fit for the future. ‘Customers told us that they want a brand that feels relevant and is well equipped to stay relevant,’ says Siobhan Fitzpatrick, head of brand marketing for Argos.

Research found that customers had a desire to see Argos investing in itself. ‘It sent the right signals out at a time when companies like Woolworths were all closing,’ adds Brand Union UK chief executive Simon Bailey.

Retail spending has just about held up, too, which is good news for those working in FMCG packaging, branding and retail design. ‘The market is still robust enough for consumers to pay for a good quality service,’ says Michael Sheridan, chairman of luxury retail brand consultancy Sheridan & Co, which works with Absolut and World of Whiskies. ‘The value of the pound is also a big factor. Visitors are coming to the UK not just because it’s 50% cheaper than it was in 2008, but because we have a very good shopping experience.’

As Media Square design chairman David Worthington notes, those who stand still in FMCG die. ‘Big brand-owners are very clear on the need for constant innovation, preferring steady and continuous growth, rather than peaks and troughs. Irrespective of recessions, they tend to cut a more consistent path by remaining committed to a product development cycle,’ he says.

Bakery brand Warburtons is a good example of this relentless focus on product development. New business director Jason Uttley says this is what customers are looking for. The company entered the snack-foods sector in March with the launch of ChippidyDooDa pitta chips and SnackaDoodle wholegrain snacks. The brand extension was developed with Anthem Worldwide.

Beyond the shelf

Although FMCG work has remained steady, some of the rules are changing. In particular, brands and design agencies must now think beyond achieving shelf standout, argues Nick Dormon, managing director of Echo Brand Design.

‘Standout is now the baseline – if you don’t stand out, you don’t survive,’ he says. ‘At the same time, supply-chain savings and sustainability programmes have meant the loss of physical presence on shelf as packaging becomes smaller and more lightweight. So it’s about the whole experience. You pick up a product in store, feel it, read it, take it home and use it, put it on a shelf, see it, use it then eventually dispose of it. All these moments are an opportunity to engage with people.’

Norwegian mineral water brand Isklar circles this brand experience with a uniquely engineered bottle design, by Blue Marlin, creating differentiation on shelf but also reducing its use of materials. The brand-product ‘loop’ is then closed by the company’s sustainability efforts, which include full carbon-neutral certification, use of hydroelectric power for its bottling plant and investment in high-end recycling facilities. Each aspect is consistent with notions of purity and nature.

The implications of last year’s precipitous fall in business are still playing out. Although work has picked up, the sector remains fragmented and competitive. In a procurement-driven environment, business has become harder to win and sustain. Dick Powell, incoming D&AD chairman and director of Seymourpowell, believes these pressures are leading to more instances of free pitching and the continued erosion of margins. ‘They are trying to cut the fat out of the design agencies, but there is no fat there,’ he says.

His sentiment is echoed by Eyles, who adds: ‘We are all having to work a lot harder and give a lot more. Some groups have gone for volume and are churning stuff out just to keep the lights running, while other groups have got smaller, leaner and more specialist.’

The pressure is on, then, for agencies to reinvent their businesses. Some are looking to overseas markets for revenue, particularly in the fast-growing BRIC nations. Sheridan & Co, for example, is finding its clients buying strategic and creative ideas to use overseas. As an industry, maintaining revenues from emerging markets requires British design to retain its reputation as a global leader.

Overall, Eyles concludes that the design industry emerging from the recession could look very different from the one that went into it. ‘Design output has to be married to effective strategy and consultancy,’ he says. ‘Often we may not even do any design. It’s now all about the brand – a seamless service of look, feel, tone and qualities. Some clients welcome deep strategic work, others protect their right to control it, but I’m optimistic that design can sit at the heart of this, working from strategy and concept to 2D and 3D output. The squeeze on fees now will just make the industry leaner, more credible and more professional and then the value of its work will come back in.’


As advertisers increase their focus on dialogue with – and between – customers, they are recognising the significance of the whole experience that people have with their brands, from the moment they first see a pack, ad, piece of copy or web page, through to disposal of a product or their interaction with customer service if they have a problem.

The communications environment is rich, complex and rapidly shifting and brands need help to manage these numerous ‘touchpoints’. Ad agencies, design groups and even some digital groups are vying to lead this work. Yet, whoever oversees the process, collaboration between agencies is more necessary than ever.

‘The landscape has become more complex for clients with many different agencies working for them – advertising, branding, sponsorship, interaction, social media, digital and so on,’ says Simon Bailey, UK chief executive at The Brand Union. ‘To have a partner who has helped create the brand itself working to manage all these groups can be very useful for clients.’

The Brand Union adopted this role for Barclaycard, where branding output spanned corporate identity, advertising, direct marketing, digital media, internal engagement, environments, literature, packaging, point of sale, exhibitions and sponsorship. The list of contributing agencies (Bartle Bogle Hegarty, EHS Brann, Balloon Dog, Dare and Vital Marketing) demonstrates how collaboration and oversight are essential in maintaining consistency in a complex, multichannel environment.

This article was written for Marketing’s Design Agency Leagues 2010 publication, 30 June 2010.