Category Archives: Graphics

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.

Ahead of the game

If the internet age has taught us one lesson, it is that when people are connected to each other, they spawn new behaviours. Sharing and collaboration underpin many aspects of the information era – from open source, open innovation and crowdsourcing to social networking, flashmobs and online gaming, they all have their own organic dynamics.

Video games, in particular, have the power to connect large numbers of players in one virtual space. And it is often the creativity of the players, as much as of the original designers, that leads to the most interesting developments in emergent game play and games design.

By linking together, gamers have dreamt up new rules and behaviours that flex a game’s original design and turn it into something else – something co-designed by the players.

Halo 3, a first-person shooter developed by Bungie for the Xbox 360 console, is home to a good example of collaborative play. Texas-based digital consultancy Rooster Teeth Productions customised the rules from one of Halo 3’s existing game modes to create Grifball, agame-within-a-game that has all the elements of a full-blooded, 16-person sport. Grifball has been so successful that leagues are springing up all over the world, Grifball character action toys have been manufactured and Bungie has now included the game in its official community playlist as a permanently available game.

’People like making up rules – it’s our natural game-playing mode,’ says Holly Gramazio, lead games designer at gaming consultancy Hide & Seek and curator of Sandpit, the group’s experimental gaming nights.

’When you’re young you make up rules and decide how to play something. But as people get older, they tend to feel less comfortable doing this. Nobody stops in the middle of a game of five-a-side and says, “Hey, let’s see what happens if we draw three circles on the pitch and if you step into one you have to run backwards for the next 30 seconds.”’

Little Big Planet 2, created by Media Molecule for the Sony Playstation, promises players ’a powerful new set of tools that vastly widen the scope of possibility, [handing] you the power to create whole games’. These tools let players create characters, compose music and direct cinematic sequences, as well as design whole playable environments.

This reluctance to change the structure of play is being broken down by video-game titles that actively encourage people to design their own gaming environments.

Not surprisingly, Lego has also unveiled its ’kit of parts’ video-game offer, Lego Universe, which takes the enduring appeal of block-by-block construction and throws it into a virtual world populated by other players and their Lego contraptions.

Although player design is a key selling point of both Lego Universe and Little Big Planet 2, they still provide plenty of pre-designed game narrative for players to follow.

The real runaway success in design-it-yourself gaming is the ultra lo-fi Minecraft, a title created by Swedish developer Markus Persson in which players ’mine’ polygon blocks from the earth and use them to build whatever structures they can dream up. Aside from a few monsters roaming the territory at night, that’s pretty much all there is to it – you create your own gaming world and share it with the other players and their constructions.

’I realised that a game that is simple, yet dynamic, has the potential to be turned into a really great game,’ writes Persson.

’I believe that I can combine enough fun, accessibility and building blocks for this game to be a huge melting pot of emergent game play.’

This simplicity has netted Minecraft more than five million registered users, 1.5 millionof whom have bought the paid version of the game. In 24 hours alone, on 1 March, more than 40 000 new people registered and more than 11 000 paid for the title.

’Minecraft is fascinating,’ says Max Reyner, insight editor of The Future Laboratory’s trend network LSN Global. ’It’s very lo-fi and you don’t really do anything with the designs afterwards. It reminds me of people who build model architecture in their attics. The difference, though, is the audience that can see the design when it’s completed. Minecraft users can place videos of their designs, complete with audio commentary, on sites such as You Tube, and suddenly there is an audience of several million people.’

This is the big change. Historically, some games shipped with a built-in level editor – a piece of bespoke 3D design software that allowed people to design their own gaming environments. Similarly, games like The Sims and Civilization are built on the appeal of player-as-God, fashioning and controlling their own dominion.

But at the time these were largely solitary pursuits; without other players there was no scope for the emergent game play that is particularly exciting about today’s gaming.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Eve Online are almost entirely constructed from organic emergent game play. Eve’s design, by Icelandic company CCP Games, is rich but also very open: it says, here’s space, some planets and some spaceships – off you go. The sandpit is yours – make your own rules’.

This article was written for Design Week, 24 March 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 hello@glitchanddrone.com if you’d like to know more.

Pointers to the future

In 1967 Milton Keynes was formally born as a ’new town’. The child of a 1960s urban design template, its grid-like structure – a radical departure for a UK city – was focused around a very particular aspect of modern life: the motor car. As Tim Fendley, chief executive of Applied Information Group, puts it, the city was ’built on the 1950s American idea that you should be able to get your car as close as possible to the door of wherever you are going’. How times change.

Near Abu Dhabi, another planned city is starting to take shape. Developed by renewable energy conglomerate Masdar, the 6km2 Masdar City has ambitions to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world and an epicentre for energy innovation and clean technology.

A project of this scale has many aspects, but one area that will influence the way the city takes shape is its wayfinding scheme. Unlike when Milton Keynes was planned, today’s urban planning is framed by climate change, renewed ideas of localism and carbon-neutral living. For citizens this means, among other things, more walking and cycling and less driving.

Bristol-based wayfinding consultancy City ID is working with London and Dubai branding consultancy Endpoint on wayfinding aspects of the Masdar City project. These groups are, in turn, working with Foster & Partners on Masdar City’s evolving masterplan. ’Unlike most other projects, Masdar is being created on a blank piece of paper, which means we can really shape the city from a wayfinding and user experience,’ says Mike Rawlinson, director of City ID.

Wayfinding is concerned with how people ’read’ a city, with how they interpret its scale and layout, the character and composition of its different regions and the accessibility of its amenities. Rawlinson describes wayfinding as the psychological or metaphysical aspects of a place. Fendley says that just as architectural planning is concerned with the spaces between buildings, wayfinding is concerned with the space between the ears.

This thinking – and perhaps the term ’wayfinding’ itself – has its origins in the work of American urban planner Kevin Lynch, who published the influential book The Image of the City in 1960. Lynch’s message is that if people understand a place well, they will feel comfortable moving around it and will make the best use of it. ’Wayfinding design expertise is extremely valuable at the masterplanning stage,’ says Fendley. ’An awareness of the psychological aspects of architecture is growing. People are already thinking about it more in relation to building interiors, and it will start to play a bigger role in city planning.’

It is widely agreed that sustainable futures will come through shifts in outlook and behaviour as much as developments in technology. Masdar hopes to represent both: ’As a company, Masdar is a laboratory looking at what’s possible in terms of sustainable and clean technology; the city is to be the physical, living embodiment of that,’ says Rawlinson.

So what might wayfinding design’s role be in achieving this? Wayfinding is not just about signs, but about considering the whole infrastructure and layout, including transport systems, the climate, areas of shade and light, lines of sight and vistas. AIG’s Legible London scheme promotes awareness of walking routes, and, in particular, the idea of a five-minute walk radius, a ’scale and principle that is valuable for community neighbourhoods’, says Fendley.

Rawlinson also believes that walking will be crucial to the ambitions for Masdar: ’I think the whole environmental credibility of the project hangs on the development of a walking culture. We’re talking about promoting and encouraging new types of lifestyles,’ he says.

If Masdar City is successful in a region that has some of the highest CO2 emissions in the world, it could become an exportable commodity – a blueprint for future cities based on low-energy dwelling and the life à pied.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 January 2011.

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: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December – www.biennale2010.citedudesign.com

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 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.