Category Archives: Graphics

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.

Facts in focus

One of the more interesting outputs from the early stages of an otherwise slow-starting World Cup was the extraordinary amount of data generated from the minutiae of the games themselves. With data feeds streaming into news and press organisations in real-time, there is very little that isn’t recorded: for each minute of a match we can see the number of passes, possession and zones of play, fouls and cards, balls won and lost, player touches, shots, corners, the frequency of World Cup tweets on Twitter and, if you’re lucky, even the odd goal.

All this raw information is fired around the Web in the instant after the events occur, feeding number-crunchers and data visualisers everywhere. A nice example is The Guardian’s ’Twitter replay’ tool – an animated visualisation of what people were saying at each moment of a match: the more frequently a term is used, the larger its bubble blooms. It’s the 21st century’s Kop erupting with shouts and cries at a malicious foul or a scorching goal.

The competition provides a concentrated and global focus on stats and data, but this is by no means a World Cup phenomenon. In all kinds of fields we are recording and sharing more data than ever. As more of our behaviour is mediated through digital technology, the statistics of this behaviour are recorded as we go. Your iTunes, Spotify or other media player, for example, may well ’scrobble’ all the songs you listen to straight to your Last.fm profile, leaving behind an ever-lengthening trace of your musical predilections.

Many more complex and sensitive datasets are being recorded and disseminated too – the British dead and wounded in Afghanistan or details of local crime incidents, for example. And the volume of available public data is growing fast, fuelled particularly by the work of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who has pushed hard for greater transparency of Government statistics.

But making useful sense of this sea of data can be a complex design challenge. Interactive, graphic and information designers alike are tasked with finding ways to let us mine these streams of words and numbers in meaningful ways. ’It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re at the beginning of something really big,’ says Alex Morrison, managing director of Cogapp, a digital consultancy which recently designed The Sunday Times’ General Election data visualisation tool. ’We’re entering a new world where events, locations and contextual information are open and shared, and it’s going to be huge. Visualisation is the sexy graphic output of that, but the challenge will be in designing information architecture which makes sense of it and allows people to do something useful with it.’

As anyone who has compiled a stats-led report will know, achieving a correct and context-sensitive presentation of data is crucial. But with the volume of accessible data growing, the likelihood of misrepresentations grows too. ’We have access to information like never before and it’s almost overwhelming,’ says Michael Robinson, head of graphics at The Guardian. ’Improvements in software have made it easier to input data, but what people are doing with it creates a whole other problem.’

According to Robinson, the explosion in data visualisations, infographics and mash-ups has produced a number of ill-informed, badly designed and even misleading representations. With certain datasets, this could have serious ramifications. ’With any data you can always do something, but a visualisation isn’t necessarily accurate, helpful and good,’ he says. ’Data doesn’t always paint the whole picture; you have to look at why a particular figure might stand out. Having spent years trying to get people to use graphics in journalism I’m now faced with this wash of stuff that’s not good. And if people just produce stuff that’s visually impressive but not good, it will eventually hit back on graphics.’

But there’s no doubt that data can be aesthetic too. Eric Fischer is a computer programmer from California who used Flickr geotagging data to map the volume of photographs taken around major cities worldwide. The result is the Geotaggers’ World Atlas. ’I made the maps because the photo locations seemed like a great source of information about what places in the world people find most interesting,’ says Fischer.

A second series of the Geotaggers’ World Atlas attempts to reveal the differences between locals’ and tourists’ photographs of each city. Comprised solely of coloured data points on a map, when scaled down these images are a visual treat. But they also paint an immediate picture of behaviour, engaging in both content and form.

And as the range and complexity of datasets grow, this is a trick graphic and interactive representations have to pull off – providing engaging and useful access to information without misleading or skewing the truth behind the numbers. Information designers with considerable skill and responsibility will be in demand.

This article was written for Design Week, 8 July 2010.

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.’

THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE

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.

Platform cues

As the seams at Apple’s App Store threaten to burst, the volume of iPhone mobile phone applications continues to soar. Stacks of apps, from both independent developers and big commercial clients, from trivial little games to a major music platform, are lined up and waiting for the green light from Apple so they can enter the store. The apps micro-payment market is booming. For digital designers, this is a coming of age in mobile apps possibilities. The iPhone’s 480×320-pixel screen ‘real estate’ and button-less operation have opened up graphic possibilities and a new level of intuition in interaction design. And with brands starting to see the value of mobile apps to their marketing mix, the opportunities for professional designers are ripe.

The iPhone is certainly not the only touch-screen mobile around (handsets using Google’s Android platform are emerging, and others run on the Symbian platform) and it’s easy to forget just how small the iPhone market really is: O2 says it has sold ‘more than a million’ handsets, but that’s in a mobile market, says Ofcom, of more than 75 million connections. Yet the iPhone is clearly the designer’s favourite. ‘It is ahead of the competition and although at first sight it’s similar to a Google[-powered] phone, it’s quite different to use,’ says Alasdair Scott, director at mobile group The Bright Place, which has developed a series of i-Trump apps based on the original Top Trumps card game.

Of course, mobile apps did not appear with the advent of the iPhone; there are many available for older handsets, mostly using the Java language, but their visual and interaction capabilities are far more constrained. The arrival of larger screens and touchbased interaction means that visual elements are becoming as vital as coding, opening the door for developers to work in collaboration with graphic designers.

‘There’s a real talent to designing with very few pixels – originally we had 32×32-pixel, black-and-white icons. Now things are a little bit easier. The iPhone gives you proper screen real estate and 57×57-pixel icons, so the experience compared to a Java app is very different. And because of the mechanics of how an iPhone app is constructed, you’re looking at the space as one element, in which you can hang different bits. In the old days of the Internet, you had separate elements like pictures, text and headers and they all looked a certain way,’ adds Scott.

As graphic possibilities increase, so does the importance of visual impact. Advertising agency Fallon’s visual identity work for the BBC’s national radio stations was conceived in 2007 with mobile platforms in mind, and has come into its own in BBC Worldwide’s new Radio Times iPhone app, itself a great bit of information design by US group TV Compass.

But ensuring stand out from the crowd is harder than ever. The ‘open’ distribution platform of the App Store has attracted a swathe of independent developers – some hobbyist, and others seeking to making a living – but often without any real training in visual or interaction design. Independent developer Ed Lea acknowledges that without higher quality design, apps are now less likely to be seen. ‘I’ve noticed a huge shift in the Apple Store since it launched last year. Getting applications noticed is now very, very difficult. Working with a designer to create an application that’s both aesthetically pleasing and well thought out certainly wouldn’t harm [its chances of success].’

Having held number one spots in the App Store charts with his MMS and TV Plus apps, Lea brought in illustrator Emma Anderton to create a character for his latest offer, the ‘novelty app’ BoomBot, which reads out text entered into the phone.

But perhaps the biggest shift for professional designers will arrive when corporate clients start to explore the marketing possibilities of mobile apps. ‘They are very much part of the marketing language, converging around websites, widgets and phones,’ says Jon Carney, chief executive of digital and mobile consultancy Marvellous. ‘And there is a branding impact in using apps too – it’s part of a whole move from being a message holder to becoming an enabler. In this way, everyone has a chance to do something interesting.’

This article was written for Design Week’s Interaction Design Supplement, autumn 2009. 

Mash it up

Like most channels of popular culture, graphic design is a scavenger of ideas and material. The visual landscape is crammed full of references pointing in all sorts of directions, often simultaneously.

The same thing happens in pop music, perhaps the ultimate forager of styles. Building on the widespread use of sampling in the 1980s, the borrowing and stealing of material has reached a new level over the past few years with the emergence of mash-ups – a technique in which whole elements of songs are combined and overlaid to create a new, composite track.

Design and music are kith and kin, of course, so it’s no surprise that an analogous trend has bubbled up in graphics, fuelled by the viral interactions of the Internet. A series of design mash-ups has seen the style of one medium combined or overlaid with content from somewhere else. Imagine a film or record title reconceived as a vintage book cover.

It all seems to have started in January, when freelance graphic designer Olly Moss created a Flickr group called Make Something Cool Everyday. On here, Moss posted his designs for classic videogame titles, restyled as if drawn by Saul Bass for 1960s Penguin. Translating each game’s core element into a single graphic illustration, Moss produced a series of six ‘covers’ for titles including Half- Life, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto IV. ‘I went to a Design Museum exhibition which showed some Penguin book designs and thought I’d like to do something with that,’ says Moss. ‘Video games often have this fairly naff design behind them, so I decided to appropriate the great design history of Penguin, but also to rethink the graphic, to come up with a neat way of capturing the game.’

Earlier reworkings of film posters by Moss had already inspired Ohio-based freelance designer Mitch Ansara (aka Spacesick) to create his I Can Read Movies series. Again influenced by Bass, as well as Paul Rand, Ansara posted his ‘vintage movie books’ – one per day – to the same Flickr group. With similar two-colour graphic interpretations of films including Highlander and Face/Off, his book covers sit neatly alongside Moss’s ‘Penguin’ video games.

‘In January, I made a 1960s-style Space Jam book cover as a oneoff joke. But I thought it was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it, so I continued. Fast-forward a month or so and all kinds of talented folks were doing vintage book covers of all kinds of things: video games, music albums, other books, vintage album covers for movies, vintage breakfast cereal boxes for albums – you name it,’ says Ansara.

The idea of distilling a title into a graphic icon is taken a step further in the Modernist Editions, a series of album-covers-as-pictograms created by Heath Killen, director of Australian design group Illumination Ink. As a reflection on the future of album art, Killen’s approach is not a mash-up and avoids appropriation. ‘Everyday signage is a big inspiration and pictograms in general – everything from road signs to dingbats. But I’m not really interested in pastiche and I like to think that these designs stand up without a reference point,’ he says.

Back in the UK, Littlepixel Design director Huw Gwilliam turned directly to pastiche after seeing Ansara’s I Can Read Movies series. His mash-ups of classic album covers imitate an offset, two- or threecolour print process to reference classic Pelican books, where the original album artwork is overlaid on a dog-eared jacket. ‘I spent a lot of time getting the typography right – a special form of Akzidenz Grotesk – and tried to make it look like it was photoset and distressed,’ he says.

As the meme spread, many similar ‘reimaginings’ have followed, some more accomplished than others. But for Moss the trend has more or less run its course. ‘I feel it would be derivative to work on it any more,’ he says. Nonetheless, just as music evolves through remixing and sampling, other designers will no doubt continue to take from the takers, scavenging, adding and reinventing all the way.

This article was written for Design Week, 28 May 2009.