Category Archives: Interiors

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.

Banks rely on design to regain trust

Last month, a spoof edition of the Financial Times, set in the year 2020, was handed out to commuters at railway stations in London, to coincide with the G20 protests. It featured satirical stories deni­grating the world’s political and financial systems, as well as similarly sardonic ads.

The latter included one carrying the Royal Bank of Scotland logo and the following text: ‘What would you do with a trillion pounds of public money? Bail out your mates and mop up the mess you all made? Or squander the lot on pipe dreams like renewable energy?’

This scornful attack represents the sharp end of a wider swathe of discontent­ment with the UK’s high-street banks following the emergence of toxic debts, reckless lending and mismanagement.

With their reputations in tatters, banks are having to fight to convince consumers of their trustworthiness, their dependability and solidity. So it is that in a world of decentralised, contact centre-driven customer service, the high-street branch and face-to-face communication have again become the focus of many banks’ invest­ments in branding and design.

Over the past few years, banks have been attempting to operate more like retailers. This has resulted in some genuin­ely innova­tive environments, such as the branch format for Italy’s CheBanca!, designed by Crea International.

CheBanca!’s ‘Natural Tech’ design looks more like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey than a high-street bank branch. According to Crea International managing partner Massimo Fabbro, the light and minimal design brings together ‘innovation and reassurance’, placing the customer at the centre of the experience.

Barclays, too, is in the process of rolling out a fresh design concept, created by interiors consultancy Aukett Tytherleigh, ¬ across its 1700 branches. ‘Branches are important to our custom­ers,’ says Erin Biertzer, UK retail banking director at Barclays. ‘We have made a long-term commitment to refurbishing our network.’

The bank’s flagship branch, nestled under the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus in London, is undeniably striking. Touted as the first ‘brand concept’ branch in the UK, it features a host of technology and high-end design touches (see case study, above).

However, having been conceived before the crisis hit the financial sector, how comfortably do such design-led interiors sit now that the recession has taken hold?

‘When times were good and money was easy to borrow, everyone wanted retail cues,’ explains Sam D’Lacey, director at design agency Hart D’Lacey, which has worked with RBS, NatWest and Arab Bank.

‘These banks tried to link their branches with other leisure activities, such as coffee shops, to drive footfall. But retail is very disposable, so people started to see money as disposable too. However, we’ve gone back to reliability. The flippancy and the humour are gone,’ he adds.

As part of this shift toward the ‘retailing’ of personal finance, services and advice have become ‘products’. In some cases, these have been physically embodied in the form of a box that could be taken to the counter for purchase.

‘Customers want to talk to people and get reassurance, so some of these things that seemed progressive at the time now seem inappropriate,’ says D’Lacey. ‘The redesigned Barclays branches, for example, have a queue rail – which is beautiful and sculptural, but does it really instil confidence?’

Howard Milton, founder of branding agency Smith & Milton, puts it more strongly. ‘The “Eureka” moment, when banks decided to strive to become retailers, was where they lost their perspective and, ultimately, our trust,’ he says. ‘When your core product is cash, serious consideration should be given to how you handle it. Banks man­oeuvred our thinking away from this custom. The cash­less society has been suborned into losing touch with the value of money.’ ¬

The result of years of easy credit and bad debt has been much discussed, but bank design and branding must begin to reflect the climate and rebuild consumer trust. Experts are divided on whether the retail format branch remains the right option.

However, Roderick Logan, financial-services analyst for Datamonitor, believes it is. ‘Banks can use the less formal environment that a “store” provides to make the consumer feel more at ease. They can also win back customer trust by showing concern and offering advice,’ he says.

‘There is plenty of room for innovation in the banking sphere. Communicating with consumers in the language of retail may make some of the more complicated financial products easier to understand.’

Logan also notes that retailers themselves are competing in the personal finance market. Tesco, for example, is looking to establish a retail banking environment through its store network.

‘The traditional banks will have to maintain some degree of innovation to stave off this threat,’ he adds. ‘More flexible opening times offer greater convenience to customers and innovative branch features, like those at the Barclays Piccadilly branch, can entice inquisitive customers.’

With innovation comes technology, already a huge enabler of convenience in transactions and financial services research.

For First Direct, which operates only online, technology and digital design are especially important. The bank has been working with design agency Splendid on a Micro­soft Surface table for display at the Grand Designs Live exhibition at London Excel from 25 April to 4 May. The device has a touch screen that allows consumers to interact with its mortgage products.

‘The brand stands for innovation, so we have to be design-led in what we do,’ says First Direct head of brand Lisa Wood. ‘We don’t physically have a product, so you can’t try before you buy. However, it is creating an interactive way to draw people into talking about these mortga­ges.’

She adds: ‘We will use Surface at the exhibition to show how our offset mortgages could link to home-improvement projects. You can have up to six people using the table simultaneously and, because we don’t have branches, this is a great way to have personal interaction.’

This interaction, along with the trust­worthy advice and personal reassurance that appear to have been lacking lately in banks’ relationships with their consumers, is what many in the industry are lauding as the necessary next step.

‘The big banks don’t communicate on a personal level,’ says Nick Ramshaw, mana­ging director of design group Elm­wood Leeds. ‘My local Lloyds TSB branch has no private room, for example. They need to think about the customer’s point of view.’

There are other threats, too: the rise of community lending schemes such as Zopa has put even greater pressure on the big banks to deliver the goods. ‘In order to remain relevant and compete with these new breeds, the incumbents must adapt or die,’ warns Terry Tyrrell, worldwide chair­man of design agency The Brand Union.

It seems there is a fine line to tread in adapting to the current climate, while remaining competitive in a busy market­place. Bank brands need to be seen as innovative while simultaneously empha­sising tradi­tional values and a service-led mentality.

All this has to be communicated through staff training, strategic branding and branch design, not simply through advertising – the quick fix route to shifting perceptions. As Richard Newland, global head of retail design for HSBC, concludes: ‘Branches are our most valuable source of advertising and they have to live up to that. But balancing confidence and reassurance is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 21 April 2009.

Switched on

Electronic media and museum exhibitions and galleries are not always cosy bedfellows. Yet the temptation to use electronic hardware in exhibitions is strong, and growing. Visitors expect some form of digital installation.

When they work well, electronic media can really add something to a gallery, delivering an informative and entertaining experience that you cannot really get elsewhere. At other times, computer hardware can be little better than a distraction, and when out of action, it tends to be conspicuously so.

Getting it right, then, is important. Design, hardware, software, installation and maintenance costs can all stretch budgets, so you want to be really sure you know why you are commissioning any given bit of kit and that it is going to do exactly what you want. This is not as simple as it sounds.

Many curators, quite reasonably, may have little interest in techno-wizardry, yet still feel obliged to commission something digital and hands-on for their exhibition. They turn to designers – often late in the process – to inject a few interactive elements.

There are two main weaknesses in this arrangement that are worth bearing in mind. First, technology should not be commissioned through a sense that a museum or historic site is incomplete without it.

Instead, there should always be a compelling case that it helps a particular objective, even if that is primarily to entertain. Second, electronic media should not be bolted on at the end of the design and planning process in a rush, as is often the case (perhaps to meet the perceived obligation to use it).


If there is a “philosophy” of digital media and interactivity in museums, it ought to be holistic, part of the fabric of a show – conceived along with artefacts, other exhibits, the architecture, and the types of visitor you are aiming for.

Damien Smith, the director of ISO, an interactive and motion graphics production company, says that museums need to approach electronic media with fresh eyes.

“Technology is often misappropriated in museums and can be fetishised. It’s not about the latest toy, but about strong concepts and the simplest way you can deliver them. We need to start defetishising the technology.”

Peter Higgins, the creative director of Land Design Studio, argues that designers and museums need to stand back and consider what they are using and why. “There are three reason: the Nintendo Wii, the iPhone and Microsoft Surface (multi-touch screen technology),” says Higgins.

“These things are now on the high street and they are also better, more robust and more intuitive than most things we can put in an exhibition. So who cares about a touch table? We need to rethink what we’re doing. We have to really think about new media as part of the whole visit, based on the unique museum experience, not ‘can we have a bit of interactivity here?'”

Gripes aside, there are worthwhile special effects that can be achieved with well-conceived electronic media – some simple, some undeniably high-tech. Motion-tracking cameras, programmable LEDs (light-emitting diodes), projections, media telescopes, radio tags and infrared (IR) detectors can all produce different effects in an exhibition space.

They can be used to create atmosphere and ambience, drama and theatre. They can be used to encourage exploration and engagement, teasing people into richer content – layers of information beyond those on labels and graphic panels. They can even track visitors’ experiences as they move through an exhibition, recording their interactions with various installations.


Before looking at the specific examples, it is worth noting a few general considerations. Cost, testing, reliability and maintenance are crucial. Malinda Campbell, creative director of Science Of, a partnership of the Science Museum, London, and Fleming Media, which organised the Science of Survival touring exhibition, says testing interactive installations can be tricky.

“It’s very important that you try the design with the actual kit, but the problem is you tend to order all the hardware in bulk towards the end of the design process for economic reasons,” Campbell says.

“You don’t have this nice two-year lead-time where you can test everything out. So we had to simulate the user experience with real people without ordering all the equipment. You have to know that people understand it before you pay out for the gear.”

Joe Cutting, a consultant and former member of the digital team of the Science Museum, London, says a common mistake is to try to put too much or too little content in an exhibit.

“If you put too little content in your exhibit then you are effectively relying on the interaction and spectacle of the exhibit. If you put too much then you are in danger of creating an encyclopaedia, and there will be too much for users to take in.”

Installations using electronic media rely on some computer software, much of it bespoke, so you will need to plan for software development time costs. If you are using off-the-shelf software you will need to pay for licences for each PC running the programme. The multiple projections at the London Transport Museum, for example, are synched using third party software called Watchout.

If you are having software written especially for an exhibit, think about the ongoing intellectual property (IP) ownership of the programme. Typically, museums want to keep control of software IP, but there is an argument that this is not necessarily in everyone’s best interest, as Smith explains.

“We are looking at creating simple generic software that can be reapplied for other clients, for example page-turners, visual databases and so on.

“One of the areas I fight regularly on the contractual side is the retention of IP in the software. Many clients are advised to try and grab ownership of content and software, which runs counter to accepted practice in many industries and ends up warehousing software that is never developed. Perhaps museums could benefit from having suppliers with an open inventory of software products,” he says.

Cutting says smaller museums can save themselves a lot of heartache by buying software that has already been developed, perhaps for a larger museum’s exhibit. “Your visitors won’t know the difference, you’ll know what you’re getting before you buy it and it’ll be a lot cheaper,” he says.


Drawing on experience working with museums large and small, Cutting says that, for a simple exhibit, you will need a budget of at least £7,000 for the hardware and software. More complicated exhibits will start at around twice that. The cost of housing the hardware, your time and the cost of maintenance are extra.

“If you spend less than this then you’ve either found some clever way of saving money or are taking some risks with the success of your exhibit,” he says.

You will need to plan how you will maintain your exhibits. Simple things such as reinstalling software when it crashes, dealing with wires that get unplugged and cleaning touchscreens can be done in-house. For complex set-ups the company responsible for installation typically remains involved in maintenance.

David Small, the director of design consultancy Small Design Firm, says museums must expect ongoing costs for maintaining exhibits. It pays to plan ahead. He cites the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, as an example of prudence and forward thinking (see link below for case study).

“[The Center] had a deal with the manufacturer of certain screens to buy lots of spares when the model reached the end of its production. The units were available for a fraction of their original cost.”


Access for visitors with a disability is an important consideration, and needs to be thought about at the outset. At the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, all the screen-based installations and major interactives incorporate British Sign Language along with English and Welsh subtitling, making the museum the most Disability Discrimination Act-compliant in the UK.

At the Horniman Museum, London, the three interactive projection tables in the Music Gallery were specifically positioned to allow visitors using wheelchair access all around.

The details involved in planning any digital installation are intricate and the scope of examples in this Working Knowledge section precludes detailed descriptions of every technique. As much as anything, the projects outlined in the following articles are intended as inspiration and guidance, rather than blueprints for precisely what to do. Each subject, collection and space will demand its own approach.

But bearing this in mind – and keeping an eye on the budget – you can really start to let your imagination go.

This article was written as an introduction to the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.

Putting LEDs to spectacular use

The first performance spaces to greet visitors to Leicester’s new Curve theatre, which opened to the public last week, are housed inside a trio of 3.5m glass vestibule entranceways, each containing 288 LED spotlights. Intersecting Curve architect Rafael Viñoly’s louvered glass facade, the LED-filled cubes are precisely controlled by computer software, tracking visitors passing through them and translating their movements into a reactive performance of light and movement on the vestibule walls.

This kind of interactive lighting design is possible thanks to the programmable capabilities of LEDs and a growing convergence of lighting and display design with software coding. Although the light-emitting diode itself has been around in practical appliances for well over 40 years, there’s a new breed of designers-cum-programmers who are using increasingly cheap microchips and open-source code to create dazzling, interactive visual effects from banks of multiple LEDs.

Moritz Waldemeyer – arguably the premier exponent of LEDs’ capabilities – explains how it works. ‘You can effectively now get a whole computer on a tiny chip that costs about 50p and you can programme this chip to add intelligence to the LEDs. It is a marriage between computer technology and lighting,’ he says. Waldemeyer’s background as an electronic engineer offers him a programmer’s view on just how intricately these lights can be controlled. The throne-like By Royal Appointment chairs, designed by Waldemeyer for Gallery Libby Sellers’ Grandmateria exhibition last year, illustrate this well. Sensors in the chair read the colour of the sitter’s clothing and LEDs on the rear project this colour on to the wall behind, creating an ‘aura’ inspired by the halos found around royal figures in medieval paintings.

Not only can LEDs precisely match any colour (while incandescent bulbs generally require filters), they can also react ‘intelligently’ to information from software. The installation at Curve is designed by Jason Bruges Studio and programmed by Chris O’Shea. A wide-angle camera reads the outline shape of visitors walking through the glass boxes and then software translates this into instructions for a controller built into the LED circuits. This controller instructs the lights to dim to create a mimicking silhouette of the visitor on each wall. Further dynamism is built into the system by altering the cubes’ background colours to reflect the volume of people moving through the vestibules, as well as turning them red just before a theatre performance is about to start and green at the end to indicate the exits.

Another example of the fine control over LEDs is seen in Moving Brands’ installation promoting the launch of the Ross Lovegrove-designed Kef Muon loudspeaker last year. In collaboration with programmer-designer Karsten Schmidt and O’Shea, Moving Brands designed a pulsing LED floor which burst with light in response to the sounds emanating from the speakers. The light responses were actually plotted by the computer in three-dimensional space, of which the LED floor was effectively a two-dimensional slice. This created an effect O’Shea describes as a ‘liquid oil pool’.

Dynamic colour control is also at the heart of New York artist and designer Reed Barrow’s Monument to an Amaranth installation, housed at the Tommy Hilfiger Denim store in New York. ‘The use of LEDs was really the only way to accomplish the original concept for the work,’ says Barrow. ‘I was able to assign each LED node within the tube an individual colour which mimicked a pixel on a TV. [This gave an] amazing amount of control and versatility in colour. The interface between driver software and LED hardware made the project possible and as cost effective as it could be.’

LEDs are also significantly more efficient than incandescent light bulbs, with little power lost as heat and a lifespan of 50 000 hours upwards, compared to around 1000 hours for a conventional bulb, as Barrow notes. ‘Because of the location of the work on Broadway in Soho, the piece was intended to run 24 hours a day, so the energy efficiency of LEDs was an integral part of the design.’

The other great advantage of LED technology is that it is becoming brighter and cheaper, almost exponentially. ‘With the cost, brightness and control all sorts becomes possible, including interesting architectural illumination,’ adds Waldemeyer, citing UN Studio’s LED-clad facade for the Galleria Department Store in Seoul, South Korea.

But LEDs can also produce beautiful effects without being manipulated by a computer or even changing colour, as demonstrated by Hector Serrano’s mesmerising Waterdrop installation for bathroom products group Roca. Each bulb is moved through space on a mechanical structure to create the effect of rippling water. ‘Here, interestingly, the intelligence was built into the mechanisms creating the wave movement,’ says Waldemeyer, who was partially involved in the project.

‘It was a proper old-school mechanism that could have been built with technology from the steam age. Amazing, isn’t it, that the result was so 21st century?’

This article was written for Design Week, 6 November 2009.

Marketing league tables 2008: the view from design

It’s perhaps a little unfair to kick off a ranging look at the state of play in the design industry with a project that emerged in a flurry of controversy, but last summer’s farrago over the London 2012 Olympics logo neatly illustrates a few things. Significantly, it shows the passion and involvement everyone can feel for a piece of graphic communication, the emotional connection lying at the heart of design’s power to influence. Vocal criticism and defence of the Wolff Olins-designed logo shows that people instinctively relate, one way or another, to the creative ideas it presents. Somehow, although ‘only a logo’, it’s important.

We all respond to visual and physical design everyday, whether it be a logo, a store interior or a juice carton. And our reactions can have a profound influence on the fortunes of the business behind the product, even if designers have often found it hard to quantify this influence. This is one of the major challenges facing the industry.

The 2012 responses also highlight a problem that has long beset the branding industry in particular – the huge focus and weight placed on a logo or corporate identity to the virtual exclusion of all the other work the design agency has carried out. And this is not just in branding: whichever discipline of design you’re looking at – retail design, product design, packaging or whatever – a good design process goes much deeper than the ‘colouring in’ of the final output. Focusing on the ‘physical’ manifestation of design work can sometimes belittle this depth, leading to design becoming a commodity purchase – another obstacle for design to overcome. ‘The value of design and design thinking does tend to get lost or overshadowed when people view it as a commodity, which even some people within the industry do,’ notes Lloyd Northover chairman Jim Northover, whose clients include Lexus and Royal Mail.

Finally, in relation to marketing more broadly, the 2012 marque demonstrates something else too: it shows the relative permanence of design, in this case for at least five years. Although design may provide some of the materials to create a marketing campaign, it is seldom a campaign in itself; typically, design hangs around much longer than an advertising or direct marketing sweep. The importance of good, well-managed design over the longer-term is therefore very high. Yet many agency-client relationships are still conducted on a short-term, project to project basis, while ad agencies win accounts that they often hold on to for years.

Each of these points provides some backdrop to the challenges and issues facing the sector. In many ways, the design industry fares differently to other marketing services, partly due to its culture and structure. In fact, some still question whether it is really an industry at all. To many, its micro-business set-up is that of a cottage industry; one populated with independently-minded ‘creatives’ whose lifestyle proclivities and ambitions often actually eschew huge growth or empire building. There has been nowhere near the kind of agency consolidation experienced in advertising and according to Design Council research, around 60 per cent of UK design agencies employ five or fewer people.

‘It is also an industry which has traditionally focused on excellence of product rather than profits,’ notes Tony Walford, a senior consultant at Results International, a consulting and finance business specialising in the marcoms industries. ‘There are many small agencies run by design practitioners who are passionate about their product, rather than concentrating on the commercial aspects.’ Not that ad agencies necessarily place profits above creative quality, but design agencies do often struggle to balance the two.

As design continues its growth from origins in arts and crafts, there seems to be one cardinal challenge to meet. It must communicate and demonstrate the real depth of value it brings to business. To do this, it must strike up long-term relationships at a client’s boardroom level, breaking free from project based, commodity-bought work and forging deeper partnerships with clients. As Scottish & Newcastle chief executive John Dunsmore notes, continually running with project based work means that design agencies ‘have to roll sixes every year’ to survive.

‘Design is the least profitable of all the marketing services sectors, because we’re treated as a talent commodity,’ says Andrew Knowles, chief executive of packaging design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, which has worked on Scottish & Newcastle’s Strongbow brand. Doug James, a partner at multidisciplinary agency Honey, which works with Tesco and Harrods, echoes this. ‘These big clients usually see you as a service provider with a specialist skill set, so we have to demonstrate the business effectiveness of our services and show how we understand the commercial requirements of a company. They need to start to realise that we can think for them to some extent,’ he says. Then agencies have to start charging for it. ‘I don’t think consultancies charge appropriately in terms of the impact their work has on a client’s business. But this impact does have to be demonstrated,’ says Interbrand chief executive Rune Gustafson.

According to Paul Castledine, chief creative officer of Birmingham consultancy Boxer, once a business impact is demonstrated agencies have a ‘tangible’ sell. ‘Design must be driven by insight and should be measured in its effectiveness. In essence, we are talking about turning an intangible sell into a tangible benefit,’ he says. Some clients are already demanding proof of design’s effectiveness. ‘We’ve seen big changes in client’s demands. Increasingly, they want their design to demonstrate real effectiveness and request a clear way to demonstrate the value and impact design has had on their brand,’ says The Brand Union managing director Simon Bailey, whose clients include Vodafone and SABMiller.

For agencies able to do this, businesses are willing to pay. ‘You see this come through in the pitch process, where clients are asking tougher questions from their design groups, but are willing to pay for it,’ says Jonathan Ford, creative partner at branding and packaging design agency Pearlfisher. ‘They are starting to realise they can get a good return on design investment and are making sure they get it right, so it can be a long-term investment.’

As Ford notes, long-term partnership-style relationships between client and consultancy are increasingly important. Since its inception seven years ago, UK financial protection firm Bright Grey has worked with design group Navyblue. ‘They are very much a partner in our business,’ explains Susan Sneddon, communications director at Bright Grey. ‘We share the same level of information with them as we would our own marketing team, which allows them to be a true extension of that team. We have the view that we will get more value from our external suppliers if we invest time and money in developing a relationship with them.’

With the huge consolidation of big business – and a concomitant lack of consolidation in the design sector – there are a large number of agencies chasing fewer and fewer clients. In this climate, long-term partnerships are even more important and many consultancies and clients are now viewing their relationships in this way. ‘Over the last year we’ve been working a lot more with above the line agencies and I think this is partly because clients are looking for longer term relationships with their designers,’ says Barry Seal, managing director of strategic branding agency Anthem Worldwide. ‘Ideally designers have stopped being suppliers and are starting to become partners with a business. It’s about having a real relationship with your clients, not just a supplier relationship. I can’t stress this enough.’

Or, as Knowles puts it: ‘If clients give us more lock-in at the senior level we’ll work with them to deliver effective design. But the project nature of the industry terrifies agencies because if the client doesn’t like your face, there’s something in your portfolio they don’t like or they’ve got a mate they used to work worth – bang, you’re out.’

However, for all the challenges in proving effectiveness, winning boardroom buy-in and improving agency margins, the picture for design is not at all bleak. There’s little doubt that the strategic – and financial – value of design is being recognised at a higher level amongst business, helped along by the Design Business Association’s Design Effectiveness Awards and the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme.

‘I don’t sense there’s any boardroom doubt about the value of good design,’ adds Knowles. ‘The uncertainty is more about how they acquire it and manage it. There are therefore huge opportunities for design consultancies to show how design can be of benefit to the business.’

As the economy wobbles and consumer credit dips, design must compete even harder to prove this strategic value to business. As Walford notes, design can be one of the first marketing services to be cut in a tight economic period and the last to be reinstated when things pick up. Indeed, within the last couple of months network-owned branding giants Interbrand (Omnicom) and The Brand Union (WPP) have both cited ‘uncertainty’ as a reason for senior redundancies.

But where agencies demonstrate their strategic understanding of consumer behaviour, along with the power of design to influence that behaviour, corporate chiefs are more likely to keep them in the fold. This is true not only of branding consultancies, but also in product, digital, retail and packaging design disciplines. Before taking the view from some of these sectors, it’s worth picking up another trend that connects them all and perhaps fundamentally changes the nature of all marketing communication.

Shifts in the way we communicate are creating what Seymourpowell director Richard Seymour calls a ‘paroxysmal change’ in the relationship between products, communications and marketing. ‘So much so,’ he says, ‘that most people, including design agencies, don’t know what’s going on; we’re right at the centre of it.’ What Seymour is referring is the transition from ‘push media’ – where marketing activity pushes messages about products and services towards consumers – to a Web 2.0-style of communication where people, everywhere, are sharing, re-appropriating and commenting on these messages like never before.

‘Push media is evaporating. Not the places to put it, which are still there, but what people are doing with it, which is that they’re talking to each other. It’s like going back to the Middle Ages. If the blacksmith in the village is shit, everybody knows about it,’ says Seymour. As an example, he cites a YouTube video that shows how to crack a Kryptonite lock with a biro. The video’s author reportedly said: ‘Your brand new U-lock is not safe’, causing huge implications for Kryptonite’s products and brand.

‘Basically, if you lie, you die. If you promise something great and the product isn’t up to it, there will be an onslaught,’ continues Seymour. ‘So, you start to see a re-emancipation of the object or the product as the truth. In this new order you see a new way of communication developing. If you say something in the old way – “we think this” in a pompous way – then there’s a massive negative reaction. This is a huge relief. It’s honest trading again. We can’t just take some stuff and advertise the bollocks off it.’

If this is the case, it affects not just design, but the way consumers receive all products, services and marketing communications. ‘It’s a fantastic time to be in the creative industries because we’re witnessing a complete change, a new dawn,’ argues Seymour. ‘And it’s not technology, not the “it” of the internet – that’s just the “how”. It’s anthropology; it’s emergent behaviour which arises from the tools we’ve now got.’

This is a version of an article written for Marketing, 8 July 2008.

Interactive signage

Public signs which react to their users – providing just the information they need, exactly when they need it – are an appealing idea, especially to interaction designers. And with embedded communication technologies such as radio frequency tagging and wireless, mobile internet connections, the emergence of fully interactive signage becomes eminently possible.

At least, it does in theory. In reality, the cost of building interaction into signs is often thought to outweigh the benefits for organisations or their users. ‘Interactive signage can be very expensive,’ says Ico Design Consultancy creative director Benjamin Tomlinson. ‘The technology is there to create them, but the cost and complexity of rollout quite often directs [a project]. It’s not a case of what’s possible, but a question of initial investment. Will the extra interaction be worth the investment?’

In many commercial situations the answer would be no. But experimental research underway at the Design Museum in London aims to put interactivity and dynamic content into what the museum’s strategic consultant Daniel Charny is calling ‘explorative signage’ – part sign, part interactive wall. ‘It’s part of a process of making the museum’s collections more accessible through signage. Although it works like an interactive kiosk, it will be in the foyer so people will see it as they come in or sit in the café, so it’s signage,’ says Charny.

This explorative signage is pioneering something of a technical first too, marrying traditional screen-printed graphics with special conductive ink technology to create active ‘buttons’ on the surface of the foyer wall. Graphic designer Lea Jagendorf’s visual scheme will be brought to electrical, interactive life under a system designed by interaction consultancy Osmotronic. When users touch the buttons they will trigger media content that will be projected onto the wall.

‘It works on two levels: it’s passive for people looking on, but it’s being controlled by people touching the wall. And while it’s interactive, it doesn’t look digital because it’s a projection rather than screen,’ explains Charny.

The system will first be used to offer visitors access to objects from the Design Museum’s collections that aren’t currently on display in the building. These digital assets include video and photographic material, as well as detailed written information. But the system could function as an information point too.

‘As it’s in the foyer they need it to be flexible, so it can be unobtrusive if other events are taking place. So we’ve designed a minimal grid of buttons, each around 5cm across, “soft-labelled” at any given moment by the projector to show what they do,’ explains Osmotronic director Matthew Falla. ‘When you’re looking at an object, pressing a button might bring up more info about the design, its client, processes or materials and so on.’

At around 4m2, it’s perhaps the scale of the projection that allows it to be considered signage, but what’s especially valuable about this approach to wall space is that the content is dynamic, rather than static. Media can come to the fore or recede, as required by the user or the venue. Along with collections content, the Design Museum wall could also provide visitor information, introductory material for groups about to view an exhibition, or even media for private functions or events.

In a project for Manchester Art Gallery, signage design consultancy Holmes Wood also employed technology to create large-scale, dynamically changing signs suspended in the building’s main atrium. ‘They can be used for daily events and promotion and then used in the evenings for corporate events, with the addition of sound. We designed the software as a bespoke solution, with templates and grids that allow it to be updated and completely managed in-house by the gallery,’ says consultancy director Alexandra Wood.

A similar system was built for auction house Christie’s by Land Design Studio and digital consultancy Clay Interactive. Using high-quality projectors and screens, wall sections at Christie’s King Street showroom in London become embedded, ‘invisible’ media spaces, playing out content on items up for auction, or information about what’s taking place in the venue and so on. According to Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins, using media in this way allows it to become part of the physical space, just as static informational signage does. ‘It’s about how to nurture spaces, how it becomes media as architecture,’ he says.

Although not interactive from a user’s point of view, the Christie’s and Manchester Art Gallery projects show how, as at the Design Museum, dynamic media, architecture and signage can start to become one and the same. ‘The architecture, hardware and software development are all happening together with the client’s content. It’s incredibly important that these are in parallel,’ adds Higgins.

The Design Museum’s interactive signage will trial throughout the summer, after which it may be extended further into the museum and its interactivity thrown open to include content generated by users of the museum’s website. ‘It’s really a first experiment at this stage, but it could be used throughout the museum as a new type of signage exhibit,’ says Charny.

This article was written for Design Week, 8 May 2008.

Intelligent buildings

In any traditional model of working life we’re likely to spend up to a third of our waking hours in an office. Yet a British Council for Offices survey this year finds that more than 40 per cent of us are dissatisfied with our workplaces. It’s a problem that can have unwanted effects on any business, from lowered morale or creativity to higher staff turnover and absenteeism. Creating an effective and comfortable working environment is therefore an investment rather than a cost. But with mobile technologies and a shifting work-life balance breaking up the traditional working model in any case, how should we begin to conceive and design the workplace of the future?

Just before Christmas a multidisciplinary team of designers, architects, engineers and universities presented the first results from a forward-looking piece of research into how technology might begin to answer this question. The study, called Building Awareness for Enhanced Workplace Performance, or BOP, received £1m of funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, a £1bn-plus fund to promote technology and innovation in business.

In an attempt to get a better understanding of the conditions of a workplace, BOP uses pervasive computing, where devices are embedded into ordinary activities without users even necessarily knowing they are there. Built into the fabric of the building, these wireless network devices monitor the state of individual rooms, gathering information on temperature, noise, air pressure, humidity, light and even human presence. According to Duncan Wilson, a futurist at engineering firm and BOP partner Arup, there are commercial benefits to be gained from applying pervasive computing technologies to the design of working environments. ‘The wireless sensor network offers the potential to understand which factors affect work performance and how people feel about and interact with the building,’ he says.

Installed at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Arup in London, the sensors provide a continuous reading of environmental conditions, which are then fed back to workers via a live ticker tape designed by interaction consultancy Artificial Tourism. This information is then connected with how people in the office are actually feeling through interactive installations designed by Maoworks. The consultancy developed a number of user feedback devices, including a simple Yes/No floor-mat onto which users step to register their response to workplace-related questions shown on an adjacent screen.

Stuart Jones, a designer and senior research fellow in Interaction Design at CSM, believes that this type of information can help to create better working environments. ‘This kind of tool would support those organisations that do want to change, because it gives you the means to understand what’s going on. Then you can start to change whatever will be beneficial,’ he claims.

Perhaps our offices need this kind of scrutiny. Unlike most other areas of business, a building’s performance is seldom monitored from the user’s point of view, says Wilson. ‘In the sector of building design there’s a huge void between feedback from the consumer and how the product [office] is performing. This is not the case in other industries such as automotive and retail.’

BOP organisers claim the research is the first of its type in the world. Its approach to understanding how spaces function and people relate to them may inform the design of more adaptable workplaces in the future, suitable for mobile workers and fluid roles. According to Frank Duffy, founder of office design consultancy DEGW, this is exactly what’s required. ‘We need buildings that can learn, with the capacity to accommodate change. It is better to do this with interior design than with architecture, which is fixed in a 50-year time scale. We need more choice, more complexity and more diversity,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 3 January 2008.

Brand building

‘Live and breathe the brand,’ is the familiar cry of marketing directors, design consultancies and brand custodians far and wide. Advising their clients on how to stay on-message, branding rulebooks will often cover every facet of the face that a company presents to its customers, but some businesses are also ‘branding’ the very spaces that their staff work in day in, day out.

Taking a business’ brand values into a three-dimensional environment is arguably fraught with design dangers: imagine the ad agency desperately exaggerating positive attributes, such as ‘creativity’ or ‘irreverence’, with ‘crazy’ cushions on the floor, a ten-pin bowling lane and inflatable toys in the break-out room. Hip play den and effective work space are maybe not the same thing, so should a company’s branding be brought into its office space at all?
According to Household director Michelle Du-Prât, branding the workplace is the ‘future of internal communications’, integral to the way a business communicates its values to staff.

‘Companies need to live the kind of business they want to be and [designers] can give them the tools and spaces to achieve this. It’s not just about saying here’s your new office design in corporate colours, but about considering staff behaviour in the space,’ she says.
Household has been working with Virgin Media, the entertainment and communications company formed after the acquisition of Virgin Mobile by NTL Telewest last year, on a refurbishment of around 900 buildings across the country. Starting with locations ‘crying out for a morale boost’, the Virgin Media call centre in Wythenshawe is one of the first sites to receive the facelift, says Virgin Media creative director Adrian Spooner.

‘This isn’t classic corporate branding. We could have put big logos everywhere, painted all the walls bright red and reminded everyone where they’re working around every corner,’ he says. ‘But it’s not just a veneer; there’s a reason why all the design components are there. It’s about making people feel at home and about allowing them to be themselves; each site can decide which of the different design components they want to use in the space.’

Under the scheme, Virgin’s playful attributes are becoming part of the work environment, with office design motifs such as a flock wallpaper, wall silhouettes and chalkboards sitting alongside ‘dating car park spaces’, extending what Spooner calls ‘classic Virgin humour’ into areas outside the building’s four walls.

For Virgin it makes sense to lean more overtly on a humorous and light-hearted approach to the office in order to draw out similar behaviour from staff (living and breathing the brand again). But designers all seem to agree that it’s about changing behaviour, not colour schemes. As Duncan Mackay, director of brand design at Gensler, says: ‘There’s a misconception about what’s involved. It’s not just sticking a huge logo behind the reception desk. Every successful brand understands its brand values and needs to get its customers to understand these values, which means workers should too. The workplace is an opportunity for a physical representation of this, but it’s a working environment and people still have to work there.’

Gensler’s own research finds that just 4% of managers believe that their company brand is the main reason behind the design of their office. But does this really matter? Naturally, workplace design consultancies holler a resounding ‘yes’, but even an independent report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment recommends that workplaces have an ‘expression’ which ‘influences the way inhabitants think about the organisation’; in other words, making the most of the brand.

Environment branding needn’t be based on humour – it must match the company’s attributes. Elmwood has worked with the Met Office to show staff how the organisation’s weather forecasts and research have a chain of influence in everyday life and how the different departments are interdependent. Mini-stories showing these sequences of influence are displayed along the main ‘street’ in the Met Office’s purpose-built headquarters in Exeter.

Gensler worked with the London Stock Exchange as part of a wider rebranding exercise aiming to imbue the business with a 21st century style. ‘Their office was an opportunity to express how they’re going forward and there are more and more subtle ways of saying something about your business. So instead of printing ‘global company’ everywhere, graphic squares on the doors reference the office’s Paternoster Square location, forming a map of the world when the doors are closed. Map references then designate the room locations as a system of wayfinding,’ explains Mackay.

Similarly, BDG Workfutures’ design for Network Rail’s head office is intended to create a culture of communication, not only between internal departments, but also between Network Rail and the many external companies it works with, says BDG joint managing director Phil Hutchinson. ‘You can apply as much colour, graphics and so on as you like, but if you’re not creating the right spaces you’re not going to foster communication between staff, which was the aim,’ he says. ‘It’s not often that brand is mentioned as a major part of a brief, but it’s always relevant.’

This article was written for Design Week, 21 January 2008.

Shopping with frills

There is, many designers claim, still a huge opportunity for retailers to raise their game by creating stores that offer richer experiences and a sense of drama. Designers might well say this of course, as it is the conjuring of such delights from the drawing board that pays their bills. But there is no denying that to compete in the mercilessly cut-throat high street, as well as against burgeoning online retailers, demands an especially enticing offer. Responding to these challenges, the fashion sector in particular is currently abuzz with new formats, refreshed branding and store roll-out programmes.

‘Retailers are finally starting to do something after four or five years of stagnation with the white box concept,’ says Lewis Allen, director of retail at Portland Design Associates. ‘The Spanish invasion of people like Zara has really shaken things up and to some extent shown everyone else the way. They have brought theatre and experience to stores, with more products that are more seasonable. There is now more investment, better ideas and stronger visual merchandising propositions. Look at Marks & Spencer: they assessed styling, products and packaging, with a much stronger focus on the consumer.’

These changes are not simply the work of retail design agencies alone, but a collaboration between visual merchandising specialists, architects, store development directors and marketing chiefs. And the result, at least at present, is a constant upward drive toward the luxury, the chichi or the indulgent. As ever, brands need as clear a distinction as possible from one another, but to combat the internet in particular fashion chains are being forced to improve their level of service and create add-on offers for customers.

‘The internet is really a part of our lives now and there are many products that it’s better to buy online, such as books and CDs. But fashion retailing is a different thing: People are different sizes, they need advice and extra service. This means that they have to retain that high street presence, which is very expensive and competitive,’ says Jonathan Clarke, director at Universal Design Studio, which is creating store interiors for the forthcoming dedicated Reiss building on Barrett Street in London. Clarke says that added services are increasingly being used toward the luxury end of fashion, perhaps reviving the type of relationship customers had with dedicated tailors in years past.

One way of achieving this type of intimacy through store design is to introduce boutique style elements into what are essentially high street chains. Women’s fashion retailer Phase Eight launched a Caulder Moore-designed format along these lines in autumn last year. The company’s then-chief executive Joy Walters described as a ‘chic and glamorous’, saying it helped elevate the brand above the middle market with a more personalised and bespoke offer.

Universal’s concept for Reiss’ 10,000 square feet store near Bond Street in London will also represent a shift toward aspirational luxury when it opens this October. ‘It is a much purer look; a much cleaner space and a totally new approach,’ says founder David Reiss. ‘But we’re trying to bring some key elements and special features to the graphics, walls and space,’ he adds, reluctant to reveal further details.

The Reiss store will be housed in a bespoke redevelopment – by architect Squire and Partners – of the five-storey building formerly home to the London College of Fashion. ‘It’s effectively a branded building, which is a giant leap for the brand and something that I don’t think anyone else has done in the UK,’ adds Clarke. ‘David wanted to move the brand forward, but the existing stores [designed by D-Raw Associates] are already good and it’s hard to make changes to a good offer. However some of the stores had started to become to reminiscent of the collections themselves, so the clothes can get a bit lost in the same palette.’

But perhaps the most significant movement in the retail hierarchy at present is the budget sector’s push up against the mid-market. As the Primark case study here shows, the tactical use of visual queues from luxury brands, combined with super-low price tags, can have a potent effect on shoppers. And significantly, its high-value ethos can also take on the supermarkets at their own game. ‘The value copy cat sector has been driving fast-fashion hard. Peacocks has even launched a new format that looks more like New Look than New Look,’ says Michelle Du-Prât, insights director at design agency Household. ‘The store designs pump for a fashionable edge, with prices on basics set to match the supermarkets.’ Du-Prât asks whether this is sustainable, but then also notes that Peacocks is reeling in double digit growth at the same time as rolling out a new store format.

Caulder Moore joint managing director Irene Maguire also points at the launch of fashion ranges in supermarkets as a cause of major ructions in the high street fashion sector. She believes that this is compelling players in the middle market to ‘seriously consider’ how they differentiate. One of the ways high street retailers are combating this is by making branding even more central to their thinking in terms of store environments, she claims. ‘Retailers are working hard to define their own individual, distinct ‘emotional’ territory in the minds of their customers. Our belief is that design can create an emotive bond between the brand and their customer. Establishing this connection successfully allows a retailer to elevate their product beyond a commodity into something which is a special experience.’

Working with brands including Gap, Next and River Island, as well as Primark, Dalziel & Pow’s portfolio straddles the value/mid-market offers. ‘This push by value players has prompted the competition to raise their game significantly. The middle market retailers are now investing heavily in the design of store environments to protect their position or establish a new more premium position,’ says director David Dalziel. H&M’s new COS format, for example, takes cues from designer brands but addresses the mass consumer in a mid-market segment. However, some have questioned how well the format is performing. Dalziel says that although the stores look good, there is too much discounted product and not enough space, while Clarke also remains unconvinced that the format has really been effective.

And what is the effect of all this budget and mid-market jostling at the premium or luxury end of the street? As all retailers take more and more design cues from premium styling the top strata are feeling the pinch. And according to Dalziel, they are not reacting effectively. ‘The high brands are pressured to respond and in my opinion they are failing. Too many premium stores are not providing the differentiation considering the investment. High brands should be fulfilling a fantasy, inspiring their customers, not simply reassuring them with another ‘smart’ store. The spark and creativity is lacking,’ he claims.

In many respects, this is the challenge for everyone on the high street: to somehow provide an easily identifiable point of difference while at the same time developing an efficient and alluring store format. Having just opened Bench’s first standalone concept store in Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, the company’s head of retail and former Ted Baker man Greig Fowler is aware of the challenge of trying to stand out in the marketplace. ‘Everyone’s raised their game and doing a good shop fit is not enough anymore. You have to go the extra distance to stand out, which is extremely hard in this day and age.’

Case study: Primark – budget bonanza
There’s a lot of talk about how the budget sector is putting the squeeze on mid-market players such as Next, Dorothy Perkins or River Island by raising the game in terms of store environments. Perhaps at the apogee of this movement is Primark’s 35,000 sq feet store on Oxford Street, which opened late last year under a design by Dalziel & Pow, its retained agency for almost 20 years.

Lambasted by some as a purveyor of gluttonous and unsustainable over-consumption due to its low-price, high-turnover product, the store was nevertheless stampeded by wanton consumers at launch. Although this frenzy has since abated to some degree, the store is still around 50 per cent over its initial trading targets and is set to turnover more than £100m a year, according to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel. Footfall on the street outside rose by 16% in the three months after opening and it takes around a 100 staff to replenish the stock overnight. ‘There are still queues at the weekend and inside it’s running at four times the pace of Dorothy Perkins,’ claims Dalziel.

The retail design challenge is to accommodate – and indeed promote – this kind of throughput. The agency’s scheme has 64 tills positioned across two floors. This quantity is typically found in supermarkets, but here – in order to maintain a fashion store ambience – the cash desks must not dominate, so they are broken into four banks of 16. Sub-brand areas, such as children’s range Young Dimension and household goods in Home, give the store a ‘departmental feeling’, although there are only about seven finishes and a predominantly monochromatic colour palette, normally associated with higher status brands. ‘Spot and fluorescent lighting combinations and accents of other materials, such as baroque wallpaper and heavier timbering, are more sophisticated than you would expect. But it’s also important that people don’t think it’s out of their price range, so the space is clear and unfussy,’ says Dalziel.

And this is how Primark starts to trade up the budget sector. Using design, its low-cost and abundant products are set in an environment which suggests a higher price tag. ‘It’s almost like the price has been misprinted: a £40 dress for £4,’ reckons Dalziel.

This is article was written for Marketing, 26 September 2007.