Category Archives: Product

Open source – the art of creative collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Case study – Brancott Estate / Sarah Herriot Design

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

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

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

This article was written for Marketing, 14 April 2011.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Holistic ideas wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing’s Design Leagues 2010

In many ways, design’s star is rising.

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

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

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

Mixed outlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the shelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Not an option

Big business is entering a new phase in its efforts to become more sustainable. Declamations from the likes of Nike, Puma and Marks & Spencer speak of sustainability being embedded in their cultures, operationally and philosophically.

In the words of a Nike announcement earlier this year, this phase ushers in ‘the next evolution of corporate responsibility strategy [moving] from a risk management, philanthropic and compliance model to a long-term strategy focused on innovation, collaboration, transparency and advocacy.’ In others words, it’s deeper and more serious.

At the same time, consumer-facing brands are flexing and moulding in order to wear the clothes of corporate social responsibility a little more naturally. Recent years have seen a clamour of eco-ethical communications thrown around and on top of familiar brands, decorating them in green, planet-friendly imagery. It felt, in many cases, a bit too convenient and reactive and admonishments of green-washing quickly followed.

‘I think a new theme is happening with corporate sustainability and brands,’ says Dorothy MacKenzie, director of branding consultancy Dragon Rouge. ‘We’re going from something set apart from the brand, or based around token activities, to something that’s embedded in it. The only way of embedding sustainability principles and actions and avoid green-washing is to take it right inside the company.’

Until recently, only pioneer ethical brands really adhered to root and branch sustainable business practice, but it is moving into the mainstream. As MacKenzie notes, once a business as large as Walmart begins to rethink its supply chain, it’s pretty hard to ignore. Partly this is a result of public expectation and the ideological pressure of the day, but mostly it’s about ensuring that a business can thrive, remain profitable and exist in the future.

‘There’s a triangulation of issues within a business for any potential initiative: Do consumers like it more? Is it greener? Is it cheaper? If the answer to all three is yes then you’ll get a green light,’ says Silas Amos, creative director at packaging consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie. And as MacKenzie adds, it’s no good if you run out of raw materials or if they become too expensive, so care for the environment ultimately makes business sense as well as moral sense. Marks & Spencer, for example, claims its wide-ranging Plan A programme has become ‘cost-positive’, saving £50m in efficiencies during 2009/10.

Designers have an important role to play too. Shell’s work with packaging group Blue Marlin increased manufacturing efficiencies and reduced pack formats to cut plastic use by 9 per cent, equivalent to taking 45 million one-litre bottles out of the system annually. Coca-Cola’s colour management work with Anthem Worldwide rationalised colours globally to reduce printing materials and costs. And Puma’s two-year collaboration with designer Yves Béhar created a fully recycled and ‘boxless’ shoe packaging system that slashes paper consumption by 65 per cent and carbon emissions by 10,000 tons annually.

Seeking efficiencies is just everyday good business practice, but the value it now offers in terms of public relations gives renewed impetus to finding better ways of doing things. And consumer brands need to embody this ethos in a believable, genuine and natural way, not just repainted with an ethical overlay. ‘Whatever you’re saying on sustainability it has to be in the brand’s language, coming from the mouth of the brand,’ argues Jonathan Davies, director of packaging consultancy Butterfly Cannon.

MacKenzie believes that corporate shifts are being woven into brand activity ‘much more naturally and less self-consciously’ than previously, resulting in more creative, coherent branding. ‘An awful lot of communication around this area has been quite dull; one of the benefits of bringing sustainability right into the brand is that you can get better communication and design.’

Unilever, for example, is using sustainability as a driver for company-wide innovation and growth, but this filters down to products individually. So a tongue in cheek campaign for its US men’s toiletries range Axe promotes the ecological virtues of ‘shower pooling’ in a way that is part and parcel of the brand (depicting one man sharing a shower with lots of women, naturally).

So from a branding and business point of view sustainability can be viewed as an opportunity. But from an environmental point of view such changes are arguably just tweaks to the system of mass consumption, not a fundamental shift in the way we live. Global manufacturing businesses and markets will not change comprehensively overnight. ‘Many things are structured in a way that will change over time, but it will be a very long time,’ notes MacKenzie.

Puma’s chief marketing officer Antonio Bertone admits that the company’s global supply chain could not be radically altered for sustainability concerns. ‘The supply chain is the lifeblood of the company and you can’t disrupt that process or it would take years to get to implementation and the cost would go back to the consumer. So our new packaging still had to behave like a shoebox,’ he says.

And there’s the rub. Change is happening, but it will happen slowly. Even Shells acknowledges that by 2050 global CO2 emissions must fall by at least 50 per cent, yet energy demand is expected to double. For all the good intentions, could it be too little, too late?

This article was written for Design Week’s Sustainable Design Supplement, 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. 

Marketing league tables 2009: the view from design

In the wider world, beyond consumer products and services, one of the most remarkable events of the past 12 months was the successful election campaign and inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the US.

It was remarkable not only historically and politically, but also in terms of marketing, for Obama’s campaign communications and branding have been hailed in design circles and beyond as consistently slick and well-executed.

Street artist Shepard Fairey’s screen-printed ‘Hope’ poster swiftly became its defining image (and an iconic piece of graphic design in itself), but the Obama brand was much more than just a poster. The campaign also embodied a shift in sentiment, important not only to politics, but also in how brands talk to consumers – toward trust, honesty and authenticity.

With malfeasance seemingly rife among politicians and bankers playing fast and loose with other people’s money, public trust has become the scarcest of commodities when it comes to big business.

The design industry is subject to the effect of this in several ways. Design is often the only direct touchpoint between brands and consumers, making an understanding of the mood and sentiment of the day crucial for consultancies advising their clients. At the same time, when companies cut marketing budgets and put projects on hold, agency margins are squeezed.

There is no denying it has been a tough year so far, but the picture for design agencies appears to be mixed: some agency heads are describing conditions as ‘the worst they have been for a long time’, while others are enjoying record business wins as clients shop around for the right partner.

According to Doug James, director at brand consultancy Honey, design agencies need more business acumen to remain profitable and successful. ‘It’s about setting a business up, knowing all the metrics and which ones to watch – the key performance indicators. You need to know where it is you make money,’ he says.

Sara Fielding, senior consultant at consulting firm Results International, agrees that this is a primary concern. ‘There has to be greater clarity and understanding of finances, especially net profitability, not just for the business as a whole, but by client and by service offering,’ she says. ‘Only with these systems in place can they really see where the money is being made and be able to argue factually and convincingly for fairer fees.’

In a recession, the pressure on business metrics is unparalleled, but there are  opportunities as well as challenges in the market, according to Iain Johnston, chief executive of marketing services group Loewy. ‘There are a few things happening on the client side and on the agency side that are coming together,’ he says. ‘There’s more focus on value for money and effectiveness – on exactly what you are trying to achieve. Things you can’t show a return on are the first to go, but there does seem to be a flow of work coming through.’

Not surprisingly, clients demanding greater effectiveness and value are becom-ing the norm. Skincare brand Nude has an ongoing partnership with design agency Pearlfisher and the two are collaborating to become more efficient.

‘A more challenging economic climate can often encourage innovation; it forces us to look at what we’re doing and how effective and efficient it really is,’ says Annmarie Harris, marketing manager at Nude. ‘Design spend, like everything, needs to be well-managed and monitored for efficacy. For brands in fast-moving industries like the beauty industry, to stop spending would run the risk of quickly becoming outdated or worse, irrelevant. However, well-utilised, innovative design can achieve fantastic awareness and be very cost-effective. My advice would be to keep spending, but do it cleverly,’ she adds.

According to Jackie Roberts, senior brand manager for tampon brand Lil-lets, measuring the effectiveness of design investment is crucial. ‘All activity should pay for itself by driving sales,’ she says. ‘While it is difficult to establish the effectiveness of a pack redesign in isolation, it plays an important role in optimising the results of the broader communications activity.’

Loewy-owned product design group Seymourpowell has worked with Lil-lets on the development of a new applicator product. ‘We have invested heavily in the current market conditions to establish this as a better alternative to the market leader in the category. Ultimately, success is measured through sales, but we have measures in place to track individual elements of our integrated communications plan,’ says Roberts.

That efficacy and value for money are being demanded at all stages is due in large part to the rise of measurable digital channels. The continued decline in spend on (and the impact of) traditional advertising appears to be benefiting design generally and in particular digital and packaging, where the ROI is greater.

While digital is becoming more important in brand communications, this does not mean businesses should turn solely to digital specialists to work on brand development, warns Nicolas Mamier, European vice-president of branding group Elmwood.

‘Digital is an increasingly important route for communication and therefore features high on the list of requirements from any agency, but I do not believe that means companies should default to using digital specialists to manage their brand,’ he says. ‘Clients are looking for original brand thinking that makes use of the opportunities offered by digital channels, tools and platforms, not just digital thinking.’

The shift away from traditional advertising also has implications for a client’s strategic needs, says Jon Davies, managing director of packaging design group Holmes & Marchant.

‘Above the line doesn’t hit as many consumers as it used to, which means the high costs do not see enough ROI,’ he adds. ‘But ad agencies have long been the strategic partner for brands, investing heavily in planning support for their clients, paid for by the high fees. Recession reduces fees available and pushes clients to ensure they get ROI. So this old ad agency model is no longer sustainable and clients are looking elsewhere for strategic partners with more relevant products; namely, design and digital. The more grown-up agencies have invested in planning to support this shift.’

By introducing planning to design agencies, their thinking is not confined to creating standout packaging, for example, but ensures that there is a full marketing and communications strategy underpinning and supporting the design work, claims Davies.

The whole story

Bob Blandford, design creative director at integrated marketing agency Haygarth, believes we will see more of this. ‘There will be even more focus this year on brand planning, strategy and positioning. [It is] key not only to design work, but in informing and directing the wider communications strategy.’ In an echo of Obama’s holistic design and marketing campaign, the strategy may well include a ‘story’ that can be promoted through channels such as PR activity, social media and advertising.

One of the most prevalent of these ‘stories’ to hit the FMCG packaging world recently is nostalgia. The apparent reassurance to consumers of bygone days and enduring brands has driven a boom in ‘heritage’ design.

‘There has been a growing number of successful marketing initiatives that hark back to, or celebrate, the past,’ says Barry Seal, managing director of branding group Anthem Worldwide. ‘[Examples include] the relaunch of Wispa, Milky Bar Kid advertising and Marks & Spencer and Selfridges’ anniversary celebrations. This is a powerful and effective way to reconnect to the past and bring back the feeling of the “good old days”.’

Another recent branding theme has been that of the ‘local’. Amid a backlash against globalisation and as consumers focus more on their immediate communities, brands are talking up their local ties or knowledge. However, this is not the same as having a strategy, warns Jim Prior, chief executive of branding group The Partners.

‘I don’t think brands should go down the knee-jerk local response, where they say “Look how we’re in touch with the people of Bangalore”, or wherever,’ he says. ‘This is just a reaction and it rings hollow. It’s the time to be assertive and confident about your brand globally, but be aware that the world isn’t a homogenous place.’

The same can be said of nostalgia branding. Brands with heritage by the  truckload, such as Hovis, can capitalise on it. Jones Knowles Ritchie’s pack designs for the bread brand neatly marry its long history with contemporary colourways and clean typography. Nonetheless, it has to be based on something real and authentic, not simply a tactical reaction. ‘That heritage seems an opportune add-on to a brand could be seen as an indictment of the short-termism of the brand manager rather than a celebration of their ability to catch the wave,’ says Smith & Milton director Howard Milton.

Again, it comes back to the attributes of openness and trust. ‘Consumers are seeking honesty and co-operation and design’s role is to communicate this effectively,’ says James. This is changing the way in which brand language is formulated, according to Terry Tyrrell, worldwide chairman of The Brand Union. ‘Amid this landscape of broken promises and brands, people are sceptical and suspicious. Today’s consumer seeks transparency and authenticity, respects candid answers and expects quality,’ he adds.

This leads to another trend in branding programmes: the real need for change to be internal, as well as external. ‘More clients understand that the way to drive their brand forward is as much about internal alignment as external activities. It’s about understanding and buy-in at all levels of the company,’ says Prior. The Partners has been working with global financial consultancy Deloitte on the firm’s brand positioning of ‘leadership and staying ahead’. According to Deloitte UK head of brand Pia DeVitre, the project focuses on the ‘tangible actions’ of the company and its staff. She believes that working on branding is more important than ever in the current market. ‘This recession has made us focus on the things that really matter,’ adds DeVitre. ‘Brand really matters and we still have budgets to support key components of the brand strategy.’

Broader outlook

Such strategic consultancy includes much more than tangible design work. It is those agencies that under-stand their client’s business issues – and are savvy about providing consultancy outside core design work – that are faring well. ‘Clients need something more than just shelf stand-out and pretty design. This could mean consultancy on distribution methods, cost-savings, materials, innovation and so on – whatever helps their business,’ says Davies.

Materials are a key factor in another major trend affecting brands and design – the ongoing drive toward more sustainable processes. Sustainability is now a key factor in most structural design briefs, whether for ethical or PR reasons, or simply to save money by reducing costs. Design can help brands find more sustainable and efficient ways to deliver their products and services. ‘It’s about being smarter,’ says Harris. ‘With Pearlfisher’s guidance and expertise, Nude is in the process of reworking some packaging to better suit our sustainable goals, without destroying our margins.’

According to Johnston, large-scale FMCG brand-owners are ‘taking a major lead on sustainability’, the fruits of which are likely to be seen in the next 12 to 18 months. ‘The focus is on minimisation in general, from packaging and recycling to supply chains and distribution,’ he says. ‘These projects aren’t going on hold because of the recession and they will make a big splash when they are announced.’ However, he declines to name the comp-anies he is referring to.

There is still some way to go before most companies embed sustainable processes into the way they think and operate. Anthem Worldwide’s parent company, Schawk, recently surveyed major US FMCG and retail companies and found that 83% are being affected by packaging sustainability, but only 28% had a comprehensive plan in this area. The survey also revealed that more than 60% of clients look to design and pre-media vendors for up-to-date information on sustainability. ‘Clearly, more needs to be done in terms of shaping both thinking and best practice, so the design industry has a key role to play in educating the marketplace,’ says Seal.

Sustainability is, perhaps, an overarching issue for most brands now, but all clients have different requirements and problems. Some may be solved by traditional market-ing techniques, others by restructuring a business’ processes or even its culture. Design can tackle all of these because

first and foremost the discipline is about problem-solving, and whatever happens to the various marketing channels, businesses will always have problems to solve.

‘One of the great attractions and anomalies of the design sector is that it’s all sorts of different things,’ says Prior. ‘But designers tend to be problem-solvers. The great consultancies think neutrally about what the solution might be. If there’s one unifying theme across design, I think that maybe this is it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 1 July 2009.

Same again?

It’s hard to imagine just how many tests, adjustments, tweaks and overhauls consumer electronics might undergo before they end up in our hands and homes. Every button, function and finish will be considered and reconsidered, just as shape, size and form may go through numerous iterations. Mass-produced consumer products in particular are objects of huge investment and getting it right before the factory line rolls is imperative. In fact, research and development stages are arguably more critical to a product’s success than the persuasive marketing and advertising that will follow: if people don’t like it, or don’t like using it, they ain’t gonna buy it.

Part and parcel of this process is prototyping. From rough, colourless scale models through to facsimiles of the final article, prototypes aid designers, clients and consumers in ensuring everything is on track. Mark Delaney, director of design at Nokia’s mass-market division Connect, says that prototyping is ‘absolutely core’ to the way that the company’s phone handsets are developed. ‘Designs come out of your head and on to the sketch sheet, move rapidly to CAD – which is “real” and responds to the internal components you’re working with – and then straight after that we’re looking at a wax model in 3D. Literally from day one, models will be appearing,’ he says.

Prototypes for Nokia’s recent 6303 handset, for example, include an initial and basic form proposal 3D ‘print’, moving on to an aluminium
model that demonstrates the weight and material feel of the product. ‘Grey’ models then experiment with visual details and proportional differences created by the arrangement of internal components and finally a full appearance model is produced as part of a larger colour and materials study.

Similarly, when motion-capture hardware company Vicon wanted to refresh its image in the professional marketplace, design consultancy PDD used prototypes to develop a cleaner minimal aesthetic for its T-Series cameras. ‘They wanted to rebrand the products alongside the company and the visual aspects of the cameras were part of this,’ says PDD senior design consultant Oliver Stokes. Initial foam prototypes showed the camera’s form and scale, while sprayed foam models explored split-lines and colours.

As well as helping designers to judge things like scale, form and tolerances, prototypes are also regularly used in consumer testing, as LG Electronics head of design Europe Luke Miles explains. ‘Initiating dialogue with consumers is a useful way to gain feedback on general concepts and enables designers to make adjustments in the early stages,’ he says. ‘Initial “white” models can be printed with an extremely quick turnaround and are used to help analyse proportion and ergonomics, while milled models at the second stage [provide] more detail, specifically the build culture and its effect on the prototype’s external appearance. These models are often tested with consumers to get a clearer analysis on form, colour and materiality.’

There are many different ways to produce a prototype model, so it is crucial that the right approach is chosen, says Mark Hester, senior consultant in design development at PDD. ‘It’s very important to tie in research with design and prototyping, so we work with our research department to find out what kinds of prototype are best for different situations. For example, if you’re consumer-validating the finish of a material, it can be distracting if the form and size are not quite right. In consumer electronics especially, the limitations of a prototype or model shouldn’t be allowed to affect the outcome of research,’ he says.

According to Stokes, using prototypes to test ideas with consumers can increase the chances of market success and cut costs by weeding out poor designs at the early stages. However, consumer electronics design is often concerned with breaking new territory, and innovation through novel forms, materials and interfaces is something we’ve come to expect. Yet consumer testing is not known for generating mould-breaking ideas; quite the contrary. What, then, is the danger of death by focus group?

‘With new products and features you can often get quite negative responses from testers, simply because they are new,’ says Delaney. ‘We really have to unpick why people are saying “no” to something in prototype and we’ll do this in quite a lot of detail, looking at their world view, tastes, background and so on.’

If you want to shake up the market, standard consumer tests should be avoided. Patrick Hunt, director at product design group Therefore, believes that so-called ‘disruptive’ products – much sought after by consumer electronics brands – call for a new approach to consumer testing altogether. ‘Generally, our clients do much less concept testing directly with customers today than, say, five years ago. Top-tier brands have their own product vision and a desire to get new products to market quickly and it’s long been known among designers that consumer research can mean driving forward while looking in the rear view. The type of research where developers test prototypes on consumers behind a oneway mirror is declining in technology-driven products [because] paradigm-breaking products do not survive this process.’

This article was written for Design Week’s Prototyping & Modelling Supplement, 2009.

Slowly but surely

In 1964, designer Ken Garland led a call for graphic designers to consider how their skills might be turned to ‘more useful and lasting forms of communication’ than those demanded by ‘gimmick merchant’ clients. The First Things First manifesto, as it was called, was a cry for less triviality, transience and wastefulness, and for more value.

A second FTF manifesto, drawn up in 2000 by Adbusters and signed by 33 design industry figures, also lamented how graphic designers’ ‘time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential, at best’, in a culture of ‘uncontested’ consumerism. Of course, it’s not only graphic designers who are complicit in the creation of desire and the promotion of disposability: in our screen-based, electronic gadget-filled lives, the hand of the industrial designer is also ever-present. And FTF’s notions could apply just as much here as in graphic design.

Ethics aside for a moment, it’s clear that ‘uncontested consumerism’ helps enormously to pay the designer’s bills and keep the whole merry-go-round spinning. Yet the huge groundswell in support for Green practices has planted environmental considerations in the agendas of most consumer-facing businesses, making unfettered materialism – delivered at any cost – a much harder sell. Now, commercial designers and clients are facing a moral conundrum together: how to keep producing masses of stuff for the market, while committing to reducing waste and environmental harm.

For consumer electronics companies, the answer seems to lie in improving the Green credentials of (usually just some of) their products, rather than a wholesale rethink on how many of those products we actually need. Indeed, changing the business practices through which global companies have thrived is surely like turning the proverbial oil tanker around – a gradual, lumbering process.

Fortunately, Green sells. South Korean groups LG and Samsung, as well as Chinese company ZTE, have all recently unveiled mobile phone handsets with built-in solar-charging panels, for example. Good news? Perhaps, but as consumers ditch their current units in favour of these eco-powered entrants, the conundrum rears its head again: sustainable design equals more demand equals more resources. Truly ecological design demands a shift away from planned obsolescence and constant marketing.

Despite this, designers shouldn’t find the moral scruple too debilitating, because it is design which is instrumental in finding better materials, more efficient practices, better packaging and many other improvements that can ameliorate the unavoidable cost ofproducing and distributing products on a mass scale. To put it another way, if we’re going to have products delivered on a mass scale, they may as well be well designed.

So, how are we doing? Well, not surprisingly, Greenpeace International has been keeping a watchful eye on the electronics industry and earlier this year published its Green Electronics Survey to answer just this question. A few big companies – Apple, Microsoft, Nintendo and Philips included – were conspicuously absent from the report, having declined Greenpeace’s invitation to take part. From the 15 companies which did participate, 50 products were assessed in terms of their use of hazardous substances, power consumption, product life cycle and the environmental costs of manufacture.

Overall, it’s good news. Hazardous chemicals continue to be phased out, while the growing use of LED displays in laptop computers saves energy and avoids the need for mercury in backlights. In larger products, such as TV sets, more post-consumer recycled plastic is being used, although computers and mobile phones, on the whole, are lagging behind in this regard.

‘The electronics industry continues to make progress in launching products with reduced environmental impacts. Product scores are increasingly closer together, suggesting a more competitive environment in a “race to the top” to produce truly Green products,’ reports Greenpeace.

Of special note is the Lenovo L2440x monitor, which was found to be way ahead of the competition in terms of toxic materials, and also features recycled plastic for nearly 30 per cent of its plastic parts and an LED-backlit display. Toshiba topped the notebook category with its Portégé R600 model, thanks to the elimination of many toxic chemicals.

The highest-scoring mobile phone was Samsung’s SGH-F268, which is built without the use of brominated flame retardants, substances that can release hazardous bromine when burnt for disposal. Nokia’s 6210 Navigator was the Greenest of the smart phone/PDAs tested, mainly thanks to its energy efficiency and product life cycle.

Interestingly, the Pearl 8130 product submitted by leading PDA brand Blackberry lost a lot of points because of poor energy efficiency, failing even to meet the Energy Star standard.

Although Greenpeace International’s survey is far from exhaustive and relies on voluntary product submissions, it nonetheless paves the way for better products in the future. ‘Taking the top scores within each criteria and product category, a pathway to the design of truly Green electronics products becomes clear,’ says the report. In other words, a combination of all the best attributes in each category would create a significantly Greener product than currently available.

The next step is for these piecemeal Green practices to be integrated into a company’s whole manufacturing, distribution, marketing and end-of-life processes, replacing environmental lip service with a new ethos. First things first, and slowly, slowly the tanker may turn.

This article was written for Design Week, 7 May 2009.