An appy world

Predictions become more perilous the more precise they are. So when forecasting the fortunes of an industry like the digital design sector, generalisations are usually safer and more accurate. Bearing this in mind, in 2011 we can expect branding and marketing consultancies to continue to acquire digital specialists – especially those with technical skills, such as code developers. We can also expect to see successful digital groups keep moving up the client food chain, acting as boardlevel consultants on brand development, marketing and wide-ranging campaigns.

And yet these generalisations are rather tepid, as it’s what we are doing with the design work that’s really interesting. In the field of screen-based digital design, there’s really only one game in town, and that’s mobile. More specifically, the work of digital designers will be influenced by – as well as influence – how we use mobile devices.

One of the biggest trends in this area over the past few years has been the rise of the app. At the risk of propagating a certain well-known advertising slogan, there really is an app for everything. And although we have the release of the iPhone, iPod Touch and App Store to thank for this explosion, the world of apps has already become much more than just an Apple platform: it is a shift in the way that we now interact through the Internet, perhaps with implications for the nature of digital design and development in the future.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired US magazine, has proclaimed that ‘the Web is dead’, by which he means that our use of Web browsers to find and view traditional sites in an open and boundless World Wide Web is diminishing. Instead, we are using proprietary, closed applications to send and receive the information we need, albeit still via the Internet.

This appears to be a pedantic distinction between the ‘Web’ and the ‘Internet’. But if Anderson is right, the design and coding skills needed to build websites using standard languages such as HTML will be gradually overtaken by the programming skills needed to write bespoke apps for particular mobile operating systems, such as iPhone OS, Android or Windows Phone. And the major digital design work will come from businesses developing and refining their app software rather than their websites.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it is the very proliferation of different smartphone and tablet devices that will check the dedicated app’s dominance, helping to spread the range of digital design work that is commissioned. This is because an app built to run on the iPhone will not run on an Android phone and vice versa. As Android’s market share grows, and as Windows Phone enters the fray, clients may well see more sense in a single Web-based application – a Web app – that can be accessed on as many devices as possible.

A Web app is a Web page that is designed to look and operate like a dedicated app. They’re not new, but the latest versions are optimised for mobile screens, are task-oriented and usually feature simple, functional and intuitive interaction design, just like dedicated apps. And because a number of mobile-device Web browsers run on the same engine, including those on the iPhone and Android phones, investment in a single Web app design and development project can reach multiple platforms simultaneously.

A great example of a Web app is the mobile version of the BBC’s iPlayer, which delivers an app-like user experience (on supported devices) even though it is just a Web page. With the next generation of Web design tools such as CSS3 and HTML5 incoming, Web apps should become even more slick, streamlined and powerful. For digital designers, this Webbased approach is also less reliant on the code developers usually needed to programme the more complex languages used in native mobile apps.

So here is a prediction: over the coming year or so we’ll see more clever websites that look more and more like dedicated apps when viewed on mobile devices. In fact, The Guardian already moved in this direction last month with the redesign of its mobile site. For a company that has already invested in a successful iPhone app, this is an acknowledgement that the future may not belong solely to apps, or to the iPhone.

Our use of mobile devices will underpin pretty much all ‘traditional’ digital design next year and beyond. For digital designers this means catering for multiple mobile devices simultaneously – smartphones, ‘dumb’ phones, PDAs and now the larger tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. The more effortlessly a Web-based design works across these platforms the more successful it is likely to be for clients.

The Guardian’s blog rather sets the scene, saying: ‘The new M.guardian site is available on any handset. Our aim is to improve the service for those of you with smartphones, who make up the majority of our growing mobile audience.’ Notably, the image used to illustrate The Guardian mobile site redesign features two HTC handsets and a Blackberry, with neither an iPhone nor an app in sight.

This article was written for Design Week’s Vision 2011 supplement, December 2010.

Radio heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ask A Curator

On the same day that Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter. Remarkably, it was an initiative to stimulate dialogue between the public and museum curators that had become the hottest Twitter subject in the world by mid morning on 1 September.

The one-day event, called Ask a Curator, was the brainchild of Jim Richardson, managing director of Sumo, a branding and design group which regularly works with museum and gallery clients. Frustrated that social media are usually used by such organisations to push out ‘bland marketing messages’, if they use them at all, Richardson wanted to harness Twitter’s networking power to drum up some direct engagement with curators across the globe. The idea was that a curious public would be able to question the keepers of cultural heritage about the objects in their care and what it is they do with them.

 

‘With Ask a Curator I wanted to do something which asked more of both the public and museums, something that could create dialogue and real engagement. I hoped the project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all too often social media is still the remit of the marketing department,’ says Richardson.

 

The initiative comes at a time when many museums are just beginning to consider how online platforms and social media might dovetail with their on-site activities. Some institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, have blazed a trail with their online services and an open attitude to dialogue with the public. But for some organisations, taking part in Ask a Curator was a foray into largely uncharted territory.

 

According to Conxa Rodà, project coordinator at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the event was the first time curators there had used Twitter. ‘[The event gave] museum professionals a real proof of the reach and influence of social media and it can awake an interest in what Twitter is all about,’ she says.

 

So was Ask a Curator a success? In many ways, yes. Despite being promoted solely through Twitter, the idea eventually garnered participation from over 340 institutions, each offering a curator to take part in a question and answer session at some point during the day. What’s more, together these museums and galleries span the globe and cover a huge breadth of subject matter and collection material – from the Museum of East Anglian Life in the UK to the Museum of History of Medicine in Brasil.

 

Questions ranged from the general – ‘Have you ever had a piece that you wanted to exhibit but was too large to get into the museum?’ – to the specific – ‘What is your vision for creating a participatory interactive experience with visitors using mobile guide technology? – to the analytical and academic – ‘Is a visual art exhibition a collaborative project between artist and curator? Is there a dominant player?’

 

‘For us, Ask a Curator was the start of an ongoing conversation,’ says Wenke Mast, events and website assistant at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ‘Our communications department will now screen Twitter every day and pass relevant questions to our curators. We will keep on answering questions.’ Perhaps this is a first step towards breaking down the ‘barriers’ between curators and marketing departments that Richardson observes.

 

And if volume of traffic is a measure of success, the event was barnstorming. The rapid rise of #askacurator – the ‘hashtag’ linking Twitter messages to the subject – led a range of media, including the BBC, to report on the activity. Although these reports largely focused on the social media phenomenon of a trending hashtag, they also discussed the event’s principal idea of connecting museum curators and the public all over the world.

 

The day’s activities also increased Twitter followers for the organisations which took part. ‘We received 403 extra followers from Tuesday 30 August,’ says Maryam Asghari, online and digital marketing manager at the Barbican. ‘The average is 443 extra followers per week, so to get this number in three days is good.’

 

In short, Ask a Curator generated lots of activity around a worthwhile objective, namely giving the global public ‘one-to-one’ access to curators of cultural heritage collections, many of which are publicly held. This huge response reveals genuine interest in the sector’s work, says Museums Sheffield marketing officer for campaigns and digital Dominic Russell-Price. ‘When the calls for scrapping arts funding get ever louder it was heartening to know that the public want to engage and know more about how we work, particularly with questions being about collections, not just exhibitions.’

 

But there are also limitations to the Twitter platform and in many ways Ask a Curator was beset by problems of its own success. The popularity of the event and the fast trending of #askacurator swiftly led the hashtag to be hijacked by spam messages, polluting the stream of genuine messages with rubbish. Because #askacurator is the only identifier of relevant messages it becomes difficult to track associated questions and answers as they stream in from multiple sources. Additionally, many responses were made directly to questioners rather than ‘tweeted’ publicly, further obscuring the exchange.

 

Another inherent limitation is Twitter’s short-form message format of no more than 140 characters. Does this preclude the meaningful and detailed conversation needed to discuss complex curatorial work? Is Twitter actually better suited to providing basic visitor information?

 

‘I think it all lies in the expectations of the Twitter audience,’ says Richardson. ‘Everyone enters Twitter knowing that the messages are short and I think people expect short answers and a certain amount of chaos. Personally, I don’t equate depth of engagement with the length of the answer; the tone and speed of response are for me just as important as they can show that an institution is open and keen to engage with the public.’

 

Certainly, whichever online platform is used for engagement, it is not so much the mechanics that are important, but the content and intention. In this regard, Ask a Curator raised its own valid question: Is there an appetite for this kind of dialogue, from both sides of the exchange, and how can it can enrich the work, understanding and enjoyment of museums and galleries everywhere?

This article was written for Sumo and featured in Museum-ID magazine, October 2010.

Profile: M-Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profile: Dunne & Raby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profile: The Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the Dotts

As Designs of the Time Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly readies to launch its final major project this month it is a good time to look at the achievements and challenges of the Dott programme, ahead of its closing early next year. What were Dott Cornwall’s aims, what has it delivered and what will be its legacy?

Dott is hard to evaluate because it is hard to define. Developed originally by the Design Council for a 2007 programme in the North East, Dott’s ambitious aim is to radically change the way that services, typically public and community-based, are developed and delivered. The method it promotes is a co-design process where end-users, service providers and designers all collaborate in originating, testing and implementing services to address wide-ranging social issues.

Andrea Siodmok, programme director of Dott Cornwall, describes Dott as an ’ethos’ or framework which provides a process for working in a different way. ’To pin it down is quite tricky. It’s a bit like asking “What is the internet?” – it’s mostly a tool, an enabler,’ says Siodmok. Nevertheless, Dott has three main objectives, she says: to develop projects through community participation; to develop skills and knowledge locally; and to put the spotlight on Cornwall’s creativity.

Unlike Dott 07, Cornwall’s projects aren’t fully funded by Dott – some have multiple funders, including the European Union, and therefore multiple clients. Projects include Cornwall Works 50+, which addresses the challenges and obstacles faced by an ageing population at work, and the Eco Design Challenge, which askedYear Eight schoolchildren how design might reduce their school’s ecological footprint.

One of the programme’s primary funders is Cornwall Council. Its chief executive Kevin Lavery says some of the pilot projects will be developed into schemes post-Dott, but that it may be the approach itself that is the major legacy for Cornwall. ’We put money into this because we wanted more innovation, user involvement and community action in public services. I’m keen to internalise the Dott approach in the council so that it’s how we do things in the future. The dream would be a new kind of council, which means changing a lot of the typical processes and culture here,’ says Lavery.

Yet Dott Cornwall is not without critics. Although Cornish design groups were involved in the programme, some local designers feel too much work was given to London consultancies. ’I think there is a risk of it parachuting in a team, spending lots of money and then leaving a vacuum behind,’ says one source.

Certainly, there’s no guarantee Cornwall’s design sector will benefit from higher demand post-Dott, although there is general agreement that involvement has been beneficial for everybody. ’I think the process has affected some designers very deeply,’ says Alan Livingston, chairman of Dott Cornwall and former rector of University College Falmouth. ’It has challenged some consultancies to work in different ways. Some have embraced this, others have found it more difficult. But it’s opened up the use of these processes to design consultancies and they have become less inclined to believe design always understands the problem and has the solution.’

Some observers say that although Dott ’feels good’, it is hard to measure its impact in any concrete way. Nonetheless, external evaluators will look at the programme before it closes at the end of the financial year, reporting on harder measures such as return on investment and value for money.

But in many ways, Dott’s legacy will be revealed over the longer run. Ian Drysdale, head of projects at service design group Think Public, says, ’For the culture to change at Cornwall Council and for it to filter into commissioning processes could take a couple of years. Most design groups are looking at paying next month’s bills, so I wouldn’t recommend a wholesale shift to service and co-design straight away, as happened to some groups in the North East.’

As we head towards the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and await the results of the review of the Design Council, the prospect of future Dott programmes is uncertain. Understandably, stakeholders are keen to present Dott Cornwall as a leading example of how Big Society might function: communities, service providers, designers and innovators getting together to define and solve their own issues, locally.

Whether it is politically expedient to frame it this way or not, the Dott programme certainly offers an intensive and fertile laboratory in the emerging practice of user co-design and community participation.

Its successes and failures are being keenly observed internationally, as well as at home.

Dott Cornwall facts and figures

Partners (and funding): Design Council (£500 000), Cornwall Council (£300 000), Technology Strategy Board (£250 000), University College Falmouth

Additional funding from Convergence European Economic Regeneration36 designers on the panel and 13 on the senior producer panel

Ten projects

Academic legacy will include UCF’s planned Academy for Innovation and Research, which will incorporate some Dott approaches

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

Visual boost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebranding Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums, writing, design and photography scott(at)scottbillings.co.uk @sbeebee / 07859 825 496