June 2007

A place for stuff

Spicers Paper asked us to develop a new promotion for their new grade of Stephen called Daring Brown. It is a rich dark brown cover stock in 280gsm perfect for a book jacket, some packaging or business cards.

We came up with the desk box idea — everyone has a desk and often needs a place for knick knacks, CDs and bits. We played around with metallic, black and white inks, there are four kinds of boxes, so keep an ear out for when your next Spicers person is in the studio. They might very well have box or two for you. We did the thinking and image making, Gunn & Taylor brought the boxes to life in ink and on paper. Thanks again to Spicers for the leap of faith, lovely.

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The one that got away…

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Our entry for the Third Australian Poster Competition that never made the final cut, addressing the theme — When it rains it pours.

To see the selected entries at National Design Centre click here for details

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Raging Bull on my mind

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The flight from Korea was punctuated by one of Martin Scorcese‘s great films — Raging Bull. Shot entirely in black and white Scorcese explores the rise and fall of Hell‘s Kitchen boxer Jake La Motta. The imagery is reminiscent of early photography by Robert Frank. This photograph is one of a series of Simeon and his neighbour at the time Bruno, in the middle of a home buzz cut. These guys are by no means on a journey of self destruction like Jake, quite the opposite, the image itself captures the everyday side of life that informs the film. Raging Bull won Robert De Niro an Oscar for Best Actor in 1980, thought at the time the film received a lot of flack due to the violence depicted, the film itself was voted by the Academy as the best film of the 80s. An amazing way to spend two hours, especially on a ten hour flight. AA

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Branding shot by the messenger, again…

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For some years now branding and marketing speak has reached the obscurity of language and commentary found in factions of the arts world. In Eye Magazine number 62, Volume 16, Winter 2006 page 76, David Thompson wrote a compelling article about this topic headed — How did ‘Art bollocks‘ become the default way of writing about visual culture? Could Mao have the answer?

One has over the years read (and in some instances generated) many documents and statements developed to describe and or sell the values, purpose and merits of a communication design outcome. It is the proliferation of such writing that has driven our studio to keep our writing about our process and outcomes to the point, and structure such messages in ways to inform rather than confuse. To be fair to Wolff Olins, our studio only employs two to three people as compared to over fifty.

Creativity is a difficult process to describe, as the process and the output enjoy vast variation and contrast. At times a design will be resolved to simply look good, or be the result of complex research and rationales. The merit of such processes are difficult to justify, as there is no right or wrongs in creative thinking as long as there is an audience to enjoy it. Rightly many designers nervously describe their work. Does one write “we did this design because it looked good“, or does one write “this piece of public graphic design was developed to have a pleasing appeal to the desired audience segment…“?

Whatever path you choose as a designer to tell the story of your work, be prepared to be trashed by the mainstream media with the typical cutting statement “this simple graphic cost this much…“, with exception of James Button, now The Age‘s London correspondent. This headline grab makes out that the process of graphic design is extremely easy to achieve and outrageously expensive.

Balanced criticism in mainstream writing of branding and communication is rare. Most people outside of the design process will not think to ask questions like — How was the project won? What was the brief? What was the expectation of the brief? How many designs did the client want to review? What was the review process? How many refinements was required? How many applications where there? How many designers worked on the project? What are the salaries of these designers? How much did it cost the designer to become educated or qualified? How many hours did they work on the project? How many hours did they work unpaid? What is the infrastructure costs of the studio? What is the cost of living in the city that the studio is situated in? These questions make the news element in the paper less attractive to uninformed readers, they may require more words to describe, it will cost the paper more money to allow the journalist to research and write the article, and potentially eat into the advertising space on offer.

In the end, design at this scale represents thousands of projects. One design project can be anything from two hours to generate a range of business cards design options, or two months to develop a complex timetable or program brochure. Graphic design is a process that takes time and people’s time is expensive, especially in London. The average middle weight designer in Australia is rightly asking AUD$4,300 with tax per month, the studio that creates the jobs for such people needs to cover their costs and make a little money too, or what is the point of taking on the risks of owning and running a business.

It is little wonder that studio’s like Wolff Olins have to resort to branding and marketing speak. Big clients want studios with big infrastructures, which means 50 or 60 designers; or at least AUD$2.5m to AUD$3m per annum salary bill (not taking into account the admin and client service people) to be ready on call to produce work, often at break neck speed. Talking from the experience of being involved in a big studio in Australia, studios at this scale need to charge big money and have many clients on the books to keep their doors open. Graphic design is a volatile industry because marketing budgets are a luxury that a client can easily slash to control cashflow and profits without culling staff. So one minute a big studio can be making good profits, the next you could be laying off talented people, all because a journalist wrote a damning article about your studio, or two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, or a client has a dip in profits.

However, one is amazed that it has taken so long for mainstream media to discover the obscurity of marketing and branding speak. Designer Andrew Hogg posted the studio this clipping of an article he came across in The Weekend Australian, a syndicated piece written for The Spectator by Rod Liddle. It is a shame that it has taken such a big high profile project like the identity for the 2012 Olympic games to bring this expression to the fore. As Liddle clearly states to readers, it is true that in our industry there is a lot rubbish out there to justify the money charged, on the other hand one has to think why this curious expression has become what it is. I just wish for the day when studios didn’t have to come up with such obscure writing to justify their services and costs — then branding and marketing speak may not need to exist.

It would be wonderful if a journalist of Rod Liddle‘s stature and ilk, compared the costs and outcomes of brand/graphic design, legal, finance, advertising, media and technology consulting on the same project or client. At least the readers would have something to compare these services and outcomes too. Yes the London Olympic logo maybe questionable in terms of aesthetics and intent, however this logo and its intent had to be approved and driven by a client, and at least there was a real outcome — a graphic mark applied to a vast amount of material.

What did the lawyers, media buyers and accountants charge for this project? Why isn’t this information published? Readers may discover that “doodles dreamed up by some ghastly little marketing monkey”, as journalist Liddle states, are developed by many hard working qualified designers. At the very least the designers’ work is — something real, something that has been considered, and something that has been made the best it can within the confines of a demanding brief. In terms of a journalist, I am sure that Liddle would not appreciate his work being described as “mutterings dreamed up by some ghastly little writing monkey“, especially if he had rent, a mortgage, bills, a little holiday, or a family to provide for?

In high school commerce we were taught that a product or service is defined by the market it operates within.

In 1996 I attended London‘s first Design Week expo. It was an exhibition and conference where some of the UK’s best design firms had trade-show like stands where they presented their work, their ideas and people. Unlike many firms that displayed variations of their work, Wolff Olins had a very simple free standing structure, its high walls were a confident dark warm grey. Within this space was a sleekly designed box that was a theartrette and a bench in matching grey manned by well presented staff. In a highly visible location there was well considered display type in lemon yellow that simply said something like — “Give us your work“ and “Wolff Olins“ on the opposite wall. Their confident, to the point message made the firm stand out and the stand itself highly visited.

For over forty years Wolff Olins has contributed to what branding is and what it has become. Wolff Olins‘ longevity is no accident, they have built a great reputation for delivering a good product through sound research, good design and delivering results with some of the world’s leading brands. I think the change in the studio’s confident “Give us your work“ to the not-so confident “We‘re fearless. We challenge everything, especially ourselves. We seek…“ is proof of the changing times for brand/graphic design. This mission statement reflects the messages that the buyers of large scale design want to hear, and the means of which they can maintain a big studio with paying clients. It is a big step for such a large and highly regarded studio to go from a position of confidence to self justification. Can you imagine what the founder Wally Olin’s would think?

Ten years ago Wolff Olins made a simple call for more work, in 2007 the same company is overly justifying and overly stating their approach and principles of their work. Wolff Olins is simply using its methods to survive — as their market changes so must their products and services.

I agree with Hogg that this article shows the absurdity of the whole branding thing to a bigger audience. Sadly, I think this article is a cheap shot at well a intended company. I just wish that mainstream journalists could construct writing about brand and communication design that helped the reader to understand the whole process as well as the aesthetic and a single cost in a compelling manner. At least this may not threaten a client‘s confidence in the ways and means they market themselves, or affect a designer’s work and livelihood. Apart from the disclosed fee, the contribution of the client is clearly absent from this review. If Liddle asked a few more questions of the design, the market and the client that commissioned the project, his headline might have read “Wolff Olins absurds its design for the neo-nasty sports business“. It is good for brand and graphic design to be exposed to critical writing, yet like in most forms of expression, there are a few respectful critics and then there are the hecklers. AA

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Some where in Paju

In the middle of Korea is a small province on the border of North and South Korea called Paju. During my stay time in Korea, students of design of Hongki University and fellow guests lecturers Leonardo Sonnoli, Michel De Boer, Franz Werner and Jelle Van der Toorn Vrijthoff were tasked to think about and develop new ideas around this regional centre.

Part of our process was to discover the region’s graphic character. As you will see there are many spots in the region that are like a graphic time capsule. These images are from a hamlet that once served a now defunct US military compound activated around the Korean war.

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