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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1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Rus July 25th, 2007 2:17 am

    Wow, this is probably the most interesting article I’ve read about the whole 2012 debate. So much negativity about the logo itself and no real investigation into what factors might have produced it.

    Having lived in London for the past 3 years the build up to the logo launch was highly anticipated. However I did get the feeling that no matter what was presented, be it the most amazing identity system ever designed, it would have been attacked.

    The media in the UK completely condemned the logo, going so far as to suggest a complete redesign. That would be rather pointless as we would have probably ended up in the same position, as not everyone shares the same ideas on what is good or bad design.

    I don’t think it’s something new for the media to highlight the costs of design or branding, without thinking of the process that goes into creating it. As a kid I remember both the Commonwealth Bank and Bankwest logos coping flack for their high price tags. I personally think both of these examples have stood the test of time and worth their price tags.

    I think you have presented the argument in a completely different light, not dwelling on the logo’s aesthetic, but one of trying to educate readers that there’s more to design and branding than just hitting a magical design filter in photoshop and laughing all the way to the bank (although I’m sure Adobe is working on that for CS4).

    Let’s just hope that a journalist, somewhere, has read this blog and the next time a large scale public brand is launched we get at least one considered point of view.

    Thanks again.

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