Monday, April 28, 2008

Responsible design 1

It was a fine April morning and my little one and I decided to go for a stroll, fulfilling her burning desire to go to a playground ("pingownd daddy, pingownd!). We stopped briefly to post a letter and I was left aghast at the state of British design. It's something I've noticed many times before and always tutted at, but this jarring image stopped me in my tracks today. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of a beautiful spring morning with the visual house of horrors I saw before me. What was this horror of horrors? None other than our great British pillar box.

WHAT? I hear you gasp. He's crazy. This is an iconic design! Almost as iconic as the red Gilbert Scott designed telephone box. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING LITTLEFAIR? Well, I shall explain. The beautiful Georgian pillar box is not that which is offending my sensibilities but rather the monstrosity welded to the side of it. Is this the height of well integrated British design? Don't get me wrong- I'm no pre-raphaelite revivalist who swans around in a smoking jacket bemoaning the good old days when a pint of beer cost 2d and everything was SO much better when things were made of wood. No. We need to embrace modernity and our ever evolving lives and find interesting and innovative ways of moving forward. And sticking a big red box on the side of a (probably) antique piece of (functional but attractive) street furniture is not the way forward!

I have sympathy for the posties. They do a good job and they're probably not paid a great deal. Our postie is a family man who does his job and later in the day I see him with his kids doing dad stuff. So I don't want to burden his round- of course he should have a secure place to leave some of his deliveries so as not to be weighed down. But can you imagine the design brief conversation before this was implemented?

Big wig: "We need some storage areas to integrate onto existing pillar boxes for posties. Let's have a look a the designs"

Designer (mechanical, no doubt): "Well. I've come up with this box. It has a lock and we simply weld it to the side of the post boxes."

BW: " Hmm, yes I like it. How much does it cost? What are your fees?"

D: " Oh a lot less than an industrial designer's. All that marketing bullshit - you don't need that"

BW: "Yes you're right but, somehow this box on the needs something else. What do you think?"

D: "Hmmm. How about if I add a radius along the top edge. Give it like an arched roof"

BW: "Will it add cost?"

D: "no, no."

BW "...... Yeah. I like. I like. Implement this and make 25,000 units. Well done. We also need some stand alone boxes to set up. Make them grey and ugly"


I guess these boxes need to look fairly industrial so as not to attract attention of thugs and vandals, but really........What have they done to our heritage. This is my (and yours) cultural inheritance that they are tampering with! (I know they probably own these boxes and can probably do what they like with them. But aren't they listed? Should they be? This link tells how they are protected by English heritage)

These people have a design responsibility. If you pay in the design stage for a bit of creative thinking rather, chances are you'll come up with a great looking integrated design which may not cost as much as the off the shelf monstrosity. Designers also have a responsibility to solve the problem fully. That's what designers do- they look at problems and try and find solutions. If they are working with an enlightened client then a full range of ideas can be explored and market tested to see if this is the real deal: the right design solution. But the designer also has to advise on this process. Often clients can't comprehend the long term (and sometimes strategic) value of design input at the beginning of the project and may need to be convinced. The designer has a responsibility too- it's not just the penny pinching client. I've been put under immense budgetary limits in the past and this only makes me more resolved to think about the problem fully in order to come up with a solution within the full design brief: aesthetic, functional and financial.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's in a name?

A lot is in a name really. Ask Iona Knipl, winner of the New York Times Worst Bad Name contest. Read here how she used to hate her name at school, but now finds it "neat".

I also had a bad time at school because I had the longest name in letters in my primary class. I remember being given a long thin piece of coloured card with my name neatly spelled out by the teacher and told to copy it, letter by letter. I was the last in the class to achieve it!

Throughout senior school it was a real drag of a name too, but I have come to love my unusual name, even though you'd blanch at some of the spellings I've had! Once people understand my name, it's unforgettable, or at least instantly recognisable. Yes, I like my name. It doesn't define me as names did when they were first given hundreds of years ago. I'm not that small and not too pretty! But in some ways I am now defined by my name and how I had to deal with it growing up.

In this light I can see how Sir Terence Conran is miffed that some other company is going global with a chain of companies in his name. When I was considering a name for my venture a good friend and colleague who happens to be a specialist in company acquisitions warned me of using my name as a trading name, the argument goes thus: you get known, build up your company to the point where it's not just you on your own anymore, but a board responsible to shareholders. It's at this point that you are no longer in sole charge of your named company. Nor, in that context, your name. You could be ousted by from the board, retire, resign. But your name goes on in the guise of the company. Just like Sir Conran.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mystified by branding? It's all in the cup of tea

Are you mystified by branding? Fed up of people talking about how their logos talk about their "core values"? Don't know a logotype from a logomark? Well, to be honest you don't really need to know about these things to give a good impression of your company. It's all about the cup of tea...

A brand isn't your logo. The amount of times I've had clients call me in for meetings and let me know in a very matter of fact way that they'd like me to design a brand for them. I get excited. An enlightened client! But it soon transpires that what they want is a 'logo' redesign. Usually in isolation to all other communications in their arsenal. Well that's no brand I'm afraid. The brand can be found in the gut reaction your key stakeholders have about you and your company. It goes way beyond the logo. Sure the logo needs to toe the line and reflect your company's values but it's more than this. It's about getting all the visual language correct, right across the board. You get it right and you can get the brand to work for you- to achieve results for you as it reinforces this gut feel.

And yes, it starts with the cup of tea...

When I visit a client's company (or a suppliers) I'm greeted at the reception and perhaps offered a cup of tea. All of your questions about this company can be found in this cup of tea. But I'm not talking about tasseomancy!

If I were given a chipped mug, or a posh china tea cup and saucer, or an Elvis mug-I (or you, I'm guessing) would immediately start to make judgments about this company. Is it rich, poor, flippant, conservative, young and dynamic.... We may be WRONG about these assumptions, but we can't help making them. When we meet people for the first time we make judgements about what type of person they are based on their face, their voice, their accent, their clothes, their hair, their movements, their body language. All in an instance. And we usually stick with these ideas, rightly or wrongly! That's why first impressions last and why, if you work at it, you can help get some ideas quickly into the head of the client/key partner/supplier.

As humans we know about body language and in a similar way we are quite sensitive to the visual language used in communications design: which type is used, the colour, the tone of voice in literature. All of these things add up in our minds and create an impression of a company. We just can't help it!

Check out this company's website and compare it with this one and this one. Three very different approaches to the same problem: "flogging plumbing stuff" (I use this language deliberately-none of the companies did, right? Because using those particular words give an instant feel. This effect works similarly in a visual way too.) Each may be 'right' in its own way- it really depends on how they've done their homework and if each site gives the right type of client for them a nice warm fuzzy feeling. Try it with your friends' company sites...!

And this doesn't stop at the logo or corporate stationery, it should permeate the whole organisation: how the building is lit, the colour of the walls, the carpet, how the phone is answered, which hold music is used. These all build to make an impression and cerate an idea of the sort of company it is. And most importantly is the first impression: it's the way the receptionist greets you, how they treat you, if they are friendly or not, and of course, how that cuppa looks.

Got it?