Waking up to Net profit

The Internet’s uses are said to be far and wide, and to be bereft of a Web address could harm your reputation. Tim Rich looks at the benefits of keeping up with new media.

I’m bored by exaggerated predictions about future Internet use. Apparently, we’ll soon be doing virtually everything (or should that be doing everything virtually?) via some form of online network. Everything except performing our vital bodily functions, perhaps, although I’ve heard a few suggestions for unusual (and extremely unhygienic) applications in that area, too.

Many of the statements about the Internet and how we will be using it are simply exercises in self-serving market creation. “Research” claims, such as “50 million Britons will be choosing their new hair styles from the Internet”, always seem to come from some neatly related commercial organisation: “Web Cutz”, perhaps, or “HairNet”.

Yes, the Internet uses HyperText in more ways than one. But, despite these tiresome inflations, design companies ignore the Internet at their peril. It is not hyperbole to say that it is radically changing brand and corporate communications. It is not extreme to say that electronic commerce will reshape a number of business sectors, such as music retailing. Designers must react.

While a few pioneers have fallen by the wayside, some quick thinkers in our industry have already created solid business from Internet-related work. But the relevance of the Net to design goes way beyond creating websites. To be specific, it’s about everything. The moronic Luddite chorus constantly declares that the Internet does not mean the end of book design, posters, packaging, corporate stationery, annual reports, in-house magazines – the precious jewels of print design. I agree. But it certainly does affect the volume of work in those areas, the function of the work produced and the design thinking behind it. Increasingly, print must interact with digital media and must constantly redefine its uses, and so its value.

Take a hypothetical in-house magazine scenario. Move a weekly, one-colour, in-house newspaper to its company website and use the money saved from removing printing and physical distribution costs to redesign the flagship monthly company magazine.

Take a corporate identity scenario. Why print and distribute an unwieldy book on design guidelines, which is out of date as soon as it’s finished, when you can use the company Intranet site (a restricted-access Internet-style site) instead? Design elements are updated as they change, and users can be encouraged to seek assistance through online tutorials. If you think this is science fiction, find out about Audi’s worldwide ERA system, which connects its 5000 offices, dealers and agencies.

New technologies affect priorities; designers must anticipate change if they are to thrive. Yet – extra-ordinarily – many design companies in the UK seem Internet-allergic. I find this staggering because the evidence for its importance is all round us; simply count the number of websites you find in a copy of the Financial Times or in one evening’s TV commercials. Access to the medium is easy and inexpensive and, if you don’t evolve in tandem with (or ahead of) the corporate world, you could find yourself losing your grip on business reality.

Yet, I know of several large studios where Web access is restricted to one PC. Some of the UK’s leading consultancies have no Web access, and some don’t even have e-mail. There’s probably a fair number of designers who think an attachment is a person you’re having a relationship with.

Can these people talk perceptively and know-ledgeably to clients about the entire communications mix? Yes, if they’re very bright, but if I was the client I would doubt their ability to feel what’s going on and to look ahead. It’s like someone talking about the weather when they’ve never been outdoors. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps you’re a designer whose favoured form of communication is created with parchment, quill and ink, yet you can talk to business people about the Internet like Bill Gates on speed.

I doubt it. Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable to be a designer working for corporates and to ignore all things related to so-called “new” media. Just don’t expect clients to trust your view of their future.

Action Man goes chicken

Another gem joins my marketing-speak hall of fame. It’s press information on the packaging for Action Man’s Action Meal from Sun Valley, created by a well-respected UK consultancy. “Added value poultry category”, “complete meal solution” and “100% breast meat reassurance”, flavoured with a touch of “synergy” – it all seems a bit grand for chicken and chips for kids.

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