Does in-house design mean consistent design?

Consistent design is vital for large organisations juggling thousands of product lines or hundreds of touch points. To achieve this, there’s a lot to be said for going down the in-house route – it’s much cheaper, for one, says Scott Billings

B&Q CHURNS more than 10 000 SKUs a year. That’s stock keeping units, for those unfamiliar with shop speak. At Tesco they deal with no fewer than 13 000 individual product lines every year. And in a retail world where brand consistency and design clarity are vital, keeping tabs on that lot is no small task. Enter the in-house head of design – the pivotal figure who corrals a company’s numerous design projects and products into something coherent, connected and comprehensible, something the customers can understand.

Of course, it’s not just retailers that need to ensure their design output is always on message. Any large organisation – an airline, bank, public transport operator or global charity, to name just a few – has multiple customer touch points, perhaps overseen by different departments which may or may not be talking effectively to each other. In businesses like these design overview is a valuable investment, helping a company to innovate and respond while also remaining efficient. And the person who holds that position can be a rather powerful design buyer.

‘Tesco used to have an in-house design head, but there was a big gap before I joined and, in the meantime, categories started to fragment,’ says the supermarket’s head of design Alyson Jakes. Previous incumbent Jeremy Lindley left to take up the role of category development director at drinks giant Diageo two years ago and, according to Jakes, even though the supermarket continued to work with design consultancies, consistency started to deteriorate without an internal hand on the tiller.

B&Q packaging design and guidelines manager Jonathan Couper paints a similar picture. ‘Historically, the business has been driven in all aspects by the commercial teams, so design was guided by individual [product] categories. Some category teams did this very well, others less so. But this is a fairly disparate approach,’ he says. To combat this, B&Q management – along with marketing and customer proposition director Jo Kenrick – has set up a team that will police the messy and the random, instead sending out a coherent message across all products and communications. For example, there were previously ‘ten to 15’ different typefaces in use by the company, but now there will be just one.

Like many large businesses, both Tesco and B&Q operate a roster of trusted design consultancies. So why not use one of these groups to act as brand guardian, especially when an external group usually creates the company’s brand identity in the first place? B&Q, for example, recently worked on its brand ‘personality’ with Interbrand. ‘You’ve got to be inside the company to create the degree of change at the speed we need to do it,’ says Couper. ‘A consultancy could do what we’re doing, but not at that speed, and it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. You can’t afford to do that as a retailer.’

Although efficiency and cost savings may be one reason for employing an in-house head of design, it need not be at the expense of high-quality design. An in-house chief can champion design internally in a way that no external group could really hope to manage, despite the sterling efforts of many. They can also make the case for the rostered consultancies and demonstrate how good design management is a bottom-line investment for the business. ‘I show how there is a triangle of benefits from design – aesthetics, function and cost – but design still has to be fought for on a day-to-day basis,’ explains Transport for London head of design Innes Ferguson. ‘It’s used as a business tool in this organisation, not as an optional extra, and you need a good, strong internal team to make sure the quality is right and – in our case – that the taxpayers are getting what they pay for.’

According to Ferguson, an in-house design position might cost about £30 000 a year, but that same person can provide TfL with about £150 000 of work. ‘An outside consultancy could do it, but it wouldn’t provide value for money. And there isn’t a group in the country which could do everything that we need,’ he adds.

In many cases, an in-house design chief reports up to the company’s marketing director, and in smaller business it’s often the marketing team that manages design appointments and projects directly, with no design head intermediary. But according to Couper, having a position between the nitty-gritty of design’s detail and the macro view of a company’s marketing strategy is a great benefit. ‘A marketing director can’t focus on that level of detail, but they do have the overview on the direction of the business and we can ensure that the design fits with that.’

Jakes concurs. ‘I’m the eyes for the marketing director,’ she says. ‘A head of design has really close contact with the customer on the shop floor, which a marketing director can’t. It might be quite hard to sustain this role in a smaller company, but for a bigger business you really need to make sure consistency is there day to day, no matter how good your brand guidelines are.’

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