The eternal triangle

With MetaDesign’s London office winning the prestigious job of redefining Skoda Auto’s brand identity, Lynda Relph-Knight examines the consultancy’s successful philosophy.

When Enterprise IG was born of WPP Group’s worldwide identity interests it chose Meta as the typeface to convey its new incarnation. But did it appreciate how much MetaDesign had moved into the identity camp since its founder, type star Erik Spiekermann, created the face?

Now head of a global design empire, Berlin-based Spiekermann has offices in San Francisco and London. That London office, spawned in 1995 out of a deal with the then Union Design to form MetaUnion Design, is the fledgling of the group. It has 18 staff as opposed to Berlin’s 160 and San Francisco’s 45. But news that it has won the job to rethink car manufacturer Skoda Auto’s identity puts it up a rung on the identity ladder.

MetaDesign in Berlin was contracted to Audi and its parent VW in 1995 to realign their identities. VW owns 70 per cent of Skoda, so the win by the London team keeps the client in the family, so to speak. But, according to London creative director Tim Fendley, the three MetaDesign businesses operate separately, though with similar structures. There is a sharing of knowledge and expertise, but a high degree of autonomy.

The key thing about Meta-Design London is its philosophical approach to its work. Design writer and business consultant William Owen, who has just joined as director of research, describes it as “a thinking company”. Other groups are, he says, “more oriented towards branding and form-giving and less concerned with looking at structures”. By structures, Owen means the systems which make an identity, website or signing strategy work for the user. Part of his job will be to look at how MetaDesign explains its methods.

Fendley puts it more concisely. MetaDesign is building new communication channels “by making life easier for people”, he says, “We’re translators.” But, while the consultancy has its own way of looking at things, it is not planning to give its theory a name. “We don’t believe in trademarking language,” says Owen, taking a sideswipe at identity groups which have.

MetaDesign’s philosophy is based on the strength of the triangle. Fendley is keen on the idea of Vitruvius’ triangle, linking “utility”, “firmness” and “delight” – an idea since borrowed from the Roman architect by many a management theorist.

In the MetaDesign triangle read “business”, “technology” and “people” for “utility”, “firmness and “delight”, with “systems design”, “visual identity” and “interface” appearing at the intersections. At the hub is the future of corporate identity, which, according to Fendley, will be “the way things act and look”. A concern with the way they “act” or work distinguishes Meta-Design from the rest, he says. Clients appreciate this, he maintains, and the group has been brought in as troubleshooter on three big identity jobs where the identity created by another group hasn’t worked in implementation.

The triangle is reflected in MetaDesign’s own structure. Business is the province of managing director Robin Richmond, who, with Fendley, founded Union Design in 1991. Technology is handled by head of interaction design Nick Durrant, who joined in April having worked in the US with various Silicone Valley firms, while Fendley is concerned with people. The team is reinforced by Owen.

There are two design teams, led by Frances Jackson and Brian Switzer, who joined from Meta-Design Berlin in April. A third team is in the making, although it is not actively recruiting. These teams are project based, but there is movement from one to another and staff are empowered to make decisions. “We’re inclusive people,” says Fendley, who sees his role as much about informing and teaching staff to enable them to make the best decisions as about design per se.

There are no account handlers. “We don’t believe in Chinese whispers,” explains Fendley. Instead, there are project co-ordinators, who each work with a senior designer on a job. All designers see their clients.

Though the consultancy’s design projects are complex, taking in communications from print and signs to the Web, there is a simple rigour to the design. It is about making information accessible to the end-users, starting the job from their perspective.

A recent task was the identity and information design for the adventurous Artranspennine ’98 initiative which put 60 artists and 40 projects in 30 sites across the North of England. Back-up information within the exhibitions, brochure and website is thorough and consistent, and harks back to Union’s typographic origins.

Owen sees MetaDesign as “a literate company”. Fendley, meanwhile, explains that its history is “in the word, in the detail”. This, he says, sets it apart from management consultants and other strategists, though it delivers equally thoughtful advice. Management consultants aren’t good at turning ideas into objects, he says, while designers are.

Skoda Auto is one of MetaDesign London’s biggest jobs. But it joins a client list including Sony, the City of Bristol and Heidelberg Press. Fee-income projections for 1998 are 70 per cent up on 1997, based on the first seven months of the year, says Owen. So what’s the secret?

“We don’t panic, we don’t work late and we don’t work weekends,” says Fendley. Definitely one to watch and learn from.

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