A new simplicity

Straitened times foster serious, sober work, with the colourful frippery of the recent boom confined to history for now. John Bateson reports from the frontline of the Uncivil Marketing War between Roundheads and Cavaliers

Down the Cavaliers. Up the Roundheads. For now, at least. This is a tale of two armies. These two armies represent the two sides in the Uncivil Marketing War. Different brands have found themselves on different sides over the years. Many have found themselves swapping sides according to the ground they are on.

One lot of brands – Cavaliers to the core – prance around wearing ribands and bows and big floppy hats with feathers, shouting, ‘Look at me, I’m beautiful, love me.’ Another lot – Roundheads to their toes – disown the ‘bright is right’ approach and don the relatively recessive garb of efficiency, sobriety and propriety. Their muted message?

‘Trust us, you can see we make sense. Unlike that lot prancing around.’ Here’s an observation from No Man’s Land. After this recent period of considerable financial turbulence, where the very ground is treachery itself, plenty of Cavaliers are deserting to the Roundhead cause.

Several posters I’ve seen for banks and other financial brands who months back wanted to engage me with clever, entertaining treatments have halted this self-referential, self-regarding, self-centred nonsense. Instead, there are a couple of lines of type you can read from a mile here, on a plain background there, and the message is as plain as, well, a pikestaff. ‘Trust us and here’s why.’

Nationwide is a good example. Withdraw cash from a Nationwide cash machine and, while you’re counting it out and making sure the bloke behind you hasn’t pinched your Pin, it makes a deposit in your brain with an on-screen message to the effect of ‘we’re boring and we’re proud of it’.v Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. And perhaps it’s a good thing. Straitened times, it seems, call for straightforward communications. The rich, fancy stuff seems too rich and too fancy to stomach in a world getting used to a diet of Downturn. The fact is that I, the bloke next door and millions of us around the world just don’t believe companies any more.

Besides, maybe straightforward is all I ever wanted. As a consumer of insurance products (consumer seems too meaty a phrase, hinting at delight in the consumption – it’s just insurance!), all I have ever wanted is insurance – I have never wanted a relationship with them. To its ‘Together, we’re stronger line’ – thankfully consigned to the straplines graveyard – I wanted to shout, ‘Sell me insurance. I don’t want to be close to you. I save my relationships for friends and family.’

The trouble is, in this new Roundhead world, with everyone sticking to plain and simple – how do I choose who to use? Perhaps companies will have to back their big brand claims with small, perfectly formed product claims that deliver real benefits. As a step forward, the Roundhead approach may be a step back into a more recent past.

There’s a book on Geigy branding and advertising from the 1940s to the 1970s. Strikingly clear type, space to swing a whole litter of cats, closely argued copy linked along a sturdy thread of brand, product claim and functional benefit. One look at these promotional pieces and you understand why it worked so well: it made you want it because you could see it for what it was and for what it could do for you. But maybe new Roundhead is also a step into the future. After all, clean, clear, simple and straightforward is what works well on mobile media – at least until bandwidths broaden and technology blossoms into the colourfield it so alluringly promises. For the time being, straightforward is the thing, and the new Roundheads have the day.

But the challenge for designers is what happens when plain just gets plain boring. How do you make things interesting, desirable and differentiated, while keeping them plain, reasonable and modest? Take something the Roundheads would roundly understand:
a Shaker table or chair. What do you see? A reassuring message of simplicity. Perhaps we can look again at the unshakeable strength in Shaker furniture – the strength that lies in the straightforward. So maybe, expect to see monumental calm in all things design.

A focus on helpful information and clear benefits. Hopefully, a return to the quiet confidence of things well made and well done. Not for show, not for self, but effort made so that honesty shines through. No veneer here. That’s never boring, surely?

If you’re a business that can’t find those functional benefits or can’t communicate them simply, I’ll just go elsewhere. That quality is something Roundheads and Shakers would surely understand, though the order of history made sure they never did. One thing is certain, though. There will come a time when confidence returns. And then those paeans of personality the Cavaliers and their antecedents, in all their frippery and finery, will be back and charging the lines again.

John Bateson is creative consultant and chairman of The Typographic Circle

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