D&AD dealing with identity crisis

Corporate identity eluded D&AD’s award nominations – has the discipline lost its soul? asks Richard Clayton

Sometimes it looks as if designers like nothing better than to slag off each other’s work. FutureBrand’s reworked UPS identity was the latest to feel the lash (Letters, DW 17 April), while Elmwood’s brand for waste management firm Serious divided opinions (Vox Pop, DW 10 April).

Design can be a subjective business. All the same, these contributions suggest there are few criteria by which to assess corporate branding objectively.

This year’s British Design & Art Direction Awards judges have cottoned on. Amid the myriad Yellow Pencil nominations last week, corporate and brand identity projects were noticeable by their absence (News, DW 8 May).

The dire state of the global economy is a factor. But it is not all a question of client cashflows being staunched or mergers and acquisitions grinding to a halt. As Wolff Olins chairman and D&AD jury foreman Brian Boylan asked, is corporate identity still a matter of logos and letterheads or more to do with ‘integrated creativity’ and ‘brand essence’?

Two recent projects apparently saw ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ split up. The Partners defined the identity for Globetrotter Inns while Us Designers handled the implementation (News, DW 8 May); Wally Olins developed Bain & Company’s brand vision while Circle did the design (News, DW 17 April). Is craft losing out in comprehensive branding programmes?

‘We’re all in a dichotomous position,’ according to D&AD president and Johnson Banks principal Michael Johnson. ‘Some of us like to pretend that the power of the branders is over [and only companies espousing genuine values capture our attention]. But we’re often taken in by brand communication – consider the Honda Accord TV ad.’

Johnson defends his judges’ right not to nominate on the grounds of creative standards, although he does concede that merit can be ‘difficult to quantify’.

An upsurge in product sales can affirm the benefit of re-packaging (witness Williams Murray Hamm’s much lauded work for Hovis), but a rising company share price does not correlate so readily with a shiny new identity. Indeed, the opposite is often true. When the graphic designers arrive, things may be going badly at corporate HQ.

‘Yes, it’s “call the Emperor in with his new clothes”,’ Johnson says. ‘But an identity revamp can be very powerful when it works.’

However, in what continues to be a ‘weird media climate’ for corporate rebrands, Johnson thinks being an identity designer can be a ‘poisoned chalice’. A far cry from the days when working for IBM or an airline ‘used to be the pinnacle’ of the profession, and the greatest hits of Paul Rand, Pentagram and Wolff Olins were psychologically ‘ingrained’.

Huge marketing budgets means the stakes are high for large businesses. But the danger is conservatism breeds risk-averse and ‘meaningless’ identities. ‘The bigger the global capital of a company, the blunter the edge of [its] brand’ is Howard Milton’s rule of thumb.

The Smith & Milton chairman wrote the UPS-slating letter and feels it is now ‘almost a certainty’ that major corporate clients will go for one of three branding groups: Enterprise IG, FutureBrand and Interbrand. ‘Their solutions are much of a muchness,’ he says.

‘[Big design and branding groups] seem to have a way of working that’s so formulaic,’ he explains. ‘It’s this whole world attitude. Three companies spring to [my] mind: Barclays, Thomas Cook and BT. They’ve all got globes as the core element of their logos.

‘Just because the brand is about the world in some sense, it would appear that the identity has to be round. [We’ve reached] that level of banal pattern-making. It’s soulless.’

How has it come to this? ‘Designers aren’t designing corporate identities,’ Milton claims. ‘They’re being designed by the suits. It’s strategy, strategy, strategy.’ Innovative identity work is ‘very difficult to get through’ client approval, as Johnson observes, so a path-of-least-resistance often results.

‘BT’s [recently silenced] piper logo was thought ridiculous [by many], but at least it had a personality,’ Milton maintains. ‘Identities need to be something people can give a name to, not a meaningless shape.

‘What usually happens is those doing the consultancy bit fail to put into words what can be put into pictures. Every set of brand values is exactly the same: professionalism, integrity, service. [But] what do you really want to communicate? That’s never articulated.’

D&AD has introduced an integrated creativity category to capture big brand ideas. And Spanish-based consultancy, Summa, won Design Week’s identity award. Also shortlisted were Lambie-Nairn, a group best known for its on-screen work, and designs influenced by an architect, Daniel Libeskind. Where does all that leave corporate identity?

Probably approaching a crossroads. And yet, whatever advocates of media neutral planning might say, a logo remains a brand’s most recognisable symbol. The solution, Milton believes, could be a return to first principles. Reinvention should involve rediscovery.

‘Turn the clock back 60 years and you’ll find the [original] logo was a much sharper description of what the company is about,’ he says. ‘[Take] Hewlett Packard. It’s reinventing all the time, but the company believes in itself. It reflects its founders’ spirit and it is grounded in corporate truth.’

Johnson ponders, ‘Perhaps it’s time for us to judge logos back in [the] graphics [category]?’

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