Design strategy can drive corporate culture

Corporate identity is a busy area. It’s been fuelled by the mergers and acquisitions rife in global business, and public interest has been stirred by high-profile projects such as the increasingly contentious British Airways image-change.

Branding experts, aka packaging designers, have muscled in. If a company can have a culture and an identity, so can a brand, with design as a strategic tool to build customer loyalty. There’s even a crossover in terminology from branding to identity. Companies are now brands – as are services such as the Heathrow Express high-speed train link. Every element – in the case of Heathrow Express, even the shape and layout of trains and stations – is driven by the philosophy underpinning the brand.

Heathrow Express is unusual in having such an integrated branding strategy, evolved with Wolff Olins. It is a new service. For other businesses, it’s more likely to be the marriage of two cultures that provokes an identity rethink.

This invariably leads to a graphics-led identity consultant being brought in, the first manifestation of change being a logo applied to stationery and literature. Later on office interiors might be revamped using the new corporate colours. Identity here is a signal of intent, the hope being that things will fall into line behind the new banner.

But cultural change is more fundamental, which is why so many mergers fail or, like the proposed BT/MCI Concert deal, flounder before the legalities are completed.

For many big companies, particularly in the US, change is prompted by the need to reinvent themselves to be more competitive and serve staff and customers better. Often new technologies are involved, and invariably new working methods are introduced. Three-dimensional designers, brought in to rejig the offices, are increasingly finding themselves guiding management and staff – the essence of the company’s culture – through corporate change.

Building design groups such as DEGW are expert at devising strategies to manage change and get the best out of the workplace. But other “consultants” are in there too. Furniture companies like Vitra, for example, offer space-planning skills. One recent client even asked Vitra if, having sorted out the office interior, it could handle the corporate identity as well. The answer was no.

But the likes of DEGW and Vitra could handle all aspects of corporate culture, working from the inside out, if they are prepared to shift their focus, to become the next champions of identity change. Graphics imagery derived this way is, after all, far more likely to have real meaning than badging applied just to cement a deal.

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