I’m noticing an increase in ill-conceived and superficially designed symbols and logos. Harsh words, I know, but I’m also encouraged to see well-designed ones too, which makes the bad ones appear more obvious.
I always enjoy everything about Café Nero – the service, the comforting hot chocolate with frothy cream, the look, the colours and the logo. Itsu and its butterfly look friendly and inviting, and so does Hailo. It’s a great name, a fast and easy app, and a simple and elegant symbol.
The coarser looking Tate logo is a big improvement on the Wolff Olins original, the Co-op looks fresh and bright now that it’s restored its former simplicity. Muji, Pret a Manger, Waitrose and many others all look beautiful. The general standard’s always improving and that’s why bad work stands out so clearly. Unfortunately, some designers and their clients continue to inflict on us indiscriminate and poorly designed graphics purporting to be brands.
I believe the NatWest symbol was originally meant to illustrate the merger between the National Provincial and Westminster Banks, and maybe another. Hence the three shapes. But who on earth cared? It looked to me then, as it still does now, like the symbol of an aggressive and minor political party.
“They deliver no meaning or emotion”
The worst of all these symbols appeared at the recent Conservative Party conference, an absurd “shades of blue” concoction of an oak tree with the Union Jack, looking like an unappetising pudding.
Addison Lee is a particularly superficial and conspicuously poor example of graphic design that’s now starting to pepper London’s streets. The company’s black vans with their ugly AL logo had looked dreadful for many years but now they’ve changed, unfortunately not for the better. What used to look amateur, possibly even the work of a proprietor and almost forgivable for that reason, has now been “designed” and the work is shameful.
All of these “looks” were paid for and approved by someone, and then plonked onto things with apparently little reason as to why or to what end. They deliver no meaning or emotion, they’re dumb in both senses of the word and I’m wondering why this ineffective rash of visual nonsense is happening.
Do the proposals for these third rate marks ever reach the agendas of the designers’ client’s boardrooms? Do the boards involved ever take them seriously? Do the people on these boards have the experience or the discernment or the interest to make effective judgments? In the case of British Steel, Addison Lee, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest bank, I doubt it.
Then whose fault is it? Is it the designers, or the clients who brief them? The results are often so gruesome that the phrases that come to my mind when I first see them, and it’s usually from the corner of my eye as I’m driving, are that people who’ve clearly spent serious sums of money on these so-called ‘re-branding exercises’ are as ‘mad as hatters,’ ‘away with the fairies,’ ‘off their rockers’ and as ‘daft as a brush’. But there’s clearly more to it than that.
A misconception of what brands are
These superficial logos result from a misconception of what brands are – a misconception that exists both in the minds of many designers and in the minds of their clients. They’re also the result of a lack of intelligent mediation. Without mediation, many impatient or less sophisticated organisations are far too easily persuaded by design companies to buy these relatively useless marks. Brands are not graphic marks or logos. Brand names and the graphic designs that come with them are only a part of what makes a brand.
In simple language, a brand is a result – the result of people’s judgments and impressions of an organisation’s behaviour. How an organisation chooses to look and represent itself is only one aspect of its behaviour. It’s the bus stop not the bus service.
The swastika and the Red Cross symbol
The Nazi swastika could have been a great symbol for a global life saving organisation, just as the Red Cross could have been a powerful symbol for a psychopathic National Socialist Party.
Symbols can be iconic and valuable shorthand for communicating meaning, or they can be vacuous and superfluous marks that can’t stand up on their own and have little relationship to reality.
Both the Red Cross and the swastika symbolised their respective realities brilliantly. So does London Transport’s (today’s Transport for London) timeless symbol, so did Paul Rand’s IBM logo many years ago and so does Apple’s apple today.
Why? The reason’s simple – each one of these brilliant marks was mediated by a sophisticated, visionary and intelligent leader. Each leader understood what they were doing. Each knew how deeply integrated into the reality of their organisations these symbols or marks of identity needed to be. They knew how influential and iconic the marks that they created would become and they worked with the finest designers and craftsmen of the day. Their design wasn’t constrained by arbitrary budgets, it was seen as a vital and fundamental necessity.
What history has taught us
In the case of London Transport, as early as 1913, Frank Pick commissioned the beautiful Johnston typeface, which looks as good today as it did then. Pick was a visionary with a belief in the power of design, and the skill and discernment to work with the best designers.
He drove the design and the behaviour of every aspect of the business. He knew that it was its behaviour that would result in a strong brand and that design was one means of expressing and driving that behaviour.
Pick was an intuitive “service” and “inclusive” designer many years ahead of his time. He led what it took for London Transport to become a great brand, and he set in place the backbone that’s ensured that the brand is as strong today as it was over a hundred years ago.
The rule of three
When design is seen as an integral part of the behaviour of an organisation that generates brands, sometimes it takes three to tango.
IBM’s founding president Thomas Watson, quickly said goodbye to the name International Business Machines and hello to the new name: IBM. He had no patience, like many do today, with the nonsense of two names: NatWest and the National Westminster Bank, BT and the long name British Telecommunications etc, and even Addison Lee with AL. This “belt and braces” approach, which always weakens brands, is an expensive dilution.
Because Watson knew he didn’t have the discerning eye of a Frank Pick, he appointed Eliot Noyes to guide him and mediate all IBM’s design – from the graphic design of Paul Rand to the design of all IBM’s products, its architecture and every tiny detail of its behaviour and style.
It was essentially a tripartite activity a dance of three –
the leader of the company, the design consultant and a curated selection of outstanding designers working in harmony. IBM’s self-expression was integral to the company’s behaviour rather than an exercise in cosmetic graphics.
Apple too, from the very beginning, had a founder and CEO who was passionate about design and had the genius, prescience and drive to use it to build the Apple brand into what it is today. Apple’s design was always led as well as managed, a crucial distinction. The comprehensive and coherent standard of design that sustains Apple’s brand today, is led by Jony Ive.
There’s no need to point to the horrors of the Nazi period. It’s now a grotesque reminder that only when design is integral to behaviour can brands become a reality in the minds where brands live. The Nazi brand was powerful, terrifying and evil. Hitler needed his design supremo Albert Speer, without whom it’s hard to imagine that the Nazis could have swayed and terrified so many people across Europe.
Pseudo brand: whimsy, bad choices and superficial briefs
Take the four pseudo-brands that provoked my attention: British Steel, Addison Lee, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest. I suspect that what happened to bring these four about, of which NatWest is the closest to competent graphic design, started with a pitch, a whimsical choice of designers, a series of fragmented and superficial briefs, followed by equally superficial work with no serious mediation and a hopeful launch by a board, or most likely a group of managers with insufficient knowledge and experience of what it takes to make brands real. The work was probably just managed and not led.
Not one of these four projects is substantial or integrated into a comprehensive, distinctive and coherent pattern of behaviour that could become a brand. So, regrettably all of them fail. They’re just cosmetic and, despite some of their parlous and no doubt expensive advertising, none have a discernible connection to other aspects of the behaviours that they could and should have represented.
The British Steel logotype seems to me, as a humble member of the public and so a potential maker of its brand, banal and trivial. It appears merely to be a way of marking vehicles and signs with a new way of saying British Steel. I can’t believe that the board of this former great and troubled company has put the thought and passion into this aspect of its rebirth as Thomas Watson or Steve Jobs did for IBM or Apple. They just chose some clothes and weren’t concerned with revealing the being.
A lack of pride
Addison Lee’s clothes are similarly superficial. How, for instance, does Addison Lee treat its drivers now? I don’t hear them talking with the same pride as a London cabbie.
I hope British Steel’s and Addison Lee’s graphics were cheap enough to be replaced one day with more effective and better-integrated design ideas. It may take time, but
as the Co-op has recently demonstrated, when something like its long and illiterate names didn’t work, it’s best to bite the bullet and start over again.
The look of Newcastle Building Society’s design can’t be taken seriously and the new NatWest graphic design, ironically called re-branding, does nothing to assuage the consequences of the many other aspects of the behaviour of this company and the entire financial sector. NatWest, like others, is tarred with the same brush. Changing the graphics, like the smile on a conman’s face, won’t change anything else.
A needless waste
Dancing with logos is a company changing the make-up on the face of who they are. Like make-up, it’s just a look and disconnected from the reality of other more important aspects of behaviour. It’ll do nothing to enhance its brand. And so, ultimately, it’s another substantial and needless waste of what in the end is our money.
When the leaders of great companies like IBM, John Deere and others know they don’t have the eye, they’re wise enough to work with design consultants. An effective design consultant mediates by making sure the companies he or she works with know how to buy design, and the designers the consultant works with know where they are. In that way vanity, willfulness, irrelevance and poor briefs can be kept to a minimum.
Addison Lee, British Steel, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest had insufficiently sophisticated design leadership and management. That’s why they should never have gone directly to design companies without mediation. With the mediation of a design consultant, they’d have realised that when design lacks integration with a company’s behaviour and service, the consequence will be shallowness of meaning and bad value. They’ll also find that buying design on its own will make it hard to build a brand of any real worth.
How to do it properly
An effective design consultant will achieve three distinct and valuable tasks. First they’ll ensure that there’s a palpable context from which all design will flow. Second, they’ll ensure that designers of the right calibre are chosen and guided. Third, an effective design consultant will enable the designers to get the best from their clients and the clients to get the best from their designers.
Companies like Pret a Manger get it right, and so can any enterprise of any size, even a one-man-band. But if they don’t have their self-expression intuitively led by their own leadership they should think twice before working directly with designers. They’ll be better off working with the guidance of a design consultant or adviser who understands and has empathy with them, their customers and with their own people.
An effective design consultant will understand his or her client and the designers chosen to work on projects, as well as the wider world of communications. Together, they will know that all design is service design and all design is an expression and revelation of an organisation’s culture, behaviour and ambition, and never design for the sake of design.