Serifs on your logo, guv?

“I think my logo’s packed in, do you do same day repairs?” said the client.

“Sorry sir, we like to take a complete overview before we commit ourselves to a deadline. Could you possibly take it into our service area where one of our experts will give it the once over?” replied the design consultant. “It might just be the logo, in which case we can mend it or replace it. However, the problem could be more serious than you realise.”

Does this scenario sound outrageous or outlandish? Maybe, but let’s not kid ourselves. We may not quite be Kwik-Fit (because we’re rarely quick) but many could be accused of embarking on redesigns, at the whim of a client, that aren’t strictly necessary. In fact, if we’re brutally honest, the emergent redesign is sometimes actually worse than its predecessor – effectively, a step backwards for the brand. It’s rather like when we take our car to be serviced and it comes back not working quite as well as it did before!

The garage analogy sprang to mind because today many brands genuinely undergo redesigns almost as regularly as their marketing managers have their car serviced. You see in the world of branding we seem to have entered an era of willy-nilly design. Happy to simply dismantle and re-assemble anything (even if it’s an old banger ready to be sold off for scrap) under the guise of brand evolution. To use an expression which will be familiar to some: “If it’s got serifs take them off, if it hasn’t, put them on.”

It’s a dilemma. What do you do when a client strolls into the design service bay saying: “Can you fit some more colour-coding and food values on her guv?” Very few would have the nerve to say either that it doesn’t need it, or that the diagnosis is perhaps wrong. This is where I think there is the need for a new mind set. The industry needs to adopt a greater sense of responsibility if we are to reverse the dwindling respect of clients. This might mean at times saying either “design is actually the least of your worries” or “evolution is simply not the answer”.

In my experience it is the brands that redesign frequently that usually haven’t identified the real underlying problem – be it product, advertising, proposition or whatever, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sales continue to slide. Design is again isolated as the problem. A new design brief to move it on is issued. It has no effect. And so the wheel keeps turning…

Part of the problem may lie in the fact we are so rarely tied into a long-term or ongoing relationship. At the end of the day it simply doesn’t really matter if the design doesn’t work. Because our clients think short term (they’re only in their job as brand caretaker for a short period) and their brief is usually to stimulate sales rather than build brands. Couple this with the fact that many clients today think they know design as well as designers (and we’re usually frightened to challenge them in case they go to another design garage) and it’s an unhappy situation. The consequence is a design industry resigned to be rewarded by money, not results.

We need to educate clients. I don’t mean this in a patronising way, but to build their expectations of what we can deliver. The current status quo means that clients have come to believe that most designs have an in-built obsolescence. Not necessarily so. The Marmites, Kit Kats, and Gordons of this world endure and only need periodic tweaks because they are well conceived and well differentiated. But the brands built on the wobbly foundation of category conventions, and absent of equities as such, end up having to go through the redesign mill with much greater regularity.

Surely our goal must be to create branding with longevity rather than transient packaging. Wouldn’t it be great if clients could walk away secure in the knowledge that the design product they’ve bought carries an implicit ten-year warranty?

I recently saw a programme on ITV called Garages from Hell where dubious mechanics were exposed for replacing clutches that didn’t need to be replaced, or for creating faults that didn’t previously exist. Unless the industry changes some of its parallel practices be prepared to see Designers from Hell in Carlton’s line-up next year.

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