Streamlining old insignia

Rebrands are often seen as a luxury in the public sector, but an identity overhaul can do much to reinforce a change of focus, says Gina Lovett

Reworkings of the City of London Police and St John Ambulance logos within the last fortnight are the latest additions to a growing list of statutory and public service rebrands.

Over the past five years, organisations including the National Housing Federation, Kent Fire and Rescue Service, the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute have all invested in design and branding in a bid to sharpen up their image.

Wolff Olins’ brand strategy work with London’s Metropolitan Police back in 1989 first raised a raft of sensitive issues surrounding the branding of statutory or public services, with a number of questions consistently asked. Why might a public sector organisation need an image overhaul when it is not competing in a commercial marketplace? Should its profile be inherent in its service? And how can expenditure on design and branding be justified when such services need constant investment for improvement?

Though these issues remain as pertinent today, Gareth Simpson, creative director of 2tempo, the consultancy that recently refreshed the City of London Police logo, points out that the way we communicate, as well as our approach to graphic design and branding, have changed dramatically. Simpson says that while historic insignia and coats of arms are rich in heritage, graphically they are too complex to be easily reproduced across the multimedia platforms of today’s mass market culture.

‘These days we have two seconds to look and recognise. The application of old intricate insignia across contemporary platforms just doesn’t work. They have to be simplified so that they are legible on stationery, brochures or websites. For example, if you were to wait more than ten seconds for a Web page to load up because images on the page were so detailed, you would just navigate past it. We just haven’t got the time for that sort of detail,’ says Simpson.

Advances in technology have created new graphic challenges when it comes to rebranding statutory services, but the amount of money spent on design, branding and marketing remains under public and media scrutiny. Inevitably, many public service groups are reticent when it comes to discussing their marketing budgets.

This sensitivity is something that John Spencer, creative director of branding consultancy Spencer du Bois, encounters in his work with the charity, Government and public sectors. He feels that the driving questions for clients in these sectors are ‘How much?’ and ‘What will it be spent on?’.

Spencer highlights the common misconception about the role of design and branding as an unnecessary expenditure. ‘It’s a great shame that design has been tarred with the expensive luxury brush. It’s ironic that the design business suffers from a huge communication problem about how effective good design can be,’ he says.

While an impressive image is lauded in the commercial consumer sector, public sector clients have a tendency to see it as unnecessary, unless there are tangible results to show that services have improved as a result. ‘It’s difficult to quantify the success of branding,’ says Spencer. ‘But in the long term, a coherent visual system brings order and is cheaper to work with than visual chaos.’ Design consultancy Hookson works with the Scottish Ambulance Service and according to its creative director David Huckell, helping public sector clients to see design as a tool to improve their services is a ‘slow process of encouragement and careful consultancy’.

‘We present various concepts to some of our public service clients, which we know will get knocked back because they can’t be seen to be spending huge amounts on “flashy” annual reports. But it’s also about getting the board to come to terms with modern marketing,’ he says.

Public institutions are often slower to respond to modern marketing than their commercial counterparts, but according to Ian Glazer, director of Glazer, a refreshed corporate identity is often a much-needed public signal of a shift in strategy or a visual reflection of change within an organisation.

Glazer has recently redesigned the visual identity for St John Ambulance. He points out that the identities of many public services and charities have not been assessed for more than 50 years, during which time the organisation may have changed.

‘It’s not just about a redesign of the logo. It’s about structure and vision. If an organisation has a common focus, or a reason, then it is easier to “sell” its message. It’s reassuring to have a message you can trust. But the rebrand has to be backed by tangible change, as well as purpose and belief, otherwise it’s useless,’ says Glazer.

1989: Wolff Olins appointed to the Plus Programme, the London Metropolitan Police’s first brand strategy research 2003: Fitch reworks the Royal National Lifeboat Institute identity
2004: Spencer du Bois creates a visual brand system for 58 of the UK’s fire and rescue services
2007: Glazer updates St John Ambulance logo
2007: 2tempo reworks the City of London Police identity

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