Strip to expose yourself

To produce a piece of literature that reflects the ethos of a design company is a daunting task.

Usually when a design consultancy rings and offers me copywriting work, I whoop, do three backward-somersaults and salute an imaginary crowd as if I’ve scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final. Well, I’m quite chuffed about it anyway. Except – and this seems to happen with alarming regularity – when they want help with their own corporate brochure or similar.

Why? First, there’s never any budget. It’s coming out of the agency’s own coffers and can’t be passed on to a client, so they usually throw themselves on your mercy. ‘Whatever you feel’s fair,’ they say, rather pitifully. And then, as something of a sop… ‘do bear in mind that there’ll be some more fabulous, well-paid projects coming up in the near future’. (But in the meantime, we’ll subject you to weeks of frustration, dilly-dallying and complete volte-faces, before deciding that what we want is to reprint our old one, or the managing director has changed his mind and will be dusting off his keyboard to write it after all.)

The money is the least of it. The aggro starts from the off. Or even before the off. Last year, I came out of a morning meeting with one of the biggest design groups in the land having agreed to write a ‘think piece’ on creativity for them. Deadlines, fee, even a swanky dinner to pick the brains (not literally) of top bods from their international offices had been arranged. But by the time I’d got home and checked my e-mail, it had been mysteriously unarranged.

I was disappointed, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Unless you’re working with the very top brass, or know the people you’re dealing with well, internal projects have a habit of becoming a political hot potato. Power is struggled over. Points are made. Scores are settled. Even though you’ve supposedly been brought in as an objective, independent voice, you almost inevitably get sucked into a nightmare of in-fighting and factionism.

Design houses tend to think about touting themselves when work is a little slack. ‘Dave’s twiddling his thumbs at the moment, get him working on an up-to-date brochure.’ But as the trough gradually reverts to a peak and work starts coming through the door again, the up-to-date brochure inevitably gets put on the back burner. Many never see the light of day at all, despite all the furious chin-stroking and head-scratching that has gone into them.

This is only partly because priorities and circumstances have changed. It’s also because design groups are twitchy about self-promotional material. To many, it’s the corporate equivalent of exposing themselves. While they’re happy to get their clients to strip down and reveal their secrets, they’re more reluctant to go skinny-dipping themselves.

Getting the tone just right is tricky: you need to be persuasive and confident, but you can’t be too showy or arrogant. You need to be perceived as serious, but avoid being boring or pompous. You need to demonstrate your versatility, but don’t want to come across as a jack of all trades. You want to stand out from the crowd without being a misfit.

Then there’s the issue of the design itself. Should you play safe and create a simple, elegant graphic frame for your work, or would something with punch and character have more impact? What about the format? Something standard, or something more out of the ordinary? Folds, flaps or funky materials? Every decision you take says something about you, which is what makes producing an original, hard-working self-promotion item such a tall order.

On one such project I was roped in to work on, the consultancy had collected about 20 brochures by rival groups and laid them all out on a big table. This was a mistake – a bit like glancing over your shoulder in the urinals. It’s intimidating rather than inspiring, and you can’t get the image out of your head. Besides, your literature should be about you, not a reaction to the competition. You may learn what routes to avoid by checking them out, but it probably won’t give you a specific idea or direction.

Producing a piece of literature that reflects the ethos of a design group is daunting because it means doing some serious, intensive soul searching. But if you do take the trouble to dig – and I mean really dig – it can be a worthwhile exercise. You may even get to the bottom of who you are, what makes you tick and what makes you different from the rest of them. Done properly, a brochure is just a stamp in your passport after a journey of self-discovery.

So what are you waiting for? Get naked.

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