Future themes set up in a theme park

Last week’s Pan-European Brand Design Association conference in Disneyland explored more than blue sky ideas – and offered some timely advice.

Is today’s brand design, obsessed as it is with decorative surfaces, nothing more than a twentieth century form of cave-painting? Captain Kirk and his crew on the Starship Enterprise might think so, according to Rowland Heming of Belgium’s Pineapple Design.

Kicking off a star-gazing conference run by the Pan-European Brand Design Association (PDA) at Disneyland Paris last week, Heming, sporting Starship Enterprise gear, posed the view that the future of the design profession lies way beyond the concerns that govern it today. And his prediction might not be light years away. The design industry is in a state of flux as global groups, and top UK ones in particular, probe for new definitions of their skills and services and seek to blast themselves into a new proactive role with clients. It will be the success of these pathfinders that determines the industry’s future as a whole.

One of the biggest trends among the supergroups at present is rampant imperialism, particularly among the marketing services groups. Anglo-American conglomerate Interbrand Group is leading the way, with two major acquisitions: New York packaging group Gerstman & Meyers; and Swiss branding and corporate identity giant Zintzmeyer & Lux. But WPP head Martin Sorrell and Princedale’s Stephen Bennett have both indicated they’re ready to pounce on opportunities to buy thriving UK design businesses, and Virgin-backed Rodney Fitch is poised to take on London branding specialist Wickens Tutt Southgate. Everybody’s at it – not just in the branding and identity fields – and any number of smaller design concerns are flaunting their keenness to be courted by a bigger suitor.

But it’s not just about acquisitions. Established design businesses are refocusing their efforts to get to what they perceive to be the heart of the client’s needs, fighting off traditional rivals in sectors such as advertising and management consultancy in the process. On an individual level, we’ve heard much of WTS’s challenge to the ad boys by styling itself a “brand realisation” expert. But in the international league, the likes of Omnicom-owned Interbrand, European group Havas (proprietor of, among others, London’s newly renamed Conran Design Group and Real Time Studio) and WPP are rethinking their offers.

Some are veering towards business traditionally enjoyed by communications groups, either by forming alliances with ad agencies and the like or by bolting on new skills; others, notably WPP with its Enterprise network of member groups on both sides of the Atlantic, are taking on the management consultancy boys and girls. One thing they are all doing is chasing fatter fees and seeking greater influence with clients.

Landor is one such group, and PDA members heard from Peter Farnell-Watson, its newly promoted head of operations in Europe, about “handing on the baton” from one generation of management to the next.

Earlier this month Farnell Watson handed over responsibility for Landor’s London office to corporate identity head Adrian Day (see News, page 3) to take on a broader role, co-ordinating offices in London and Paris, where Young & Rubicam-owned Landor has swept its acquisition Beautiful Design House into its mainstream business.

Like so many of the vintage groups, Landor owes its name to a charismatic founder – the late Walter Landor. Farnell-Watson cited an emphasis on teamwork rather than personalities as the best way of managing the transition from what he terms a “guru culture”, mixing up teams constantly and exchanging staff around the world to get the best experience for them and the best, most appropriate talents on each project.

Farnell-Watson’s formula for making the shift goes as follows:

Put your faith in teamwork, building a culture where ideas count

Articulate the handover, explaining to staff the detail and the rationale

Create a brand out of your consultancy by putting a vision and set of values around it

Evolve – reinvent yourself even – a vital process often overlooked in the “guru culture”

But don’t forget your roots and the individual spirit that sprang from your founder

Landor isn’t the only one faced with managing change and transition as consultancy founders move on, through choice or otherwise. Stylish French guru Jel Desgrippes, founder of 25-year-old Desgrippes Gobé & Associates, spoke to the PDA about his shift from advertising in 1971 and how his then tiny design team has grown to some 160 people since.

Passion of spirit

Desgrippes is still at the helm of the group that bears his name, unlike our own Michael Peters and Rodney Fitch, who fought bloody battles with their former companies before finding backers prepared to let them run their own shows. Among Desgrippes’ tips to design heads bent on making it were “learn English, the international business language”, and “find a passion of spirit”.

More pragmatically, he urged design groups to “start today” to install a more flexible structure in the way they work and to get to know lots of talented folk in a wide range of creative professions. Whether these people join the staff or collaborate on specific projects, they’ll bode well for the onslaught of new media, which demands a more circumspect approach in its design and communication.

Desgrippes predicts that in ten years’ time design will have found its rightful role in new media – a long-term view that perhaps excuses the pronouncement by UK design minister Ian Taylor during last month’s Design in Business Week that we are about to enter the digital age when most UK designers are already there. But for young electronic wizard Frederick Le Clef of Marketing Power Rapp Collins, ten years will bring us to a different era.

Giving “the next generation’s view” of the design profession, Le Clef told the audience that “the virtual world is emerging and will soon shape everything”, particularly in marketing communications and retail distribution. Within three years, he says, the arguments against the Internet will be over. It will be quicker and easier to access and security will be tight enough to make it safe to pay for things over the Net. Couple this with a predicted explosion of home computing and services such as home shopping, banking and videos on demand will really start to take off.

Le Clef believes ten years will see retailers replaced in part by couriers delivering electronically ordered goods directly to customers. Branding will therefore be much more than a pack on- shelf and brand-owners will be looking for more “brand experiences” from creative consultants as the likes of Levi’s already do through their websites. And it will be tougher for brands to remain exclusive in a world market.

The upshot for designers? Le Clef foresees great things, with clients needing to bring in creative teams earlier in the process and interactivity throwing up new challenges. To ready yourselves, he says, try surfing the Net, get “passionate” about new media, be proactive with clients, brainstorming with them about future possibilities, draft new types of people into your teams – and don’t waste any time. Do it now.

You can take two views of the future. Either designers are already dinosaurs, or they can bring passion, ideas and creative spark to the party. PDA members believe the second stance is the only option. What the design industry across Europe also needs to acknowledge is that the future starts now.

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