Going Dutch

The collaboration between design groups Una and Bell is based more on creativity than commercial gain.

How many times have we heard of “shared values” between newly pledged partners in design, only to find that those values are purely commercial – or, when international consultancies are involved, expansionist – and that one partner is failing in some way? All hopes of great things and true collaboration are dashed as soon as the launch party balloons have burst.

But the betrothal between Dutch graphics consultancy Una and London design group Bell promises to be an exception, built on a long-standing relationship between designers with a passion for great work. Like the two-and-a-half-year marriage between London’s Union Design and Erik Spiekermann’s Berlin-based empire to form MetaDesign London, this latest European link-up is based on creativity and strong craft skills. MetaDesign London has lost none of the creative edge Union boasted, gaining instead a broader view of consultancy; the unstoppable Spiekermann meanwhile remains undulled by his increasing status as a global player. We can expect a similar response by Una and Bell over the next year or so, as they prepare to exchange vows to enter a full union.

In the context of UK design, both Una and Bell are small. Amsterdam group Una, set up in 1987 by Hans Bockting and Will de l’Ecluse, employs ten people. It doesn’t have the muscle of, say, corporate consultancy Total Design but, says Amsterdam-based Eye editor Max Bruinsma, it’s in the top league creatively. Nick Bell, who started out as a sole trader at around the same time, has four people in his south London studio. Both groups want to expand, but not too much; the main motive behind the planned merger is to increase their reach across Europe with work that stands apart from the crowd.

Una has tried to make inroads into the UK, notably by being one of the few non-British groups to take a stand at London’s Design Show. Visitors were intrigued by Una, says Bockting, but the crunch comes with the inevitable question, “Do you have an office over here?” The short distance between the Netherlands and London seems to put them off, says de l’Ecluse.

But, as Bockting says, it’s not really about physical distance; there is a cultural distance between London and Amsterdam. He reckons UK clients ask themselves of Una’s work, © “how could this work here?” A question which the cultural mix with Bell seeks to address. Una employs an Englishman in Amsterdam – Mark Diaper, formerly with Newell and Sorrell’s Dutch team. “But it’s about being present,” says Bockting. “To work in the UK we needed to cooperate with a British designer.”

Bell meanwhile prefers not to think of himself as British, but as northern European. He first encountered Bockting and de l’Ecluse in 1988, when, a year out of college, he visited them in Holland. Since then, he’s built up Bell with work such as CD covers for Virgin Classics, signage for the Casson Mann-designed element of the Science Museum’s children’s centre and the corporate identity for Bristol’s performing arts venue, the Harbour Centre, the largest Lottery-funded project to date outside London, due for completion in 2002. For the past seven years he’s taught part-time at the London College of Printing and has just set up the MA course in Typo/Graphics Studies there with design academic Teal Triggs.

The big one for Bell personally is his appointment as art director of prestigious international graphics quarterly, Eye magazine, by its new owner Quantum. He’s still working out how this will sit alongside his other commitments but, unlike his predecessor at Eye, Stephen Coates, he plans to separate art direction from day-to-day design, bringing Bockting and de l’Ecluse in on the former, while his consultancy will handle the magazine’s design.

Una’s story has more chapters. Bockting and de l’Ecluse met 15 years ago over a tricky freelance signage job Bockting had won. De l’Ecluse’s previous experience on a similar job led to a collaboration at a time when de l’Ecluse was in the throes of setting up multidisciplinary consultancy Concepts, of which he and Bockting became two of the seven founding partners.

Concepts lasted only five years because, says Bockting, he and de l’Ecluse were the only partners working collaboratively. In 1987 the moment came for the duo to quit and Una was born.

Una has a diverse portfolio. It handles identity, print, editorial work, exhibitions and multi-media projects – largely for Dutch clients – straddling everything from projects in the financial sector, which account for 30 per cent of the workload, to culture. The cultural side dried up for a while, says Bockting, as Dutch government subsidies diminished. But it’s coming back, conveniently through commercial interest from companies like those in Una’s financial portfolio. Companies can achieve profile through culture, says Bockting, either by direct sponsorship or more effectively by boosting visitor figures, setting up strong events and promoting them well. This second route has a particularly positive effect on design.

Una’s own marketing methods are along similar lines. Apart from its Design Show appearances, its promotions centre on a chunky desk diary, a cardboard-bound brochure entitled Specimen – a portfolio of samples of work – and a CD-ROM. There is also a website which will cover four aspects of identity over four different editions going on-screen throughout the year. Bockting explains that these promotional exercises are “a way to do research”. The CD-ROM, for example, heralded Una’s commercial debut into multimedia.

There’s a strong philosophy running through Una’s work. According to Specimen, it’s based on “the semantic relationship between the concepts of ‘presentation’ and ‘gift’.” It’s about creating beautiful “gifts” in the form of work and being “present”, as in the group’s new presence in London through the deal with Bell.

Quality and “meaningful activities” are a strong link between the two consultancies – traits both like to share with their clients. “After all, a true gift can only be chosen with care if affinity and insight are involved,” reads Specimen. It’s not surprising therefore that the “shared values” pivot, to an extent, on the difference between the way Dutch and British graphic designers work. In the Netherlands designers work closely with printers and other technical suppliers, says Bockting, and you can see the results of this partnership in Una’s beautifully produced work which shows an equal flair for materials and design. In the UK, Bell maintains, the relationship between design and the printing crafts isn’t the same.

Other common passions are a love of typo-graphy and a fascination with the relationship between language and image. This is why both groups get on well with publishers, says Bell. His own project with interior design group

Casson Mann for the Science Museum involved poetry, but, he regrets, it isn’t much appreciated by young visitors faced with a choice between reading and pressing buttons.

So new is the deal that issues such as a name or corporate identity have yet to be resolved. Bell, Bockting and de l’Ecluse are discussing the communication pitfalls of not sharing an identity. The plan is to be called Una and Bell on joint projects, with each consultancy retaining its own clients and identity for now, but all agree there’s a nice ring to Bell Una, which means ring Una in Dutch.

Language is less of a problem.

Bockting and de l’Ecluse both speak fluent English, the latter having worked in London with identity guru FHK Henrion 20 years ago. Bell is simply resigned to learning Dutch. Not only are his new partners likely to insist upon it; Eye editor Max Bruinsma also lives in Amsterdam. Not a lot of choice for him, really.

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