Cards on the table

Banking has never been a particularly thrilling sector of design, so the recent Red card from American Express presented an obvious opportunity to liven things up a bit in this conservative world.

Given the card’s link to the Bono-led (Red)TM Global Fund initiative, the presumed sole stipulation that the card be red could surely have been the basis for a piece of graphic design that would intelligently, persuasively and innovatively represent the aims and ethos of the card to raise funds to help fight Aids in Africa? Sadly, the solution – a red Amex card – is as predictable as it is uninspired, which is a shame. Because had the design team looked to Coutts & Co, the private UK bank that has always oozed understated wealth, luxury and personal service, they would have found a piece of banking graphic that is the complete opposite.

Not exactly most people’s idea of a modern, forward-thinking brand, Coutts has been quietly producing some innovative thinking and solutions in banking graphics, most notably in the current account card it launched last month, created, along with a range of related graphic material, by Stella McCartney.

This wasn’t a first for the bank – that came two years ago when another top fashion name, Ozwald Boateng, was invited to design the Coutts World Card, the bank’s ‘super-premium’ credit card. Given an open brief by Coutts product manager of banking Christopher Wilson, Boateng’s solution for the charge card was a masculine take on the world of high finance that’s all regal purples and leather accessories, as befitted what Wilson calls ‘a premium product that’s totally at the top end of charge cards’.

Whether the card and its associated range of leather goods represent the ‘modern approach to design’ that Wilson was looking for is debatable, but when it came to redesigning the current account card, which would be seen by almost all of Coutts’ customers and needed to act as a contemporary take on cash, Wilson knew he wanted something very different – something that played up the idea of Britishness, rather than the global image created by Boateng. ‘We had a relationship with McCartney, having done some events with her, and after considering all areas of the design industry, fashion seemed liked the right fit. She was the only person we wanted,’ he recalls.

McCartney’s design draws ingeniously on line-based whorls and swirls, the mechanical, Spirograph-like elements that appear on banknotes and the famous Coutts chequebook, and combines them with the Coutts logo repeated over and over again to create a three-dimensional natural landscape. This is a beautiful and elegant solution that calls to mind the delicacy and traditions of the English countryside, while subtly drawing out associations with modernity, technology and the 21st century.

The card has a real ‘wow’ factor, which is exactly what Wilson was hoping for. This is heightened by the associated stationery and an ingenious piece of packaging that uses a sliding mechanism to ‘reveal’ the card to its recipient. ‘Stella designed all the concepts, and we worked with her to realise them,’ says Wilson. ‘The packaging went through various phases, but all along we all knew we wanted something simple, subtle, inexpensive, recycled and recyclable, but which was still of high quality and functioned well.’

The sense of meticulous attention to detail drew Coutts to Boateng and then McCartney – and Wilson wanted them to convey this sense as brand attributes. ‘The two cards and approaches are interesting because they’re so different,’ says Wilson. ‘The only thing that links them is the logo, and we don’t have a problem with that – the brand is easily strong enough to stand up on its own without the cards needing to share anything else. But what the use of designers like Boateng and McCartney says is that in addition to being a traditional UK brand, Coutts is not afraid to try something new and stand behind its belief of quality and personal service.’

These qualities are immediately visible in the Coutts cards, and offer a refreshing approach to brand strategy – a bold way of developing a brand without constraining the design approaches and developments that make it up. And, in design terms, that’s what gives Coutts a real ‘wow’ factor. l

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