What’s the point of being really good at something when no one wants to hear about it? The question has had the paper industry foxed for years. In mills all over the world the best scientists and technicians have been working with sophisticated machinery to make sublime papers of outstanding beauty and performance. All this effort is then reduced to a pile of sample sheets plastered with coloured images of scantily-clad models, clowns and flowers. All too often, when it reaches the designer, it goes straight in the bin.
The paper industry has long suffered from poor communication skills. Some are better than others at making themselves understood, but there has, generally, been a bit of a language problem, specially when talking to designers. Advertising and promotional material often has been way off target and nothing short of abominable. Curiously, the industry has rarely even taken the trouble to ask designers what sort of papers they like or want. This huge lumbering industry is prepared to lavish millions of pounds on machinery to produce vast quantities of material, and yet seems incapable of putting aside a few quid to set out its stall and sell it.
However, there are now distinct rumblings of change. For a start, the design of marketing material has improved a thousandfold in the past few years. And the industry has also woken up to the fact that, since designers are specifying paper, it’s worth some effort to talk directly to them.
But, most encouraging, comes the announcement of David Pocknell’s appointment as design consultant to the Scottish-based paper manufacturer Donside. “New management has brought in new thinking and that includes taking me on as consultant,” says Pocknell, who has long associations with the annual Donside awards scheme.
“One of the mill’s sales team knew I had strong views about design management and suggested I should meet new chief executive © Bill Gore, who is very dynamic and pro design. We had a whirlwind meeting and I got the job.”
Pocknell’s mission is to improve the dialogue between the various industry sectors and to ensure that Donside delivers the products people want. It’s such a sensible move, it takes your breath away. He has a roving brief. “Adding value through marketing is central, but I’m also interested in other areas of communication and behaviour, such as the way the mill relates to the design industry and the dialogue between mill, merchant, printer and designer,” he says.
“The importance of the designer as specifier cannot be overestimated. When it comes to sales, it’s the specifier who sets the ball rolling. I’m looking at how to make marketing material more appealing as well as more useful, and I’ll be addressing printers’ needs to make sure they get all the information they want. However, there will be plenty of crossover too – I see no reason why designers shouldn’t understand printers’ concerns and why printers shouldn’t receive advice on what makes good or bad design. The material should be telling stories and raising and debating issues,” he adds.
Although it’s still early days, Pocknell is not expecting to be completing the design work himself. “I see my role much more in commissioning. Sometimes mills and merchants are loyal to just a few designers, but I’d like this opportunity to use the skills of a whole range of people.” We have to wait until January to see the first product of this new era when the manufacturer is due to issue a commemorative book, based on the theme of a mill visit, which explains how Donside makes its papers.
Noted for producing beautiful work for the merchant McNaughton, Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks welcomes Donside’s appointment of a design consultant. “It’s got to be a positive move for the industry,” he says. “In the past decade or so, paper companies have improved their marketing material and they’ve recognised now that designers are important targets because they’re specifying particular brands. However, there are still plenty of old-fashioned attitudes. In one recent job I used the image of a baby as a symbol of newness in a piece of promotional material. But I couldn’t get approval from the client; apparently, there was a problem because the baby was naked. In the end I was only allowed to show it from the waist up.”
Roundel’s John Bateson, whose recent paper industry credits include a series of elegant work for Zanders, also welcomes the Pocknell appointment. “It’s got to be a move in the right direction. The industry tends to operate in a very fragmented and unfocused way and so any company will benefit from having a strategic overview to its marketing. We have always aimed at providing clarity and consistency for Zanders in building on its corporate values… at the moment this work is completed job by job, but, of course, we’d jump at the chance of becoming consultants.”
Bateson is a firm believer that the paper industry would benefit from putting more effort into courting designers. “Putting together promotional material is one thing, but surely it would be worthwhile to occasionally ask us what sorts of papers we like and want? The marketing has improved in leaps and bounds – it’s a long time since I was sent a folder full of samples printed with pictures of little flowers. But designers could also help in product development. It is very easy to bring out new papers in new textures and new colours, but what’s the point if they’re not used? The manufacturers are not putting themselves in their customer’s shoes. Do they ever really stop to think whether anyone needs another yellow paper? In my entire career, I can only remember ever having been asked once.”
In the past, one of the main problems has been that the printer has been seen as the main buyer – the designer specified the type of paper and left it to the printer to select the brand. Not surprisingly then, the mills and merchants targeted the printer. But, during the past five years, designers have taken a more active role in specifying and now ask for specific products. If, at last, the paper industry is prepared to listen, perhaps it’s time for designers to speak up for the sort of papers they’d really like.