The identity parade

Since the furore over the BT logo, corporate identity has kept a fairly low profile. Jeremy Myerson heralds its return to the public arena through two new books. International Corporate Identity, edited by Wally Olins, is published by Laurence King Publis

The piece of print which has had the most influence on the direction of corporate identity in the Nineties was not produced by any design consultant. It was the front page of The Sun in January 1991, a couple of months before the launch of the new BT logo, which declared “BT blows millions on trumpet: You foot the bill for secret new look”.

A mole in Wolff Olins’ office had rifled through the plan chest and sold information about the BT identity to Fleet Street’s most rabid tabloid. The rest is the kind of design history that most designers don’t want to be reminded of. The press conducted a national witchhunt – branding all corporate identity consultants as bow-tied conmen out to rip off gullible corporations. The word went round business circles that owning up to the kind of grand, all-encompassing corporate identity programme which had been so visible in the Eighties was tantamount to committing corporate suicide.

So a baying media sent corporate identity underground. Even large companies which had patently changed their identities went to great lengths to deny it in public. New logos were brought in under the cover of literature ration- alisations (far less politically sensitive) or even building revamps (which deflected the “little logos for loadsa money” argument). For a time, identity projects were in danger of becoming an endangered species.

Nearly five years on from the furore that surrounded the BT redesign, the effects are still being felt. It is perhaps symptomatic of the recent leper status in the discipline that the 1995 Design Effectiveness Awards felt unable to give a prize to a corporate identity programme over 1m and that the 1995 Design Week Awards did not make an award in the category at all. However, the BT piper symbol has now become an accepted part of our visual landscape, and most people have stopped grumbling about it. And corporate identity as a concept hasn’t gone away or died; it is more prevalent than ever before, but has simply become less fixated with the logo and more diffused through a wider variety of design projects – information design, signs, forms, interiors and so on.

In this new guise, corporate identity as a discipline has begun to feel comfortable enough to step out of the shadows and again conduct the debate about its form and future in public. Appropriately, Wally Olins, the industry’s elder statesman and the man behind the controversial changes at BT, has effectively declared that it is safe to go back in the water by editing a new compilation of identity solutions, entitled International Corporate Identity and published this month by Laurence King.

This is Olins’ first book since his seminal text, Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design, was published in 1989, and it shows just how much things have changed in corporate identity since then. Back in the late Eighties, Olins was focused entirely on the labyrinthine identity audit process for very large corporations – the “oh-my-God management study”, as one rival expressed it. He even invented a lengthy case study in his book of a dowdy and confused US corporate giant, fictitiously titled BuffSanCo, which is rescued from visual obscurity by a London-based firm of identity consultants called Thinwall and Fineline, led by a brilliant, persuasive and debonair chap (I wonder who he could be?).

In 1995, however, Olins’ sober selection of projects from around the world reflects a more pluralistic view of corporate identity. Alongside the classic, large-scale identity programmes for multinationals are very small, non-corporate organisations which can develop graphic-based identity solutions with little or none of the exhaustive management analysis for which Wolff Olins is famous. The kookie coffee shop is in there with the global airline.

Indeed, Olins himself questions whether the term corporate identity – which was coined by US consultant Walter Margulies of Lippincott & Margulies in the Fifties – is any longer relevant, given that the users of identity have spread from corporate bodies through the public sector to national and regional entities. Perhaps “identity” is a better, simpler term for the discipline. As Olins points out: “Which charity, opera company, orchestra, university or hospital can today do without its identity? As new nations and regions pop up all over the world, each has its own flag, emblems and all the other paraphernalia associated with self-expression.”

But the broadening of the market and scope of activity represents just one of the changes in corporate identity in the Nineties. Olins highlights others, notably the rise of the global idea in identity (despite countries such as Norway, Portugal and Canada developing their own identity programmes), and the influx of new technology. Internationalism, he argues, is ironing out national differences in identity as designers move from country to country and continent to continent – while those local solutions which still rely on a domestic visual tradition often deteriorate “into silly pastiche”.

New technology, meanwhile, is replacing the anachronistic multi-volume corporate design manual with electronic guidelines which are easier to access and bringing new dimensions such as sound, movement and interactivity to the expression of identity.

Interestingly, however, the section on identities reflecting new technologies is one of the weakest in Olins’ volume, revealing that old habits die hard and that finding a new visual language for the new media is taking longer than many expected. The Orange mobile phone work for Hutchinson Telecom, designed by Olins’ own group and therefore excluded from the main selection, is about the best in the “intangible technology” field – bright, consistent, and, in the words of Doug Hamilton of Wolff Olins, providing a “rocket-assisted launch for the brand”.

The strongest work is inevitably still to be found in the most familiar places. A section called new corporations, featuring work for Vitra, Cathay Pacific, Renault and Harley Davidson, shows how well designers can perform on familiar corporate terrain.

But equally, the new lifestyles section, which bridges projects in leisure, retail, culture and charities, reveals just how clever and strategic designers can be when they are in tune with their subject matter, and away from the suffocating embrace of the stuffy private sector client. The Mencap work by The Partners, for instance, rises above the creative decoration of so much of the genre: it is a clear-sighted study in empathy which repositions the charity with a more positive image, supported by the line “making the most of life”.

It is in the politically correct public domain that some of the most outstanding and most praised identity projects of the early Nineties have been developed: Pentagram’s work for the Crafts Council; Carroll Dempsey Thirkell’s scheme for English National Opera; and Minale Tattersfield’s vibrant Royal Armouries Museum programme. It is a fair bet that Wally Olins would not have classified some of the public sector work shown as corporate identity five years ago. But he does now.

Significantly, one of the largest identity revamps of the early Nineties – the British Gas programme, by Coley Porter Bell – is not shown in Olins’ book. It does, however, make it into another new book about corporate identity published this autumn; Marcello Minale’s compilation of his own group’s identity work, entitled The Image Maker. The reason why Coley Porter Bell’s British Gas solution appears in a self-promotional volume about Minale Tattersfield is because Minale Tattersfield pitched for the British Gas job with a visual proposal – a gas flame encased in a globe – which appears strikingly similar to the chosen design.

Marcello Minale makes no comment, letting the reader judge, but in raising the hoary old chestnut of the lookalike logo, he also inadvertently reveals the shortcomings of judging an identity programme entirely on the visual merits of the mark. This is what troubles Wally Olins, who argues that we must learn to judge corporate identity projects on criteria which include design but also take into account other factors, such as research, organisational behaviour, communication and marketing. To which one could add that since so many organisations already have a logo or identity after the design spree of the Eighties, the issue is managing it.

In their approaches to identity, Olins and Minale are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Olins rationally places design as a tool for expression within a broad business context, Minale emotionally elevates the power of the visual symbol. As he explains: “The mark of recognition has been with us since the apple of Adam and Eve”. My guess is that most people in the design industry would publicly support Minale while privately agreeing with Olins.

However, in a way, both viewpoints are valid. There is even a refreshing creative resonance to a lot of the projects chosen by Olins, just as smart corporate strategy is revealed in some of Minale Tattersfield’s identity schemes – despite Minale’s own professed distaste for the creeping cancer of management audits and marketing analysis in contemporary design.

In 1995 corporate identity – or, perhaps we should simply say identity – is back on the agenda, as controversial as ever but more pluralistic in form than before. As Olins says: “Times have never been so buoyant, nor so confusing.” The nightmare of BT is over for the industry and, as Olins’ book reveals, the new identity for Deutsche Telekom in Germany by Zintsmeyer & Lux, with its grey squares and red T, is even more creatively banal than the piper. Now doesn’t that make everyone feel better !

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