Picture this to avoid confusion

Tom Bawden investigates how consultancies are now using more ethereal means to communicate with their clients.

As design moves further up the brand communications hierarchy, consultancies are coming up with increasingly sophisticated tools to aid the strategic planning process.

Product designers such as Seymour Powell and Ideo have long used various communication devices to help them think creatively and to aid the communication of their ideas to the client.

But, there is evidence that the industry is stepping its communications process up a gear across the board. Branding consultancies, in particular, are gaining ground.

As clients demand greater strategic input from the design sector, consultancies are working with top management as well as marketing departments in the preliminary stages of projects.

This has led to a greater need for them to communicate non-visual strategic ideas to a top-level management layer traditionally unassociated with the design process.

Broadly speaking, cutting edge consultancies are doing this by translating the words on the brief into sensuous terms. In many cases this involves bringing clients into a specially prepared space, either within the consultancy’s offices or at some other suitable location.

“When consumers make a decision in-store it is largely based on the emotions communicated by the packaging. They are not reading the brand strategy and so we feel that pictures are more accurate than words,” says Coley Porter Bell managing director Amanda Connelly.

CPB has pioneered the Visual Planning process. Loosely speaking the process translates the written brief into visual terms and often uses music, textures, taste and smell to aid the process by creating a brand experience.

The group has been using Visual Planning for around two years, bringing in architect Apicella Associates to create a “marketplace” in CPB’s offices. This aims to stimulate the senses and embody an entrepreneurial spirit.

In the space, the consultancy works with the client to develop an understanding of the brand, the consumer and the market. It then comes up with a visual definition for the brand’s positioning.

This is manifested in a series of literal and metaphorical images self-created or drawn from magazines and other sources which, between them, convey the essence of the brand.

“The process helps us to make the difficult jump from the written word [the brief] which uses one part of the brain and can mean different things to different people and the visual, emotional solution. This often results in more innovative solutions,” says Connelly.

The process also aims to ensure that both client and designer understand and agree what they are aiming towards. This means the client is much less likely to get a nasty shock when the final design approach is unveiled.

Ideo project manager Nick Doorman agrees it is essential everybody involved in a project knows exactly what is going on from the outset. He emphasises the need to get away from the nebulous terms that characterise many briefs (see table).

“At the beginning of the process you have to demystify language. There’s marketing speak, technology speak, design speak, business language. All these people need to be thinking in the same terms,” he says.

Like CPB, Ideo holds workshops in carefully created environments. One of the pioneers of the experiential method, it has been evolving the process for around five years.

The group generally starts a given project with a workshop in a blank room. As the workshop progresses, this space is decorated with photographs, rough sketches, objects and other sensuous props. These aim to represent the discussions and convey their essence.

One workshop it conducted for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Strafor was designed to tap into workplace developments, such as hot-desking.

Videos were made along the way and the visual material published afterwards for reference.

Doorman says the workshops generated around 70 new product ideas, including the recently launched 1 + 1 furniture range.

“When you look back at the book and see the visuals, it brings back the meeting and the ideas, like a song can evoke a time and a place,” says Doorman.

Ideo is now looking for new London premises and head of marketing Ingelise Neilsen says it has plans to evolve the process in the new building. She will give no further details at this stage.

Meanwhile, Smith & Milton is also working to convert the upper level of its new Clerkenwell premises into a meeting area, housing an “interactive experiencing environment”, says client services director David Jones.

Jones says details are yet to be finalised. The completed environment is likely to appeal to all the senses and to fully immerse the team into the brand experience.

And Enterprise IG recreated a beach in its basement when working with client Portland Holidays. It brought in palm trees, surf boards and tropical drinks, as well as more abstract imagery to “trigger the right emotions”.

Predictably, all the design groups involved in such ventures say they are extremely beneficial to all parties.

But clients point out the process needs to be carefully managed.

One client that took part in CPB’s Visual Planning process found the procedure confusing. There is also a danger that if visuals are not used carefully they can actually cloud communications.

“A rose could be a symbol of England, of romance or of something girlie,” says one well-known designer.

Meanwhile, Nigel Moon, Portland Holidays marketing manager at the time of the Enterprise IG workshop, acknowledges the danger of “gimmickry”. He says some of the members in the workshop would have benefited “from an explanation as to the relevance of expressing the brand in terms of colours, animals, and so on”.

Pearlfisher managing partner Mike Branson says there is a danger of taking your eye off the ball and disorienting the client by “overclaiming a process”. Branson says the group does employ visual material, but it is careful not to overuse it.

However, Moon says Enterprise IG’s workshop was extremely effective at bringing people to view things in the same terms and to think creatively. He has since become holiday services division head for Portland parent group Thomson Tour Operations.

And the overall consensus is that if the participants are clear what is going on, the experiential method is an effective tool for creativity and communications. As such, consultancies at the forefront of such methods are helping to lift reputation and professionalism in the industry.

“Yes, a rose can mean many things, but we do not use single images. We work with many and put them into context, explaining clearly what is meant by them,” says CPB’s Connelly.

Ambiguous terms in need of visual clarification:

– streetwise

– accessible

– authentic

– quality

– professional

– modern

– contemporary

– credible

– traditional

– emotional

– revolutionary

– evolutionary

– BMW of sector

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