The sticky topic of labels

People’s propensity to mentally classify things is vital to social intercourse, but these labels can be wide open to misinterpretation, says David Bernstein

Do you think design is connected to marketing? If so, you may not be interested in attending the Design Management Institute’s forthcoming conference in Vancouver, Connecting Design and Marketing for Brand Success.

The DMI presumably believes not enough companies practise co-operation between the two disciplines. ‘Effective utilisation of design’, its newsletter asserts, ‘has now become imperative, and success simply won’t occur unless fusion with the right marketing strategy and programme occurs’.

Surely that’s obvious. How can design operate in a vacuum? Doesn’t marketing subsume all of a company’s interfaces with its publics? But common sense isn’t all that common and the DMI clearly reckons there are sufficient punters around wishing to learn how to integrate and that co-ordination of company activities is still the exception rather than the rule. Turf is all.

Take corporate communication: it is unco-ordinated when vested departmental interests hold on to part of the communication process. Corporate advertising may be the most visible, but is by no means the only form. It is inextricably related to all other forms and unless that relationship is recognised, much of the advertising endeavour is wasted.

If design and marketing do not connect, then the messages they communicate externally are unlikely to be coherent. The fault, inevitably, is with the boss.

A chief executive, as an American of the species said 30 years ago, ‘can no more delegate responsibility for communication than he can for earnings per share’.

But, given the absence of this centripetal force, messages are confused and, more significantly, potential for synergy is denied. As the DMI says, referring specifically to design and marketing departments, ‘in many organisations these resource groups still work in silos, missing opportunities to successfully work together’.

‘Silo’, according to Chambers, ‘is an airtight chamber for storing grain’. It’s an appropriate metaphor more common in the US. Here we might use ‘pigeon-hole’, which also has a literal origin, for example, a hole for a pigeon to enter, exit or even nest in. In the late 16th century it became a slang word, first for the stocks in which malefactors were fastened, then for the holes in which the hands of prisoners were held while being flogged. In the 17th century the term was applied to divisions within writing cabinets. The 19th century saw the term used for compartments in which jobs were classified – and the advent of the verb ‘to pigeon-hole’, for example, to put away for later reference. It was not until well into the last century that it conveyed the mental labelling of people or groups of people.

Classification – or, to be posh, taxonomy – is a necessary device. Social intercourse is impossible without it. The trouble is that mental labelling sticks – together with assumptions, for instance, what designers are like, what marketing comprises.

The DMI conference plans to explore the nature of the two disciplines and how far interaction between them is facilitated or hindered by their history, culture and education. Meanwhile, Sir Michael Bichard, rector of The London Institute, rails against labelling in the British education system (DW 6 March). ‘It’s a world where people want to speak in extremes: you either produce kids who are able to read, write and count or you produce creative kids. I think that’s rubbish. It’s not one or the other.’

Of course not. As he says, businesses need both. Classification, however, breeds an either/or mentality. Education’s bureaucrats have a lot to answer for. Students in secondary schools are very soon pigeon-holed by perceived ability and by subject. Whereas in primary school that same student would have tackled all manner of subjects even within the same project. As, of course, would the teacher. But the further up the ladder, the narrower the focus and in the rarefied atmosphere of academia, even in business schools, specialisation becomes the norm and divisions are viewed as un-crossable boundaries rather than surmountable hurdles.

The label determines how others judge you. In the early years of The Creative Business, my partner and I would relax over a game of Scrabble. I was ‘creative’ he was ‘business’. He always beat me, ‘David’, he said, ‘you think this is just a word game. It’s also a numbers game.’ If only mental labels were Post-it notes.

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