Still in print

Clients want to be inspired by creatives rather than presented to by “suits”. Forget your Macs for a minute and get your pencils out, says Tony Key

Of all the design disciplines which a corporate design manager has to trade in and deal with, the print area is the one that has changed the most dramatically over the past few years. Environmental design and interiors have benefited from new advances in materials, technology for carpets, lighting, finishes and such like. Product design has been revolutionised by new materials and technology, so that we can now design and make products which hitherto would have been impossible.

But print is another story. Only a few years ago print was typeset and “pasted up”. Now everything is computer set and much faster. Copy can be sent by e-mail or ISDN to the client for approval, and signed off almost in minutes. The quality of illustration has gone up, thanks to image banks and databases. Computer graphics have overtaken airbrushing but the air brusher’s skills have also gone with it – however good the computer, it can’t airbrush like a human (yet). Printing technology has advanced in tandem so that we no longer need have problems such as poor register, losses in the gutter, colour or overlap. The colours are better and more controllable and the range wider. So the designers have the tools and the print techniques – there is no hiding place for the mundane or the pedestrian solution.

I have always admired the graphic designers available to us in the UK – their use of typography, colour and line, illustration and flair is second to none. But, while the creativity is amazingly good, I sometimes feel designers should look at the brief and listen just a little harder to the clients’ objectives which may require more than just a great idea.

Print, like any other form of design, is for me market driven. It is always about satisfying an objective for the company, either to underpin support, or focus on marketing propositions, company image positioning or a direct product promotion or message. It is never an end in itself. This needs to be clearly understood by designers before they start.

It is essential to have a full understanding of the client’s needs and objectives for the piece of print before designing it. Ask me questions, badger me, quiz me, I don’t mind. I’d rather you got it right first time.

The technology available to graphic designers today is clever, and they do even more clever things with it. However, sometimes I feel a piece of print has been designed by a robot and not a passionate designer. The technology should always be an aid, but is sometimes in danger of taking over. Occasionally, I am offered solutions which say “look what I can do with these gismos”, and it shows. I’d rather look at a simple pencil sketch and go “wow” at the idea.

For me, simplicity has always been the best solution to any design challenge, whether it is in product, environmental or graphic design. A simple solution brings with it an essential elegance and “rightness”.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe didn’t have Cad-Cam gismos or QuarkXPress, but look at the Barcelona Chair. Charles Rennie Mackintosh didn’t have gismos, but look at his furniture, architecture and print. Our best cartoonists use the minimum of lines – caricaturists have it down to a fine art. I think sometimes that today’s graphic designers could just occasionally sit back from the Mac and doodle with a pencil. Look for that elusive elegance in offering a solution. The viewer of a piece of print or other design needs to be able to see through the “technomaze” to be able to go “wow!'”

As for costs, we can now buy fantastic print for very cheap prices. Again we don’t always need four-colour, techno-driven, all singing solutions – simple two-colour can be the most powerful statement, provided the designer has flair, drama and elegance.

On the other side of the fence, clients must get out of the habit of trying to design themselves through designers. Although I still itch to get out my pencil, I remind myself that I am buying the best expertise I can get and I respect that. But then I’m a professional design manager and I know the business and what to look for. The trouble comes when the company secretary’s office tries to second guess the designer of the annual report, or the chairman’s wife chooses the interior finishes for the new building.

Many large and small companies still suffer from allowing design to be commissioned by well-meaning amateurs – in-house managers who, although in love with the glamour of commissioning design, don’t know how to brief it out, or are unable to make well balanced and professional aesthetic judgements on what comes back.

The message here I guess is to companies – print and all other design is too important to the image of your company or the success of your campaign or product to leave design judgement to amateurs. Realise that only a professional design manager is experienced enough to deliver the right solution with the right professional designers as his tools and running mates.

A word to the consultancies out there – by all means send me your business development manager or your “suit” to present to me. (By the way, please don’t do it with a laptop as it causes me to squint at a poorly lit screen against the sun in my office. Good old fashioned pieces of paper or a flip chart do the job very well.) But let me talk direct to the designer who will do my job – I want him or her to hear and, more importantly, to “feel” and understand what I need. I need to feel simpatico with the person who is going to try to create something great for me. A second-hand brief from a “suit” back at the consultancy cuts this vital umbilical cord between me, with the vision, and the designer, with the wow-factor I need.

I know we have the best graphic designers in the world out there. Please let them come out from their “Mac caves” and talk to us clients sometimes – we don’t bite and without a regular injection of designers’ enthusiasm and fire, we could just get a bit bored.

Finally – let’s try to keep the whole thing in perspective – we all actually do this because we enjoy it. Let’s forget all the client/consultancy dog fights, the corporate egos and politics, and let’s enjoy ourselves. And let’s never forget that old saying in the journalists’ trade that “today’s papers wrap tomorrow’s fish and chips”. It will give us all a nice dose of humility.

Tony Key is head of corporate and brand design at the BBC

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