You’d expect Mervyn Kurlansky to be orchestrating some multinational’s corporate identity since he relinquished his partnership at Pentagram. The man’s got style, class, and age hasn’t noticeably affected his design edge. If you’ve ever watched him work, you’ll know he somehow manages to elevate good design sense to an inevitable, inescapable truth.
The multinational in question is Image Bank, purveyor of still and moving images to the design world. You’ve probably got Kurlansky’s first major contribution on your shelves in the form of catalogue 15, the first to appear this side of the Atlantic.
To go with the catalogue, Kurlansky arranged for one of the fathers of high tech, the late Ron Herron, to design Image Bank UK’s new Fitzrovia HQ. If Image Bank felt it needed street-cred among its mainly designer clients, it could hardly have taken a smarter route.
As it happens, Image Bank did feel the need for better design street-cred, at least the UK franchise of this worldwide operation did. Mark and Wilfred Cass started up the UK operation in 1979 and helped Image Bank to take far and away the leading share of the market, with over 70 franchises throughout the world. Eastman Kodak bought the thriving company in 1991 and installed former franchisee Rex Jobe as president with a new base in Dallas, Texas.
Part of the change in corporate culture was a decision to make the catalogues more friendly by using colour and not necessarily featuring photography on the cover. Hitherto the catalogues had the familiar half-white, half-black cover, with the word IMAGE reversed out in
mirror type below the black/white dividing line. The European companies, and especially Mark Cass in London, were uneasy about the new direction. Even if the old black/white image was in need of refreshment, the new cover was a bit too, as everybody anxiously said, “American”. More precisely, the new US cover didn’t sufficiently differentiate the catalogue from any other. And that was really important because the catalogue was the company’s major selling tool. The Europeans decided for the time being to stick with the distinctiveness of the old black/white covers. Their view was that Image Bank’s core
customer base was a group of visual sophisticates and that anything less than a graphically sophisticated catalogue would not do.
In 1993 Mark Cass commissioned Kurlansky to produce a report about what an updated catalogue, and – by implication – a company identity might be like, and how it might be used to good marketing effect. Cass liked Kurlansky’s proposals and presented them to the US board in Dallas, where they were accepted as responding appropriately to a European need. Kurlansky was duly commissioned to make a design survey of the major European centres.
Dallas was so impressed with the resulting report that it commissioned Kurlansky to revamp the whole company image. What it was looking for was a more “universal” design
quality, and it seemed that it had found that with European Kurlansky. He’s now spending a third of his time in Dallas – evolving, publication by publication, the whole identity.
Although the cover of Kurlansky’s catalogue 15 is in colour, the most apparent change is in the logotype – and even that is a gentle progression rather than radical change. Here he’s hung on to the black strip which accommodated the reversed-out mirror text – but dropped the word The and mirrored the two words Image Bank. Out is the fancy serifed headline type and the odd, seemingly random selection of sans faces used elsewhere over the years. In, instead, is the Futura family. It’s a much tougher image.
Kurlansky also changed the function of the black strip, so that the edges now define the boundaries of any associated type, such as the company’s address (on company stationery) and the image classifications in the catalogues. The slightly shifted, mirror type-on-black-strip technique is also used for subject headings. Correspondence is to be typed in the universally available Times Roman, but corporate identities take some time to work their way through and Image Bank is no exception. For maybe the next 12 months you’ll be seeing semi-Kurlansky designs and layouts. You don’t need to be a design expert to notice which is the full Kurlansky monte.
If Image Bank’s graphics are nice and tough and chunky, so too is its new headquarters in Conway Street at the top left corner of Fitzroy Square. The exterior of what looks like a post-Blitz insertion into the square’s stuccoed terraces has been given a coat of white paint, the glazing bars painted grey. The inside is white with feature walls in electric blue and red. In the reception, in characteristic Herron fashion, is an overhead set of video monitors running clips from the Image Bank moving image collection.
Kurlansky had wanted to work with Herron since the Seventies, when they had been fellow Pentagram partners for a couple of years and had worked briefly together on a Kurlansky family house project. He introduced him to Mark Cass, who says he “really didn’t want to see anyone else after that”.
“When Image Bank came up,” says Kurlansky, “it was not a huge opportunity, but I felt Ron had the personality and talent and he could work miracles. He was absolutely the right choice.”