What happened to wow?

Richard Watson is very unimpressed by what designers are cobbling together these days. Blaming factors beyond their control is all well and good, but it’s time designers found some bottle, stopped burying their heads in the sand and came up with some dece

I was looking through some old design books recently and was struck by the sudden realisation that the UK design industry, which is a 2bn to 3bn industry depending on who you talk to, might well be going backwards.

Take corporate identity. Sure, the design industry now has armies of strategists and more suits than Sketchley’s, but just look at what is being produced: irrelevant, incomprehensible, invisible drivel.

If the essence of a corporate identity is a graphic device, the industry is in big trouble. The evidence? Up to 30 years ago, designers on both sides of the Atlantic produced icons of real meaning. 3i, P&O, Tate & Lyle, Bovis, V&A, IBM, Apple and the New York identity, to name but a few. And they still do. A couple of real peaches such as Orange and Mowlem really stand out. But that’s the point. Only a couple do.

The vast majority of work currently being produced in the UK is pitiful. Just look at Glaxo, Wellcome, Brightreasons, Britannia Building Society, Cordiant, ye new olde London experience identity and a rash of Government identities like that of the Department for Education and Employment. I could understand if such identities were relevant, but sober, or original but not pertinent. But they manage to combine irrelevance, unoriginality and invisibility.

So what’s going wrong? First, clients have lost their bottle for numerous reasons. The result is mediocre short-term solutions to long-term business problems. But we don’t need to worry too much about these clients because they, along with their companies, won’t be around long (the average life span of a Fortune 500 company is 40 years). Differentiate or die.

Second, the Mac has killed off the idea. Once, the idea was everything and only when you’d had the idea would you worry about its execution. These days the execution is the idea. The result is everything looks the same.

Of course, this is a bit unfair. After all, the Mac is just a tool and a very useful one at that. It’s just that it can make a dreadful idea look acceptable and quite a few clients can’t tell the difference.

Third, there’s research. If you’ve got an idea, you can rest assured that someone, somewhere will kill it with a bit of so-called research.

The question “Do you like it?” should be erased from the design landscape. You can always find people against something. Finding people to support a bold and new idea has always been harder.

And what exactly is being researched? Most of the time the design objectives are so confused that it’s not clear what you are supposed to judge the design against. It’s hardly surprising that the acquiescence to free-pitching is so popular, accompanied as it is with servile attitudes: “Pick a design, any one will do”, and “Would you like that in green sir?”

Last but not least, there’s the designer. Designers have a gift of visualising the verbose in an arresting manner, of boiling marketing strategy down to basic elements to which people respond.

But designers have become blinkered. And short-termism has demanded that designers never say boo, never say no. As a result, there are precious few evangelists around these days. Where are Rodney Junior, son of Michael, and Wally 2?

Worse still, junior designers can’t get jobs because they haven’t got any experience and they can’t get any experience without jobs. Although, of course, there’s always working for nothing or selling your soul and working as an ad agency art director.

So what of the future? Well, the good news is that design is on the up and the UK is – shock horror – a world leader in design.

Clients are finally wising up to design and are spending ever increasing amounts on it. But how long do consultancies last? There’s a possibility that half the 4500 design companies that exist today won’t exist in ten years’ time.

Despite the bleak picture painted, clients ultimately need differentiation and need to buy from companies that are themselves differentiated and can produce innovative design solutions.

Designers should disregard the signs saying “don’t touch” and “don’t skate on thin ice”. They’re wrong. The ice is two feet thick. So put on your blades, glide ahead of the pack, and do some nifty figure of eights.

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