After years of campaigning for a higher public and commercial profile, ‘design’ is now regularly discussed in our national and business media. Sadly, it’s for a stream of controversial corporate name changes, such as Consignia, rather than evidence of design creating positive change.
Add this coverage to the media’s rages about expensive identity flops (think BA tail-fins), and an unease about the proliferation and power of brands in society, and the beginnings of a wave of cynicism about design and designers appears to be swelling. The critical temperature was already high before Consignia appeared. Names such as Diageo were derided as examples of pompous navel-gazing. People were also fed up with companies trying to evade real issues using business-speak, especially weasely terms like ‘right-sizing’ and ‘re-engineering’.
It was into this context that the Consignia identity was launched. Here was a popular organisation with lots of heritage adopting a flawed identity strategy and expressing it through a clichÃ©d visual marque and a semi-meaningless name.
While frank exchanges of views help to keep us alert to cant and manipulation, some current criticism feels like the product of lazy cynicism rather than informed scepticism. And it’s catching. In the current atmosphere almost any new, high-profile name and identity is assured of a negative reception.
‘Cash-strapped consultants go brand-crazy’, a story on bbc.co.uk on 18 June by James Arnold, a BBC News Online business journalist, exemplifies the problem. He criticises Accenture, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Monday for adopting ‘left-field’, ‘absurd’ identities, but is sarcastic about the conservativeness of others: ‘Arthur Andersen became – stunningly – Andersen’ writes Arnold. And later: ‘”McKinsey & Company is a management consulting firm,” is the daring tagline on one firm’s website.’
Knee-jerk rejection and sardonicism are no substitute for analysis. If, say, Orange or Apple Computer were introduced now they would likely be met with abuse for their names and their marques.
PwC Consulting’s Wolff Olins-inspired name change to Monday has been unfairly barracked, for example. Recent comments in Vox Pop (DW 20 June) reminded me of a school playground, where no-one is brave enough to say they like something unless everyone else says it first. The name Monday has a whiff of pretension about it, but it works. It’s simple to say, write and read, it’s memorable and there are some fertile mental and emotional connections to be made between company name and company behaviour. It sure beats ‘PwC Consulting’.
Of course, clients and designers don’t always help themselves. The campaign accompanying the launch of a new company or identity often says ‘look at our new name’ rather than ‘this is what we do, this is how we do it, and this is why we do it’. This statement from the Monday website gets it only two-thirds right, for example:
‘WHAT MONDAY MEANS:
Monday is a fresh start, a positive attitude, part of everyone’s life.
Monday is a real name, universally understood and easy to remember.
Monday is confident. It stands out and it stands for something.’
Fine until the third point. How and why is it confident? And it may stand out, but what does it stand for? It doesn’t explain – yet.
But I think the name Monday will stick. If it gets the visual and verbal language right, Monday may be a success. Names are like trees, they need time to grow above and below ground. Consignia was a dead tree planted in place of an old oak; Monday deserves a few years in the soil before axes are sharpened. That reminds me of something Paul Rand says in Graphic Design In America: A Visual Language History: ‘A good solution, in addition to being right, should have the potential for longevity. Yet I don’t think one can design for permanence. One designs for function, for usefulness, rightness, beauty. Permanence is up to God.’
While God’s making up his, her or its mind, let’s share our critical thinking about the function, usefulness, rightness and beauty of new work, but without rushing to reject. Cynicism within and around the design industry will scare clients and designers away from innovative, unusual or challenging ideas. And if that happens we’ll never persuade the public nor business to put aside their cynicism about us.