MetaDesign London is known for its clean, no-nonsense design. But Hugh Pearman would like to see a few quirky cracks in its armour

There’s something about MetaDesign London’s attitude that stirs something deep in the memory. Half close the eyes, concentrate, ah yes… I’m back in the mid-1980s, listening to men (usually men) in circular green specs telling me that this is the Design Decade, that a revolution is underway, that a new day is dawning. Also that their firm is merging with another firm – also full of men in green specs – to create a design supergroup with a catchy new name that embodies the design revolution. In the process making them, the brains behind it all, into multimillionaires, or at least rich enough to buy Porsches. It was great until the bubble popped and everybody pushed the designers aside as they rushed for cover. All the fine talk was revealed to be just that: fine talk. Sales of Porsches nose-dived.

Uhhh… where was I? Everything swims back into focus. I’m in Clerkenwell, of course, talking with MetaDesign London’s Tim Fendley. Let me make it absolutely clear that he does not wear green specs, and I have no idea what sort of car he drives, if any. Everybody says what fine designers the team at MetaDesign London are, how they have a feel for typography, how they do this and do that. This may be so. But my, Fendley talks the talk. And the talk (note this interview took place before the recent global meltdown in stocks) is not about typography or stuff like that. It’s all about the Net.

Which makes sense, since that is where so much of the design action is. At first he says that everything the consultancy does is Internet-related. Then he calms down a bit and says that around 40 per cent of the work is work. But given the stock market events of the past few weeks, I wonder if Fendley would be quite so single-minded if I went along to see him now.

Fendley is a clever design strategist and manipulator of his consultancy’s image, and the nature and name of it changes to suit the circumstances. He and his business partner Robin Richmond (who, I gather, plays the “him indoors” role to balance Fendley’s external strategy movements) started out as Union Design, then became the UK arm of Berlin’s MetaDesign, have now swapped their MetaDesign shares for shares in Stockholm’s Icon MediaLab, and so will have to forge a new identity. Lots of new staff are being recruited. It is unlikely to stop there. Onwards and upwards, until the bubble bursts. Or are things different this time round?

Having been this way before, then, you can be a little cynical. I read, in MetaDesign London’s brochure, that, “Our approach is a synthesis of left-brain creativity and right-brain intellect and pragmatism”. Flicking further, I read, “Our work is highly sensitised to developments in market segmentation, customer profiling, employee relations and human factors issues.” It is difficult not to find yourself thinking: would Pentagram come out with this kind of blather? Perhaps they do, and just hide it when people like me come round.

Yet consider the good things that MetaDesign has done. The typeface for Glasgow 1999, for instance. At first I thought that it was rather silly and mannered, but as time went on I grew to appreciate it: it was instantly recognisable, very memorable, and did exactly the short-term identification job it was meant to do, across a range of media. Its 1998 work for the ambitious Artranspennine show – which involved creating a new British region, running improbably from Liverpool to Hull, its spine the M62 – was nothing short of masterly, in my view. Then there’s the branding work it has done for Skoda – not the easiest of tasks, you’d imagine, but it is catching a brand on the way up. Now, it is applying its expertise to the upmarket brand Lexus. Or am I not meant to mention that? A conversation with Fendley is peppered with portentous references to projects which are dead secret. Some client names are ready to be publicly known, some aren’t. After a while, I tend to forget which are which.

MetaDesign London is working with the Orange telecoms company – where the job, I gather, is to bring back clarity to what has become (as any Orange customer knows) an almost out-of-control welter of information more or less based on the excellent original graphic concept. The team has been in to see the Royal Mail – they show me the presentation – and have some good ideas based on the Post Office’s unrivalled reach. A letter box in every address in the country, and the means to reach it – wouldn’t other organisations kill for that? I’m not too sure, however, if a real job has so far emerged from that discussion.

And, before we get into Fendley’s enthusiastic Net-talk, consider what looks to be a very fine signage project, Bristol Legible City. MetaDesign London’s presentation document for the scheme, “You are here”, is a model of its kind. Bristol is, for those who don’t know it, a thoroughly confusing place. Where is the centre exactly? Or rather, which centre do you mean? What happens where, and where do the buses fit in? How do you negotiate these inconvenient stretches of water?

Some of the consultancy’s proposals for Bristol remind me somewhat of London’s South Bank signage/ street furniture scheme by Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt and Lifschutz Davidson, but MetaDesign London’s is necessarily a bigger and more complex job – a whole city, not just a city district. Moreover, I think that it has managed the legibility issue – which after all is what signage is all about – rather better than the South Bank system does. And since I was one of those who advised on the South Bank project, you can believe that I mean it.

There are other schemes which display a similar clarity of thinking. The consultancy is doing clocks for London Underground stations. © Excellent: the London Underground always used to have fine, clear analogue clocks at each end of the platform. Then it ripped them out in the late 1980s, replacing them with hideous little digital clocks that were illegible from more than a few yards away. Fendley mentions that it is going back to analogue, with the seconds hand colour-coded according to the colour code of each Tube line. He shrugs diffidently. “It’s a design no-brainer.” And so it is – bloody obvious – but it needed MetaDesign London to do it.

Our conversation begins with the celebrated London Underground map – I’d noticed that the arrival of the Jubilee Line extension has distorted the map in certain areas, making previously clean multiple junctions like Green Park rather awkward, graphically speaking. In places the stern design rules of the map seem to be flouted. Fendley, however, reckons it can take it. “What’s great about that map is that it’s a classic piece of information design. It looks at the circumstances, and focuses on what’s needed. It’s all about relationships, not locations. It just clears that up, and that makes it so usable. And that’s the kind of stuff that we’re doing. Thinking through things like that – cutting out some information to make other information more valuable. Creating connections – you might think they’re technological, Web connections – but we’re making idea connections.”

Fendley gets so enthused by this idea at one point that he describes Bristol – a real city, with real signs – in terms of a website. But that’s not so silly; after all, the London Underground map was originally conceived by Harry Beck in 1933 in terms of an electrical circuit diagram. The downside of this enthusiasm is that Fendley spends a lot of time telling me things about the Net that I know already. Rather obvious things, such as that many successful selling organisations today exist only on the Net, and have no identity other than their interactive presence on the screen. What does this seeming naivety signify? That MetaDesign London, having merged with Icon MediaLab, a famous website design group, is undergoing the learning process itself, and is bursting with its new-found knowledge? (“The Internet, for Icon, is just a phenomenal piece of knowledge management,” Fendley observes.) Or simply that many clients coming through the door are making up for lost time, Net-wise, and that Fendley’s outfit has got used to telling them what they want to hear?

We move on to the culture of the consultancy. How do you maintain the young-blood image while operating in a big-business manner? “It’s about keeping a totally creative culture, but at the same time being really controlled,” says Fendley. “We foster a great deal of respect for each other – we have an office hierarchy, but it’s very flat. We work in responsibility roles. We don’t really have titles.”

After a bit, it emerges that there’s someone in charge respectively of operations and finance, and that there are two creative directors, Nick Jones and Sam Davy. “Creative is not a department. Creative is not a floor. One thing about our culture is that everyone sees everybody. You’ll see some of our top planning consultants, some of our management consultants, some of our… technology strategists, some of our business strategists and information strategists – we’ve got all of those kinds of people – and some of our interaction designers and anthropologists, mixed in with designers, mixed in with technologists, mixed in with programmers, mixed in with administrative people and project leaders. No one area has the same people congregating. It’s not allowed,” says Fendley.

I rather get the impression that Fendley has autopiloted on to his corporate-client presentation spiel. Am I meant to be impressed by this? And I can’t help noticing that “designers” seem to be in the minority here. But maybe that’s the point – in the on-line age, isn’t everyone a designer? Next, he’ll be telling me that the work gets put up on the wall and everyone is invited to pitch in with comments. And, guess what, he does. I have lost count of the number of design groups which tell me this with such pride, clearly they don’t realise practically every other design group in the world works in exactly the same way. It’s not a bad idea – just not an original one. Fendley talks of a “Red Room” every Thursday when work gets presented. Is this designer argot? Why Red Room, I ask? Blood on the walls? Fendley seems confused by the question. “It was to create a space that people, er, knew what it was”, he replies gnomically.

There is a lot of this kind of vaguely inchoate chat. MetaDesign London, it emerges, does not have rules. What it does have is “loads of little philosophies, little things that guide us. But not rules”. Listening to the tape now, I’m puzzled. Did I ask about rules? I rewind the tape to check. No, I did not. So why is Fendley mentioning that they don’t have any? Back in the real-time conversation, I change the subject. The Clerkenwell basement is capacious, but full. Every design group I have ever visited at this stage of the economic cycle is always about to move office. Would MetaDesign London be thinking about moving? Ding dong. It is.

I don’t want to be rude about MetaDesign London, it is both good and successful. Moreover, it is ambitious. What I cannot easily find is anything that makes it significantly different from other good, successful design groups. This unsettles me, because usually when I look for something unique, offbeat, or original, I find something, in some corner of the studio – even if it’s only a witty change of address card. But if any such thing lurks in MetaDesign London’s basement, Fendley didn’t show it to me.

While I was sitting around in MetaDesign London’s reception, I flicked through some of its excellent library of design books. The 1960s and 1970s work by everybody from FHK Henrion to Alan Fletcher, it seemed to me, knocked the socks off anything I could see around the walls of the studio. I confess I did not see anything half so fresh or original. So what is it about MetaDesign London, and what will it be about the group when it gives itself a new name again? Is it just the old familiar case of a clutch of reasonably talented designers being driven by a razor-sharp business plan for as long as the economic boom allows unbridled expansion?

No, it is more than that. When you strip back Fendley’s verbiage, what he is talking about is big, important stuff. The fact that design is moving away from an emphasis on product to something rather more subtle and layered is correct. Fendley’s talk of relationships and connections and linkages is right on the button. Design groups such as his are moving away from the design of static things, and are instead taking on more of a consultancy, business-planning role. The rich rewards will go to those who are instrumental in changing the strategic thinking of organisations successfully. And all this MetaDesign London is engaged in. Which is great for it, as well as, I hope, for the companies that commission it – but it does tend to lead to a dearth of pretty things to look at.

I don’t ask Fendley whether he sees parallels with the 1980s design boom, but, apropos of nothing much, he answers the question anyway. “Doing great work doesn’t mean you’ve got to compromise,” he declares. “What I’m interested in is the higher common denominator. Not the lower one. Because for me, a lot of work in the late 1980s was lower common denominator stuff. If there was a huge project, it had to be really boring. And I think that’s absolute bollocks, because people want interesting things. So we’ve got some very solid people here, but also really odd people, crazy people. People who never turn up on time, but whose ideas are real genius. They need to feel part of the family. They need to be listened to. That’s the culture we encourage.”

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