The ‘b’ in design’s bonnet

Although he has since left the pub, Colum Lowe continues to argue the case for ‘branding’, maintaining that it’s the ideal way for him to communicate with clients

Last week I had one of those pub arguments with a colleague of mine that seemed to go round in circles and never get anywhere. It was all about the word brand, a subject that appears regularly in Design Week, and whether designers are ‘brand engineers’ or purely opportunists jumping on the ‘brand wagon’. He was so passionate about designers’ adoption of the evil ‘b’ word I’m sure he’s at this moment lobbying the Design Business Association in an attempt to prevent its members using it in marketing material. Sadly, for the past 15 years or so, we’ve used the term ‘branded environments’ to describe the end product of our services, and as such I’m not altogether impartial on this matter.

So, what’s a brand? Simple, it’s a marque burnt on the ass of a cow to signify ownership. At least that’s what it used to mean. One of the great aspects of language

is that words develop in meaning over time and the word brand is no exception. My current interpretation of it is simple: it is the personality of an organisation as perceived by the public, and it is a designer’s responsibility to communicate this personality to the target customer base through the built and printed environment. I do not agree with Douglas Cooper’s view (Letters, DW 15 August 2002) that brands are not ‘profound or real enough to have a real personality’. It is part of the human psyche to assign human characteristic traits to inanimate objects; it is a perfectly natural way of dealing with the complexities of modern life.

Is it totally logical? No, probably not. Are cars temperamental, awkward, vindictive, sexy, and feminine? No, but we still get cross at them as if they make a conscious effort to annoy us. Rational? No. Human? Yes. This is not a new phenomenon either, Pierre Martineau published an article in the 1958 Harvard Business Review entitled ‘The personality of the retail store’, long before a formalised concept of retail designers or brand experts existed, which summed up exactly what it is retail designers do for a living and is worth 15 minutes of anybody’s time.

In today’s language this is what a brand is; a corporate personality. It can be honest and straightforward, it can be openly flashy and transient, or it can be manipulative, just like human personalities. In retailing, as in human relationships, one of the worst things you can be is two-faced; when the visual representation of the brand is a transparently thin veneer over an organisation with a totally separate corporate personality and agenda. Anyone who watches Big Brother knows being two-faced is the best way to form a lynch mob, in retailing this kind of ‘brand schizophrenia’ ultimately results in customer apathy, reduced sales and a diluted, confused brand. There is a fine, but vital distinction between managing customer perception and manipulating it.

Designers using the word brand to define part of their services is a sign of progress. It indicates the industry is starting to adopt clients’ language, developing it and using it as an aid to communication rather than inventing their own riddles and jingoistic sound bites. Given time, the ‘b’ word may even replace the ‘d’ word. Let’s face it, as an industry we’ve tried to define what design is/does for decades – with little success. I still haven’t found an acceptable holistic definition of the word, and if I’m struggling, what about clients? At a recent Interiors Forum, entitled What Clients Want, a member of the audience asked the panel if they thought the DBA’s focus on design effectiveness was diluting creativity. I didn’t really grasp the question at the time as I thought the two aspects weren’t mutually exclusive – in fact, is that not as good a definition of design as any?: ‘effective creativity’. Effective being fulfilling the client’s stated needs and creativity being… aah, what does creativity mean today, when accountants can be as creative as anyone else?

Design, as a word, has become devalued through media misuse, makeover programmes and the overindulgences of the late 1980s, where everything was a ‘designer’ this or ‘designer’ that, which simply meant it was dripping with over-embellishment, not something I think the industry wants to be associated with. Whereas branding, while the public may be a tad cynical of it when used overtly or inappropriately, is for me the perfect way to communicate with my clients; they understand me and that, after all, is what language is all about, communication.

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