Creative ties with ethnicity

As the BBC launches its Asian Network radio channel, Guy Woodward looks at other areas where cultural influences are reflecting Britain’s ethnic minorities

The BBC was painfully honest when it launched its Asian Network radio channel last week, declaring that it had, until now, failed Britain’s five million Asians. The station stands alongside black music offshoot 1Xtra as embodying the corporation’s quest to reach out to ethnic minorities and help shed its white, middle-class image. So how do design groups go about helping organisations that want to target ethnic audiences?

‘It’s a sensitive issue when designing for a consciously ethnic or niche brand,’ says Dionne Griffith of design PR agency Dish. ‘Designers need to consider how not to be patronising or perpetuate stereotypes.’

It is a quandary groups have not had to worry about a great deal in the past. Ethnic minorities have traditionally been marginalised as consumers, with marketers generally adopting a lowest common denominator approach to branding.

‘The black community is used to having to go out and look for specific products because they are not catered for in mainstream ranges,’ says Irene Shelley, editor of Black Hair & Beauty. The magazine carries ads for hair and beauty products targeted at black women, but almost all creative work is shipped over from the US and often appears cheesy as a result.

Yet taking cultural tastes into account can have significant impact. Fitch London produced the interiors for Soho’s modern Indian restaurant Ophim, and while the design was not intended to specifically target Asian customers, owner Sadiq Warsi claims its authenticity has led to a significant Asian client base.

‘Most restaurants make up their dishes and portray fake Indian concepts in an attempt to attract the white audience,’ he says. ‘We gave Fitch a very specific brief – we wanted an authentic look, so we considered the country’s colours, textures, smell, light and humidity in great detail.’

Few consultancies have experience of designing for specific ethnic groups. This says more about how companies go about marketing their products than it does about any deficiencies in the design industry, but it also raises an intriguing issue for the future. As radio and TV channels in particular harness the ability to deliver multiple offerings to more targeted audiences through the digital medium, do consultancies have the cultural knowledge and understanding to design for this audience?

On the surface, the design industry appears relatively under-represented by ethnic minorities. Yet Alex Lambley, brand manager for the BBC’s Asian Network, claims it is an ‘absolute must’ to have cultural knowledge on board when creating specific identities.

Lambie-Nairn was appointed to create the channel’s identity, under the leadership of creative director Charlotte Castle and worked with a creative and management team at BBC Broadcast made up almost entirely of British Asians.

‘The idea of a white, wholly British team trying to portray an image for an ethnic audience is shocking,’ says Lambley. ‘Our key concern was that the identity should represent all of the various religions, languages and influences from within the British Asian community.’

For the project Lambie-Nairn researched the assorted icons, symbols and colours important to the community and the resulting identity is a vivid fusion of colours. In some respects, the project was no different to any piece of work that targets a specific audience.

‘Whatever design you’re doing, it’s about targeting a certain customer and involves an element of research, which becomes greater with a more specific market,’ says Daljit Singh, creative director at Digit. ‘But yes, I do think you need an element of cultural understanding within [the design team].’

Din Associates managing director Rasshied Din agrees. ‘In my experience, it’s mere lip service that tends to be paid to what are preconceptions of Islamic or traditional Asian influences. Asian people could have a lot to offer here, though it’s a knowledge that can be learnt,’ he says.

Singh notes though that design has not traditionally been valued in Asian communities. ‘Up until ten years ago this community only saw dentists, doctors and lawyers as respectable jobs,’ he says.

Rama Gheerawo of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre agrees. ‘When I tell people I’m a designer, there is still a reaction from traditional Asian communities of “Oh, you’re a waster”,’ he says.

There is evidence, however, that attitudes are changing, with ethnic minorities gradually infiltrating the industry, mainly at the graphic designer level. ‘I’m definitely seeing a lot more CVs from young Asians and also a lot more people from racial minorities at trade events,’ says Din.

Among the more encouraging recent campaigns was the BBC’s rollout of its 1xtra black music digital radio station. ‘Our target audience is very cynical about corporations trying to give them anything,’ says brand manager Jay Davidson. ‘So for it to be credible, our campaign had to be about the music, not the BBC.’

She admits the creatives involved didn’t initially have sufficient knowledge of the sector. But after going on club nights and interviewing DJs and station broadcast managers, they devised an identity shot on the streets of urban areas such as Harlesden and Brixton in an effort to portray a ‘street’ feel.

The resulting identity was rolled out on-line, on flyers distributed at clubs, the Notting Hill Carnival and in record shops, with little media presence except for specialist music magazines. The only disappointment is the work was carried out by ad agency Fallon without a design group in sight.

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