We can do better than choosing safe options

Taking a few risks could work wonders for our output – Franco Bonadio looks at what we can do to push our projects that little bit further

How many clients have you worked with who pick the concept you want them to pick? Moments before a key presentation, there you are nervously wondering what’s going to happen. It’s one of design’s great moments of truth. You wonder/ Will they like it? Did we answer the brief? Which one will they choose? Shall we put a safe option in or will they hate everything anyway? Ah yes, the fear of failure, that wonderful force of creative motivation.

From the client side things aren’t easy either. They have the tricky task of making the decision. They have to choose and they have some concerns of their own too. What if everyone hates it or the press finds out how much it cost? What if your boss doesn’t like it?

Client reputations can be built or shattered through a branding experience. Should you play it safe or go for it, research until you get the answer you want or go with gut instinct? There is no guarantee of success, so clients have to choose very carefully.

Of course, some consultancies only present one option. It’s usually around a big idea backed up with a very persuasive argument. It takes a lot of guts to go in with no plan B. It’s a technique advertising agencies are famous for using, whereas design businesses tend to approach things with a more inclusive, ’more options’-driven strategy.

Both approaches have their advantages and pitfalls. The first, again favoured by ad agencies, is clearly high-risk, but if you get your big idea right it can build reputation for your consultancy and your client – the internal buzz can make for exciting times and clients will be friends for life. The downside is loss of confidence from both the client and the creative team if the big idea is rejected. While the client seemingly ’doesn’t get it’, the consultancy finds itself on the back foot, having lost time and faith in the client and seeing profit going out of the window so it is no surprise when work is compromised. In advertising, ’bad ads’ are easily forgotten and we TV-watching consumers are used to switching off if we don’t like what we see.

Not so for design, and especially in branding. The damage can be more lasting. Consignia, Monday, British Airways tail fins anyone? All these high-profile failures in branding have served to weaken our fragile industry and live long in our memories. The media – especially The Sun – have had fun at our expense, and before anyone says branding is more than a logo, try telling that to Sebastian Coe and the 2012 London Olympics team – you can’t blame them for playing it safe.

I think the branding process has become risk-averse, with everyone worried about getting it wrong. We in design have reflected this by creating ’safe options’ that offend no one, but contribute little in real value. Small wonder the price of identity programmes has gone down dramatically over the years. But our approach isn’t risky, is it? In design we love involving the client’s opinions in our work and we’ve basically built our business around the iterative nature of the creative process.

We present a number of creative options that we hope meet the brief, and all can usually be explained rationally. So what can we do to improve our strike rate and producing the very best work?

For a start, we really need to know our clients’ agenda. What are the real challenges going on behind the scenes that are driving this process? Knowing the elephant in the room can be much more useful than just understanding a client’s business and it’s often more telling what the client doesn’t tell you.

Second, we really need to deliver better, more analytical and elegantly designed identities. IBM, Penguin and the Institute of Directors are all examples of intelligent, simple and beautifully designed identities (by Paul Rand, FHK Henrion and Alan Fletcher respectively). This is a subjective area, but we have to stop thinking that a great brand strategy will automatically deliver a great brand identity, it won’t. We need to invest time and money in creating great design and nurture our talent, both young and experienced.

Third, let’s have a good debate. Constructive and subjective criticism is essential and unavoidable. Research can be valuable in both quantitative and qualitative forms, and brand alignment can help take people with you, so let’s embrace and use these processes and tools intelligently to build the case for better branding.

And, finally, let’s stand up and be counted. The good work will be the stuff that our industry will quote as exemplary. A dog is a dog, and it’s better that our industry admits we don’t always get it right, in the same way that celebrities who fall from grace and stick their hand up and say they made a mistake often bounce back with greater popularity.

Right now it’s a tough climate for branding. Coupled with client pressure to avoid risky decisions we have to be at our very best to produce brand identities the industry can be proud of again.

Best get started, then.

Agenda for great work
Try to read between the lines to find out what’s going on behind the scenes at your client – unearth its true intentions with the project it’s asking you to do for it
Make sure the work you produce is top-notch – a good brand strategy is no substitute for good design
Be open to constructive criticism and make the most of the tools available to you, such as research
If things go wrong, don’t hesitate to admit your mistake and move on

Franco Bonadio is chief executive of Identica.

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