The four great design industry revolutions

Coley Porter Bell’s Vicky Bullen reflects on the changes in design as the consultancy marks its 35-year anniversary.

Vicky Bullen

It’s not quite true that the design industry was anti-commercial in the late 1970s. But it wasn’t far off.

Inspired by the success of the advertising industry, which was going through its golden age, and informed by echoes of the counter-culture of the early 70s, ‘creativity’ was definitely ‘where things were at’. 

And effectiveness? Well OK. Just don’t ruin my design.

As a consequence, consultancy receptions were littered with awards for dazzling creativity that had no proven commercial impact at all.

It was in that context that Coley Porter Bell opened its doors for business in November 1978 with the twin ambitions of winning awards and creating profitable brands.

35 years later Coley, Porter and Bell have left the building, but Coley Porter Bell has never looked healthier.

Like those Georgians who claim to be 140, we are not necessarily best placed to explain our own longevity. But looking back, the key has been a strong but flexible culture that allowed us to deal with the four momentous shifts that occurred in the industry since we started.

These changes transformed design from a craft-based cottage industry to a strategic partner for global business.

The greatest of these changes was probably the development of ‘brand’ as a concept.

Today perhaps the word is over used; everything and anything seems to be a brand. But in the late 70s the idea was still struggling to gain purchase. Much marketing was still focused on physical attributes such as ‘power’, ‘durability’ or ‘value’. The idea that personality and intangible attributes could provide competitive edge was still the exception rather than the rule.

Curiously, it was the effect of an advertising discipline – account planning – that linked brand-thinking and design. Advertising had invented planning in the early 70s and planners were great proselytizers for branding.

Gradually, planners spread to the other marketing services disciplines, taking their brand thinking with them. As a consequence, packaging design moved from simply informing people what was in the pack to becoming a builder of brand equity.

This contributed to another change that started at about the same time: the design revolution.

All of a sudden in the mid ’80s the word ‘designer’ was everywhere. ‘Designer’ suits, ‘designer cutlery’, ‘designer stubble’; design rapidly became a way of lending lustre to the most mundane objects.

It wasn’t that Margaret Thatcher had inspired an aesthetic revolution. It was more that design endowed products with obvious status. In addition, the brand and effectiveness insights of all those advertising planners had established for the first time that well-designed brands were more profitable. Status and profit perfectly suited the ‘loadsamoney’ zeitgeist.

If design was now applying commercial criteria to work for clients it was only a matter of time before it started applying similar thinking to its own business.

That process was turbo boosted by the IT revolution. Until the early 90s, designs could take weeks to conceive and execute. Today, thanks to the ubiquitous Mac, the process can be reduced to days. It has simultaneously de-skilled, democratised and down-sized the design industry. Coley Porter Bell is typical of the industry in now having three or four times the turnover it did in the mid 90s. But just half the staff.

The drive to transform design companies into tightly run businesses has been further accelerated by the comparatively recent entry of client procurement into the new business process.

The final momentous change has been the move to globalisation. In the late 70s nearly all design was created by small teams of craftsmen for local clients.

As globalisation built during the 1980s and 90s, many clients needed design that transcended national and cultural boundaries.

Design is still created best by small, tight-knit teams. Its just that clients can now come from anywhere in the world.

Surviving all these changes can’t be achieved by willpower or brilliance or even by diligence –although you wont get far without them. The one thing that can enables a service business like ours to last is a strong culture.

Vicky Bullen is chief executive of Coley Porter Bell.

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  • Bill Wallsgrove November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article. I remember when we shifted the ground to strategic design embracing branding much earlier than many other design agencies. I also introduced the first Apple Mac to CPB and had lots of fun placing it at the heart of the design process. It was a groundbreaking company.

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