Mind the Gap

Once a year, perhaps, a ‘perfect’ client walks through the door with a long deadline, generous budget and the brief perfectly distilled onto a side of A4.

Meanwhile back on planet earth, the world of identity and branding is a much less distinct place. Often the issues are ‘fuzzy’ – there’s a problem that needs research, discussion and agreement first, not someone clutching hastily cobbled together logo sketches.

Increasingly, branding projects are as much about the strategic direction of companies and organisations as the design, and the gap between the two disciplines can be a difficult one to bridge.

Now that the penny has dropped that branding is both useful and powerful, branding decisions are moving higher up the client food chain. Once the domain of the communications and marketing teams, now chief executives and chairmen/women, quite rightly, want to get involved.

Eventually, these discussions will be about the nuts and bolts of branding – logos, colours, typefaces, photos, etc. But before any of that can happen, decisions have to be made which are much closer to corporate strategy. Questions like ‘why are we here?’, ‘what’s our purpose?’, ‘what makes us unique?’ Without the answers, it’s hard to set a clear direction for the design stage.

It’s true, of course, that a parallel industry has developed to answer these questions, and just as designers can be accused of hiding behind their pantone swatches and typographic geekery, strategists can sometimes befuddle and beguile with their epic powerpoint decks and impenetrable branding diagrams.

So here’s the conundrum: to start the design in the right place, we need an agreed strategy (otherwise, the design, however brilliant, might simply supply the right solution to the wrong problem). But we need strategy that can inform and inspire the design process, not injure it.

The gap can sometimes seem insurmountable. Decades ago I used to work at a company that seemed to specialise in ‘this yet that’ strategy. So the briefing decks were full of phrases like ‘local, yet global, big, yet small, red but somehow green’ (I exaggerate, but only slightly).

More recently we received a brand positioning summary for an investment organisation summed up with the line ‘the persuaders of inward investment’. Cue much head-scratching all round, for several months, until we eventually ignored it altogether and pursued something else entirely.

Examples of the ‘gap’ between strategy and design are all around us. We can all quote examples of hilarious brand values or positioning statements that feel like they arrived from Mars, not off the flip-chart in the meeting.

Recently University of the Arts London commissioned an interesting bit of thinking that concluded that they were ‘of the Arts’ and a ‘fearless’, ‘obsessive’ and ‘flowing’ organisation. Yet, when they got to the design stage, they approved a fairly conservative, neutral scheme. Look at the two parts of the project and they not only look like they were done by two different companies (which they were), they almost look and sound like two different organisations.

Yet, for all of the pitfalls of this ‘gap’, many of us persevere. To help our clients understand the difference between the stages, at johnson banks we’ve started to talk about agreeing the ‘verbal brand’ before starting the ‘visual brand’. This seems to be useful – now that language, words and tone-of-voice are understood as key assets, splitting a project between the verbal and visual seems to help.

One recurring issue is to do with the handover of the strategy to design, and we are deliberately blurring the line – allowing some key design insights to happen earlier, or not quite signing off on strategy in case the visual stage makes us rethink its verbal predecessor.

Some commentators clearly yearn for a time when all identity decisions return to the designer alone. Respected design commentator Adrian Shaughnessy recently wrote about ‘the gobbledegook of branding’ and asserted that ‘designers should stick to design’. But this strikes me as both simplistic and naïve, a viewpoint of someone hoping that ‘branding’ will just go away and let us go back to designing nice, simple, sixties-inspired geometric logos to put in the corner of a brochure or poster (remember those?).

But branding isn’t going to go away, because it works. Many of us now have persuasive examples that clearly link agreed strategy to innovative design, and then to significant upturns in profits, funds raised, or customer awareness. These, not a nice piece of kerning, are the hard facts that get client attention in tough times and make the design process (in its broadest sense) respected again.

It’s true, of course, that strategists could help everyone by using simpler, more approachable language and come out of their jargon bubble.

As for designers, essentially it’s down to choice. A designer can choose to ignore the ‘reasons to be’ and just remain the passive recipient of a brief from client or consultant. This may of course be the wrong brief, starting in the wrong place, which can only lead to the wrong result (however great the design may be).

Or, they can choose to become involved in the decisions that precede it, re-assert design thinking’s place and voice in the boardroom. It might mean learning some new language. It might mean stepping out of a comfort zone. But it’s the right thing to do.

 

 

By Michael Johnson

Illustrations by Adam Cale

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