The steamroller of branding
Art and culture are open to interpretation. Why must we give them fixed identities?
One of the great attractions of graphic design is how it can bring you into contact with so many other fields of practice, areas of expertise and interesting subjects. As it is a staple ingredient in most forms of visual communication – whether for global superpower government, corporate multinational, campaigning NGO, art gallery, orchestra or travelling salesperson – it’s not unusual for studios of only four or five designers to be wrestling with at least twenty different subjects spread across half as many projects at any one time. Art, architecture, film, theatre, music, history, science, politics and literature, are just some of the subjects a culturally orientated design practice might be immersed in for clients such as museums, galleries and publishers. While in the corporate sector, designers become familiar with business practice in fields such as banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, retail, the automotive industry, sport and government – to name but a few.
Rising to the challenge of doing justice to the materials piled up in front of you is another reason why graphic design is so interesting – to design in a way appropriate to the specifics and particularities of the unique context that every project confronts you with. Not that every task is completely new, but the aim of a designer is to develop a repeatable way of working that is recognisable and lasting, whilst being versatile and of-its-time for as long as possible. The balance between repeatable method and specific response, between style and content, is hard to maintain. The desire for notoriety tips us in favour of repeatable methods as we tend to spend more time honing the formal attributes of our style than we do learning about what our work says and means. The pressure for economic efficiency leads us to devising ingenious systems that organise and simplify our work because it takes less time to fit content into pre-ordained arrangements than it does to redefine a system under new conditions. The danger in going the other way, of making all our responses specific, is that no-one will recognise that we did it and that it will take us so long that no client will foot the bill.
The power of a simple image
That point leads us to another great thing about graphic design. It is very satisfying to reduce a pile of pictures and text (or a complex knot of issues, say) down to a singularly simple piece of design without rendering it simplistic. How good it feels to make something accessible without making it stupid: this is perhaps the greatest challenge. Yet most of us are not in control of how low we should go (more about that later). The best pieces of graphic design manage to present the big picture while keeping the detail sharp, acknowledging peculiarities while recognising the need for immediacy. The very best manages to elevate mere words and images to a level where the ensemble becomes emblematic, inextricably linked to a thing, a place, person, event or idea. Sometimes a good piece becomes literally iconic: a powerfully simple image that carries a set of (sometimes) quite complex ideas and associations.
Unfortunately, such images sometimes elicit quite different responses from different people and cultures. By their very nature, images are open to interpretation. At a time when organisations are told that the secret of success is to take full control of their visual messaging, this can be inconvenient.
Out of the desire within organisations and companies to fix or control their message came the principle of corporate identity. Some corporate identities help to promote or sell what a company or organisation produces by accurately reflecting what it does. Other corporate identities exist in spite of what a company or organisation produces, and in direct contradiction to the way it behaves.
Debates within design about ‘service’ are often polarised between ‘the agents of neutrality’ 1 in one corner and ‘the aesthetes of style’ 2 in the other. There is, however, a third faction whose voice tends not to be heard amid the clamour of modern communication business: namely ‘the champions of diversity’. In other words, those graphic designers who are prepared to defend the rough terrain of content from the steamroller of branding and corporate identity. The designers in this third faction tend to be more involved in editorial, curatorial and information design. This includes the making of things (magazines, books and exhibitions, etc) rather than the selling of things (through marketing collateral design, packaging design, corporate identity and branding, etc).
However, there is a distinction that has become muddled over the past 40 years (since the emergence of modern graphic design as we know it today) and thoroughly confused over the past ten – since graphic design embraced branding. And that is the difference between the principles of graphic design used for making and those used for selling. Of course graphic design is a commercial activity, whether selling or making. Yet most of the makers (apart from information designers working on annual reports, instruction manuals and signage, for example), practice in areas that are not principally defined by their commerciality, such as design for the arts.
Also, to the serious concern of editorial and curatorial designers who feel protective of content, the tactics of selling have now infiltrated areas that are traditionally less commercial, such as the cultural sector. Apart from the obvious reason – that such tactics have been seen to make lots of money for the corporate sector – another contributing factor to this concern is the way graphic designers view their own discipline. Designers tend not to have a specialism in the way a journalist might concentrate on politics, arts or business, for example. We prefer to view our discipline as one that equips us for action in all fields: this is one of the great attractions of graphic design mentioned at the beginning of this article. If there is any specialism, it tends to go no further than packaging designer, information designer, book designer or corporate identity designer and is practised (apart from a few exceptions) in a generalist way, irrespective of sectors of industry. Corporate identity and branding, conceived and reared in the corporate sector, is now being welcomed into the cultural field by arts institutions that now share similar commercial ambitions to their corporate sponsors. Corporate identity designers are more than happy to help. However, conflicts of interest emerge when these corporate identities and brand strategies are implemented by the editorial and curatorial designers, whether out-sourced or in-house. This article aims to present the contradictions that surface in graphic design as a result of a clash of values between the cultural and the corporate, between diversity and fixity.
There is a widespread misunderstanding within our national cultural institutions about what corporate identity is. Its effects can be seen at Tate, Camden Arts Centre, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Barbican Art Gallery and the National Theatre. Similar concerns affect educational institutions, too, such as the Laban dance centre and the Royal College of Art where there have been internal discussions about the extent to which their brand identity is applied.
Through the dogma of branding, graphic designers are learning to commodify all forms of information. Just as what goods signify matters more these days than their basic utility, so it goes that first, information must signify ownership and only secondly does it inform. Even in this cultural arena, not only has knowledge been demoted but it is being sold to you. In the process of showing the corporate world how better to present itself, graphic design has become immersed in enterprise culture and accepted the commercial imperatives that underpin it. Graphic designers have proven themselves to be the obedient and loyal subjects of industry and have established design as a powerful, versatile and reliable tool that no self-respecting, go-ahead company can be without. It is no longer unusual for a graphic design consultant to have the ear of the company chairman.
As a natural response to an increasingly image-centric world, the business community came to fully appreciate the importance of design some time ago. The increasing number of positions created by companies in-house for high-level design managers is an indication that private enterprise intends to build on its own understanding by commissioning design more on its own terms. History shows that new developments in graphic design have been set in motion by designers, by conscious and unconscious accordance with social / cultural / political mood swings, by embracing new technology, by sampling academic theories and by adopting models of business thinking. But perhaps now more than ever before, a competing influence will be from clients in the way they shape assignments and define goals in ever more knowledgeable ways. This will worry the graphic designers who cringe at the thought of their carefully crafted identities being implemented by in-house designers. It’s fair to say that recently, on the whole, the best designers tend not to be found working in-house but prefer the greater authority that running their own practice gives them. (The difficulty Apple Computer had in recruiting a ‘cutting-edge’ graphic designer to head their design department two years ago shows the poor regard in which in-house departments are held by most graphic designers. Yet the spectacular success achieved by Jonathan Ive in industrial design at the same company may be indication that this situation may be changing. Companies are always looking for ways in which they can take greater control of the communication they send out into the world.)
Designers are continuously confronted with the issue of appropriateness: ‘Is it right to do this here?’ While the better designers are capable of undertaking commissions that are diverse in scope, and open to working with clients active within many different sectors, this doesn’t necessarily turn them impartial or dispassionate. Design practices with strong beliefs and tendencies will seek out like-minded clients with whom long-term relationships can be built. Designers who collaborate with cultural institutions such as museums, art galleries, educational establishments and publishers, are being surprised to find that the low-flying activities of such clients have begun to show up on the radar screens of the branding experts. The science of appearances is drawing converts from some of the least commercially fraught of organisations because, in an increasingly competitive environment, they can’t afford to ignore it. An attitude has emerged that values the projection of the image of the institution over and above communicating the peculiarities of its particular activities, from which its essence was drawn in the first place. The danger is that a colour, a typeface and a logo are expected to stand for what reality fails to convey. Simmering content – rich in variety and riddled with idiosyncrasies – is obscured by the catchy one-liner coined by brand consultants.
Such superficiality is understandable in a world of corporate hospitality, where museums and galleries depend on flaunting their most appealing side to the sponsors looking for the perfect non-stick association, but is irrelevant when dealing with the wider public. Or is it? Isn’t it better not to bother with the subject matter of an event at all when promoting it? Instead why not just chant the values of the organisation that brings it to people? Surely we all engage with a subject because we are familiar and trusting of the organisation that brings it to us? But why are we so trusting of a company, organisation or product, merely as a result of being a continual repository of its monosyllabic messages, streaming afternoon after morning, morning after night? McDonald’s sales figures suggest that repetition of its yellow arches and ‘I’m lovin’ it’ micro-jingle is more powerful than going into too much detail about the products it sells. Why bother referring to content at all when people respond much better to the branded message? Why not, for example, dominate your art gallery posters with a logo and fixed typestyle and let the art take a back seat? Or why not take the content off completely? You might risk diminishing your exhibition, impoverishing the discourse, or risk encouraging a monoculture, but you don’t want to worry about that. Go on – you know ‘We love it!’ 3 We like to speak with the same voice. We look back fondly, nostalgically, to the time we all used to watch the same TV programmes in the days before the proliferation of digital niche narrowcasting. We like having all the same riffs in our heads. It’s an infection we welcome. Marketing managers love it, too.
We should question the use of corporate design values and methods for shaping identity when designing for cultural institutions. The question is: are there values in identity design other than corporate values? Is the experience of an art gallery fundamentally different to the experience of a supermarket? The tactics of a new breed of management-schooled gallery directors would have you believe there is not. Since the 1980s, art galleries and museums have chosen to employ the same methods of persuasion that business uses because they see themselves more as businesses. In the grip of a new spirit of openness, they believe their customers need to be lured to look at art with a mode of address they understand from spending time in the supermarket – an approach that can easily become patronising.
Problems emerge when the visual language and agenda of marketing, branding and promotion is employed at a curatorial, editorial level. I have no problem with, say, Tate making powerful use of its new branding in aggressive promotional campaigns, but I take issue with the heavy use of branding inside the exhibitions themselves. When I am already there, I don’t need to be reminded of the fact all the time. The new Barbican Art Gallery house style, for example, does not allow the particular visual qualities of the subject to be communicated with sufficient resonance. North’s newly minted identity for the Barbican is typographically bold and strong, but perhaps more appropriate for a commercial product of the type where rival manufacturers produce virtually identical products: washing powders such as Persil or Daz, for instance. These products signal as much difference on the surface as possible, because when you look closer at them, or read their ingredients, you realise that they are identical. So all the effort to distinguish them from one another goes into the packaging and how that visual identity is transferred to its advertising. With an art gallery, the experience of the exhibited subject, on closer inspection, unlike washing powder reveals profuse variety in both content and its interpretation. The difference here is striking and very easy to spot. Time will tell whether North’s new gallery identity will need to be more flexible than its inaugural incarnations suggest. Of course it is necessary to give an art gallery an identity, but what distinguishes the Barbican Art Gallery from other art galleries is its programming, so it is important that the distinctiveness of its programming is communicated. At the Barbican this is made more difficult to achieve when the imagery, the art that is the programming, is relegated to the status of backdrop for North’s typographic virtuosity.
Graphic designers are educated at art schools where self-expression is highly prized – no wonder that graphic design is so much in love with its own artistic value. As a result, graphic design is brimming with virtuoso talent. But dexterity – surface trickery – can become an end in itself. And we can worship formal innovation to an extent that it becomes detached from the content it serves.
When typography dominates in identity, like it does on the posters at the Barbican and the Whitechapel art galleries, does communication become more about projecting a mood and less about delivering messages? Is it more about the repetition of riffs through the shorthand of a typeface, a colour and a logo? Are graphic designers losing the ability to tell stories in images when the briefs written by marketing directors focus our attentions on core values enshrined in a font distressed in a particular way? A story is an event. Its peculiarities are what makes it interesting, but to tell it may well require a wider vocabulary than guidelines from an identity manual will allow. But graphic designers have never had much patience with stories. Most of us are more comfortable with seeing our work in terms of the atmosphere it creates. Editorial designers may concern themselves with hierarchy, sequence and pace but not necessarily narrative. In fact some of the most reproducable, striking and memorable graphic work takes as long to digest it as switching a light on. Those that have time for stories look to illustrators and comic artists, where some of the most accomplished and ground-breaking graphic design is being done at the moment. The quirkiness of Chris Ware’s doleful characters (Eye 45), Joe Sacco’s painstakingly drawn accounts of war zones (Eye 31) and the dark humour of Marjane Satrapi’s depictions of growing up in Iran (Eye 50) offer a much needed contrast to other visual communication constricted by guidelines and rules.
Does the print matter rolled out by an arts organisation really have to be so dominated by the desire to be visually consistent? Is consistency really so important? This is something that graphic designers have always been insistent about and we are now reaping the ‘reward’ – with mixed results. A catchphrase is indispensable for a comedian and repetition of it is crucial, but its use is for punctuation – it’s not the whole story. Within the cultural field, corporate identities are being stewarded with such fanaticism that the leitmotifs are stifling the sense of particularity that individual events (such as exhibitions) are offering.
A good example of contrast between the two approaches – heavily branded or not – can be found in the music industry. In classical music the same compositions are performed by different orchestras with different conductors, and recorded in different venues by different labels. The label has a reputation for its roster of artists, ensembles and conductors, and a recording quality that not all of us have the ear to detect. This, then, is where the brand identity steps in to distinguish between the labels. Whereas in popular music the difference between performers and repertoire is easy to spot. Label branding is therefore low-key, virtually non-existent, and as a result, despite the commercial emphasis on genres, is all about a seething variety of material. Its no coincidence that pop music continues to be the most fertile ground for fabulously inventive graphic design, whatever the threat from the internet.
The work of one visual artist tends to be easy to separate from that of another, more so than classical recording artists, for example, because the market does not dictate that they produce versions of classic works done by other artists. However, the communications managers of our arts institutions have taken it upon themselves to market their collections like classical music. By thinking of art as highbrow, assuming we can’t detect the difference between a sculptor and a painter, and can’t appreciate the nuances in their programming, the branding is meant to console our supposed sense of inadequacy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about art, you know us, you trust us, we are ‘Tate’, you’ve seen our friendly little foggy logo. In fact London’s Victoria & Albert Museum was one of the first institutions to recognise this when in 1988 it used the strapline: ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.’ Earlier this year the Tate Britain show ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ (featuring the work of ‘Young British Artists’ [YBAS] Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas) was proof, if it was needed, that modern art is no longer highbrow and is just as much about entertainment as creativity. In fact, a little more like the marketing of pop music, the star status of Fairhurst, Hirst and Lucas afforded them the curatorial freedom to break free of Tate design guidelines, as the use of Cooper Black on their poster indicates.
It is right that art and art galleries should be more welcoming. It’s great that you can buy books, T-shirts and mugs, drink coffee and eat pizza there. Many of us who wouldn’t normally look at modern art are being drawn to it. Access and education are now taken much more seriously, with all of the national galleries employing full time access and education officers who produce teacher’s help packs, lay down exhibition design guidelines and involve themselves heavily in the design process. Nevertheless in 2000, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota said ‘I have no delusions. People may be attracted by the spectacle of new buildings, they may enjoy the social experience of visiting a museum, taking in the view, an espresso or glass of wine, purchasing a book or an artist designed T-shirt. Many are delighted to praise the museum, but remain deeply suspicious of the contents.’ Then isn’t our understanding of art being detrimentally affected if it is conducted as some kind of shopping trip? But art is big business, so why not? Artists might appear to be looking at the world from a privileged position, but they’re immersed in it like the rest of us. They’re human beings too, so why shouldn’t gawping at the stuff they produce be treated as a day out, no different from a trip to say, Selfridges? After all, you can now buy art there.
Tate has become the purveyor of a new kind of product. A corporate / cultural amalgam where the differences between art gallery and retail outlet have been blurred. Wolff Olins’s foggy Tate branding embodies this extremely well, pulsing on the building itself and printed on the posters pasted up on the Underground. I take issue, not with the visual language that persuades me to visit Bankside or Millbank or Liverpool or St Ives, but that this very particular mode of address persists when I am deep inside the building, when my eyes flick from artwork to caption to artwork. As I stare, I am being continually told that every moment of contemplation, every thought, question, doubt, speculation and idea is being triggered by Tate. And in a style of delivery where the telling is indistinguishable from the selling. But most of us experience Tate not as something we buy but as something we visit. Tate’s reputation is founded upon its collection, and its curation of that collection. Artists have a voice through their inclusion as Serota makes clear: ‘My task, and that of other curators, is to build the confidence that will allow visitors to accept that an understanding of contemporary values and ideas will often be provoked by new forms of art …’, but ‘… much modern art is, at first sight, unnerving. Personally, I rather welcome this. In the contemporary world we have come to expect instant response and immediate understanding.’ Cultural critic Thomas Frank warned us about this in 1997 in Adbusters when he wrote: ‘If we continue to allow business to replace civil society, advertising will replace cultural functions normally ascribed to writers, musicians and artists.’
Graphic designers practice corporate identity. It is a kind of science, a method, a theory, a particular kind of way in which a group (a company, an organisation) is given the appearance, character and behaviour of an individual. Branding is where the same thing happens to products. It works very well in the corporate sector. Why don’t graphic designers, as part of their armoury of approaches, have something called ‘cultural identity’? Whereas corporate identity can be re-invented, cultural identity is the way you are whether you like it or not. And the challenge to the communication managers of the art galleries, and the graphic designers with whom they consult, is how to build identities while telling the stories of their collections (including what might initially appear ‘unnerving’), instead of proffering arbitrary atmospheres.
One might think that an organ such as The New York Times, which is re-invented every day, would depend on strict guidelines to formularise design if it is to meet production deadlines whilst retaining a distinctive voice. According to assistant managing editor and design director Tom Bodkin, this is not the case. He says they don’t have a design stylebook but have guidelines for typography and colour palette, and even then little on paper in any organised form. Bodkin says this is deliberate because it encourages individual interpretation and creativity to be exercised in order to meet the ever-changing demands of a newspaper page. What he doesn’t want is the blind application of rules.
Bodkin thinks branding is a backward approach to design – ‘one that tackles the outer appearance without addressing the larger goals from which the newspaper design should evolve. It promotes the use of inappropriate graphic devices to attract attention, cosmetic remedies for more significant problems. The result is a package that has little connection to content. That may work for soap, it can create a short-lived buzz for a publication.’ Most crucially Bodkin says that design ‘should not be the primary means of establishing identity … It can help define and convey identity, but should not be relied on to originate it. Identity is the natural outgrowth of a complex set of standards and traditions, not something that can be applied to the outside, like a brand.’ 4
The job of graphic design is to make messages and identities distinct from one another. A quick look around you, however, might set you wondering why the mediated world we are living in delivers increasingly homogenised forms. With the best of intentions (and it is not just design; television and music are prone, too) graphic design finds itself dancing to a tune composed by marketing officers, pr agents, fashion forecasters and brand policemen. It has assimilated their risk-reducing formulas, warmed to that which is familiar, simple, digestible and accessible, witnessed the instantaneous appropriation of new forms and watched them congeal into a fashion that makes everything look the same.
The arbitrary adoption of styles breaks the specific ties between content and its representation. In fact increasingly so, representation claims to be content. The phrase ‘you are what you are seen to be’ is a mantra that graphic designers love because it underlines the importance of appearances in a succinct way that clients understand. The frightening proposition is this; whatever an organisation does is immaterial, since its visual image, its corporate identity, is that which really controls its public persona.
Graphic design believes that problems can be solved through communication. Then a terrifying thing happened … suddenly, everyone agreed with us. (No! We didn’t mean it). First it was the corporate giants followed by the rest of the business community, then cultural institutions and now even governments! In 2002 the White House chose to combat ‘rising tides of anti-Americanism around the world’ by hiring former JWT and O&M brand manager Charlotte Beers. As Naomi Klein describes in Fences and Windows, US Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed criticism of the appointment: ‘There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something … We need someone who can re-brand American foreign policy … She got me to buy Uncle Ben’s Rice.’ Klein writes: ‘Beers views the United States’ tattered international image as little more than a communications problem’. As Klein defines it, ‘brand consistency and true human diversity are antithetical – one seeks sameness, the other celebrates difference; one fears all unscripted messages, the other embraces debate and dissent.’
Content is the issue
In On Brand (see Terry Eagleton’s review), Wally Olins writes that ‘branding techniques are now entering the non-commercial world and we can expect them to spread like wildfire – because branding works … the time is coming when seduction skills will become as important for these organisations as technical or craft skills … over the next decade or so, as techniques of fund-raising and presentation become increasingly significant, branding will take another huge leap’. It’s surprising that such an unapologetic evangelist of branding should make an issue of it entering the non-commercial sector at all. Olins describes branding as if it is an external entity that is grafted on, like a face transplant. This seems to be the root of the problem – that however hard communication managers with graphic designers try to draft branding design briefs that talk of responding to the internal characteristics of the organisation, the visual solutions always appear arbitrary.
A completely different mindset is needed if cultural organisations are to be branded without diminishing them. It’s quite simple, it’s been said before and so many times that it has become a cliché. And that is to design from the inside outwards. Why do we repeatably fail to do that? The practice of corporate identity design must be inextricably tied to the content it is supposedly serving; make content the issue and resist making design the issue. The visual identity of a cultural organisation can’t be invented. It can’t be what you would like it to be. It can only be an enhancement of what it is. The trouble with corporate identity is that the way it is usually practised makes no distinction between inventiveness and invention. This is because in more commercial fields where it is normally practised, identity is a made-up thing. It is made up because corporate identity was invented to distinguish identical products from one another, or at least products that are perceived to be the same as your competitor produces. Branding and corporate identity are defined by competition. A bar of soap, to use Tom Bodkin’s example, is not open to interpretation. Its meaning is fixed and therefore the branding of it crystallises its meaning for us and, with a little bit of imagination, is given an invented identity that distinguishes it from other bars of soap. A work of art on the other hand, is open to interpretation. Its meaning is not fixed.
Unfortunately most designers practising corporate identity up to now have been honing their skills on bars of soap, so to speak. What we have to accept is that a work of art distinguishes itself, as do programmes of performances we watch in theatres and collections that we visit in galleries. They build their own reputations. They have managed this until recently without branding or corporate identity. All designers need to do is to listen, watch, look and respond inventively but resist making it all up.
An earlier version of this text was presented as a talk given by Nick Bell at Profile Intermedia 5 in Bremen, Germany, December 2002.
Nick Bell, designer, creative director of Eye, issues 27-57, London
First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004
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