BRANDING INTERFACE: INTERVIEW WITH MARKUS HANZER

08 November 2006
Martin Et Karczinski GmbH
Martin Et Karczinski GmbH

In their hunt for a glimpse of the corporate design of the future, Peter
Martin and Daniel Karczinski talked to Markus Hanzer.

Martin and Karczinski: What does CD mean to you?

Markus Hanzer: For me it?s quite simply recognisability. The problem arose primarily through the advent of new markets. Suppliers became active beyond their regional market and there were all of a sudden very many products on the same 'theme'. So it became necessary to make your mark.

Putting the entrepreneur himself in the spotlight was in the early days a usable solution. But when the company became bigger, more international and managed by a consortium, the tendency was to pass the job of looking after the visual identity to an individual person, to keep a 'personal' note. During this time big-name designers like Otl Aicher came to the fore. When the task became too complex for one person, sets of rules began to be written down. And that went fine for a long time. Nowadays companies have grown so big through all those acquisitions that the design work can no longer be done by single agencies. A metastructure is needed to coordinate the work of different agencies. When you look at major companies like Allianz, Deutsche Bank or other global players, it is clear that truly big brand portfolios cannot be handled properly with a single classic CD concept - i.e. all one colour, one house font etc. These individual brands are aimed at widely different target groups and they also have to take into account regional and cultural differences.


Martin and Karczinski: What sort of form do these metastructures take?

Markus Hanzer: There are some age-old solutions which have proved to be very good in many cases. One simple approach is offered by nature, by trees, for example. Each elm tree is unique, but can still be distinguished clearly from a birch or a beech, because it is based on a distinctive genetic structure.
When we talk about CD of the future and mean the CD of big firms, then the only way I can see forward is to use a genetic model like this, which as a system is very simple. The job is then to decide on typographic rules from which a choice of font then emerges. You just can't impose a single font for everything in a global concern these days.


Martin and Karczinski: Why not?

Markus Hanzer: Because it makes it impossible to make the distinctions within the firm that are so necessary. There would otherwise be no point in running different sub-brands. In many cases you could just dispense with a differentiated product portfolio. But for many firms it makes very good sense to have a range of brands. Coca Cola could call Fanta 'Coca Cola Orange', but its name is in fact Fanta, and the same is true of Sprite etc. If you are going to reach the whole market, and therefore all target groups, then you need corresponding brand personalities.

You could say, then, that you should also develop different CDs as well. But I think that wouldn't work, because the company would then lose its internal integrity and one of the most important functions of a CD is in internal communication - 'who are we?' Only when this question is answered can you begin to move forward together. So I think that it needs a link between the brands but that these links don't need to be so rigidly identical as some have imagined so far. There are a few examples which have made a passable stab at both differentiation and integration. One of them is Disney. When you look at their products - and I don't mean the logo, but the films themselves - you see from every individual image in that film that it is a Disney film. Although the style, the colours and the stories are always different, there is a certain Disney touch, a typical style. That's because they follow a few basic rules that they would never break. And these few rules are enough to achieve a consistent recognition of their work.


Martin and Karczinski: What rules are these exactly?

Markus Hanzer: Disney never gets really dirty, Disney is never sexual or erotic and never overly aggressive. If you keep these rules in mind in everything you do, then that's enough to form a recognisable character.


Martin and Karczinski: But in the story of the trees it's the formal aspects that characterise the trees as a group.

Markus Hanzer: A group of computer specialists have searched for formulae that would produce virtual trees and whole woods on the computer. In the process of their work they found that the world of plants operates according to relatively few rules. There are a small number of basic patterns for branching, bark structure and leaf structure. But these relatively simple formulae are enough to simulate the whole varied world of plants on the computer.


Martin and Karczinski: What could this mean for CD?

Markus Hanzer: You can also look for formulae here, too. On the basis of principles like 'always honest', for example, many of the standard advertising messages wouldn't qualify. And when you add one or two more rules, then the spectrum of possible hits is already very small. If you then use these guidelines in the various design areas such as coloration, screen etc., and check which design rules correspond to the principles of a company, we're down to a tiny number.


Martin and Karczinski: Do such formulae already exist?

Markus Hanzer: It's not that easy. To do CD in this way, you have to go beyond the work of a typical graphic designer. You have to understand structures, analyse and be able to link them with each other. However, thinking in design structures is harder than just choosing one colour, one font and one design grid. With Disney, for example, there are colour specialists who can do it. For each film they decide on a certain colour mood, a light atmosphere, and tonality. Colour will continue to be an important theme in CD in the future. Moving pictures and photography will be employed more and more often for communicative tasks, simply because we can use moving picture devices everywhere these days - mobile phones, computers, TVs, PDAs, etc.

That means that companies have to transfer the character they at present communicate via corporate colours onto videos and pictures. It is easy to use a particular Pantone colour in a brochure, but you have to take a different approach in a video. If I want to differentiate, then I have to decide on the colour style of the photo, to thus be recognisable for the consumer.


Martin and Karczinski: What will tomorrow's communication designer have to be able to do?

Markus Hanzer: The trend is more and more towards the moving image. A trend that just can't be stopped any more. Making and distributing pictures and videos has never been so easy and cheap, since the advent of digital technology.

Another important theme is the growing possibilities for interactivity in communication. Brands can't just put themselves out there and say, 'Hi, here I am'. They will instead have to enter into a dialogue. A dialogue means always a certain readiness to change with respect to the one that is being addressed. Companies will have to start to respond more immediately to the wishes of their clients.

This throws up another problem connected with rigid, unchanging brands: in a global market, strong brands can seem threatening. When a lot of big brands really manage to dominate markets - like Coca Cola, for example - many people can feel that their own personal design freedom has been invaded. For no matter how strongly we like to orient ourselves towards brands, we still want some space in which we can be ourselves.

To avoid strong protests from people against brands, we have to be more flexible than we are at present. Every person wants to be his or her own brand, in a way, and not a brand carrier.

There still are these regional and cultural differences, and these are what makes travel so interesting. But I am already concerned about the way in which our big cities are all getting to look alike. Everywhere you see H&M, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. I can go to Paris, London or Berlin and everywhere I've got the same atmosphere. I think this is a dangerous scenario, dangerous, too, for the companies.


Martin and Karczinski: What should the profile of our profession be in the future?

Markus Hanzer: In our agency - DMC - we hardly have the classic graphic designer any more, but instead a series of specialists in various disciplines and people who mediate and moderate between the various areas, i.e. the generalists. Of course it's great when a designer can offer lots of different areas. But it's very seldom that a good interaction designer can also be a good storyteller, for example. We have people like me in-house who are specialists in getting the individual disciplines to talk to each other and work together. My knowledge does not extend in depth in every area. That's no longer possible.

We have to be much more team-oriented and communicative than has been the norm in the past. Graphic design was mostly taught at art schools and colleges. Where the artist is more of a solo fighter. Still today many designers see themselves in this tradition, and get difficult and aggressive if they have to work together with others.


Martin and Karczinski: We mentioned Otl Aicher before and that he didn't really just work in the background. Let's take Ruedi Baur, who, with the Centre Pompidou, tried to do something with texture.

Markus Hanzer: Textures and structures are very powerful communication tools. The dirt in a town, for example, plays an important part in its image. And in places where it rains a lot, you've got different weathering conditions to places where there's sandstorms. Structures, dirt and signs of wear and tear are interesting design aids. User traces on the internet will also be an interesting topic. When you look at a bit of paper, you can see if it has been used by the turned-up edges, or the coffee stains. But at the moment it's hard to make out spots in a digital medium. If you are to give the user the feeling that 'that's my website', then you have to make it possible for him to leave traces.


Martin and Karczinski: You once worked with Neville Brody.

Markus Hanzer: Ten years ago. He'd just started on the redesign of ORF. The starting point was that ORF just had to change. They wanted to change from the image of a state-owned monopoly to that of a modern, new company in a liberalised broadcasting market. Also it was evident that in many radio and TV channels the CD of ORF had simply diverged. At that time there were no less than 120 different styles of headed notepaper in the company, some of which had very little to do with each other.

The director, Gerd Bacher, wanted on the one hand to bring the parts of the company back together, and on the other to send a signal to the world, saying 'we're back, we're new, and we're going to make the running'. He knew full well that even with the best designers, he couldn't do the job alone in-house. Some major force from well outside the company had to come in and do it. And of course he was right, because if any employee of the company or some other Austrian had taken it on, the whole thing would have dissolved into endless debate and discussion. The only way to do it fast and cost-effectively was to have someone come along, like God, and say, so be it. So they looked for someone to take on this role, and soon came up with the name of Neville Brody. Ten years ago he was that God; he was the star in the design firmament.


Martin and Karczinski: What was his secret of success?

Markus Hanzer: Firstly he was often at the right place at the right time. Secondly, he is someone who can communicate very well, he's very photogenic, can give good interviews and has an aura to match. Also he was the one to take up a lost tradition and revive it. He built a bridge for so many designers to a tradition that had been forgotten in the aftermath of the Second World War. Suddenly people began to study not only the design books of the previous five years, but also those of the 1920's.


Martin and Karczinski: Which era, do you think, did he draw on most?

Markus Hanzer: The strongest influences came certainly from Constructivism and Dadaism. But he studied everything most carefully, of course, the whole history of design. If you look at the development, then Dadaism can be said to be both the high point and the end point of a development. A high point, because design and typography came together here in an amazing picture quality, at the same time reaching out to the heart and the mind. A final point, because a broad sweep of the general public no longer wanted to follow these forms of communication.


Martin and Karczinski: So Brody brought all that together in an eclectic spectacle.

Markus Hanzer: European and German design became very cerebral, through the influence of Otl Aicher and others. Emotions were there, but they played a subordinate role. The head was basically more important than the heart. Neville recognised that the emotional components in communication could be at least just as important as information that appeals directly to the brain. The design of a book is now just as important as the text. Admittedly, that wasn't a new approach but it had been forgotten. Neville set out on a radical path here. Much of what you see in his books has no primary intellectual message, but it appeals directly to the emotional level. He actually paved the way for a David Carson. Carson then took this movement and drove it up a blind alley.


Martin and Karczinski: What was it like working with Brody?

Markus Hanzer: Inside the team it was great. First he asked us to collect together everything that ORF had ever put out. He probably never looked at it, but in doing this job we learned an awful lot about ourselves. With steps like this he got us going. His very reserve worked at time like a kind of catalyst for the process. We formed an internal research group, which for six months just looked into the basic options for TV design. We made attempts under the title of 'Emotion of Motion'. There is even a book about this process, called 'Das Andere Auge' [The Other Eye].

Neville gave us a list of emotions, and we tried to translate these into pure abstract animations. The new design later emerged from this fund. ORF has kept the production almost intact to this day. The key central element was designed by Neville and he kept the whole process together. With this method he brought the entire graphic team at ORF right up to date. They already were good, but he caused us to rethink our own life's work, to start again from scratch and to forget routines.


Martin and Karczinski: What do you think of the new CD of ZDF?

Markus Hanzer: The design does reflect the drive towards modernisation, and, as far as I can see, it seems to have met with a positive response from the viewers. But the design keeps contrasting with the programme schedule, which isn't as young as the design indicates. So, as an overall concept, it can produce problems.


Martin and Karczinski: I would like to talk a bit about 'tell the logo'. The initial form or starting point, for this idea was the Eurex brochure of Eclat and their 'touch the logo' concept of liquid identity. You can push the logo, clip into it etc., but you can still identify the company behind it whatever the form.

Markus Hanzer: I like it, and it works even at first glance. But I do wonder if such a system will last very long. The impact of a logo as the central element in a CD soon fades, and what new thing is there then left to tell? How can you then top it?


Martin and Karczinski: I found it interesting because it was a way out of the rigid design of an Otl Aicher. For us, before the visualisation there is a story, which is then translated into graphic design, where it forms a substance and an anchor feature, to which this whole story can be attached. Added to this is the strong internal effect. For us it's a form of CD in the future.

Markus Hanzer: Yes, I like that. But I think there will only be a very few cases where a company or brand agency will allow something like that. They won't permit someone else to write the company story, as it were, and thereby put themselves above the Board. It is after all one of the most important tasks of a Board to be able to write the story of a company. But there is no better approach for a communication strategy than interweaving the message seamlessly with the design.