CORPORATE IDENTITY: THE NEXUS OF DESIGN BUSINESS AND CLIENTS' BUSINESS

08 November 2006
Andrew Lam-Po-Tang and Jacques Lange
Andrew Lam-Po-Tang and Jacques Lange

Context: The Long Road, the High Road and the Picturesque Road
During the 15th Century, the earliest forms of commercial trademarks and signage emerged when master craftsmen used personalised marks to authenticate their produce. These trademarks consisted of monograms and emblems that were stamped onto merchandise - the forerunner of modern corporate identity design. By the 1600's merchants started occupying fixed shops, which were identified by signboards that depicted the merchandise on offer and in some cases included typographic elements - the forerunner of modern retail branding. Much has changed since then.

In the 1930's, Walter Paepcke, a patron of the arts and the founder of the Container Corporation of America, hired the Egbert Jacobsen to 'design' nearly every surface of his company, including factories, offices, livery, stationery and advertising. Paepcke's visionary strategy founded the concepts of corporate image and identity, which subsequently grew into a multibillion-dollar global industry. Jocobsen s peers, Alexander Lieberman, A. M. Cassandre, Art Kane, Will Burtin, Leo Lionni, Doyle Dane Bernbach, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Herbert Lubalin and many others contributed much to the development of this sector of graphic design. They merged their creative skills with the practice of business but the biggest among them was Saul Bass who had the unique ability to truly forge the theoretical constructs of art and commerce. Bass is best known for his work on corporate identity programs for AT&T, United Airlines, Minolta, General Foods, Rockwell International and James Bond movie titles. Bass' equals include Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli and their proponents of the 'New Wave' designers in the USA such as April Greiman, Willi Kunz and Armin Hofmann, who all made seminal contributions to development of contemporary corporate identity design theory and practice. During their heydays designers dominated the CI landscape - designers dictated and clients mostly listened.

Corporate identity design in the mid-1970s underwent radical reappraisal due to prevailing positive economic conditions and a boom in marketing, organisational management and consumer research and theorising. These factors had led many mainstream corporate clients of design services to become the dominating players in the development of corporate graphic design - thus the client became king and commercial control of visual matter was controlled by company policy rather than what was dictated by their design service providers. The designer s task was to sell the client s products strictly according to marketing strategies and marketing departments, relying on the structured feedback of market research departments which became a dominant force in the planning of corporate
design strategy.

As a counter reaction, many prominent New Wave designers opted to focus on non-mainstream corporate clients who allowed for greater experimentation and creative freedom such as fashion, entertainment (especially music) and publishing industries which unabashedly expected their clients and end consumers to embrace creativity and in many cases, anti-establishment thought. Both were highly successful and a generalised description of mainstream global corporate identities during this time is homogenisation - the corporate look became a standardised formula - while the non-mainstream challenged the barriers of free expression and individualistic or unique positioning. Both proved to be overwhelmingly successful.

These discrepancies in the corporate design sector continued during the 1980 s with an increasing divide developing between the mainstream and the non-mainstream, often representing design groups vs. small companies or individuals - i.e. Pentagram, Minale Tattersfield and Wolff-Olins vs. Neville Brody, Margo Chase and Estudio Mariscal. The mid-1990 s introduced a new era when mainstream and non-mainstream started to converge - a process that is still under construction. The mainstream embraced creative individualism and the non-mainstream started taking formal marketing and consumer behaviour theory into account as part of their design process. In addition, marketers and corporate strategists have become more familiar with the implied intricacies of design and creativity and are now often harnessing it as a powerful strategic tool in organisational management strategies. This tri-dimensional convergence, in the author's view, will contribute greatly toward design being taken seriously as a strategic business activity and business strategy becoming core to design practice and therefore becoming an industry that is truly a professional
activity.


A Designer Interviews a Business Strategist
JL: Andrew, can you define your personal philosophy on corporate identity design and the practice of it in the competitive arena of trade and industry?

ALPT: Since design has a visual outcome, the business problem needs to require a solution in which a visual outcome is useful, otherwise the work is pointless. For example, a one-customer, one-supplier strategic relationship doesn't require a corporate identity per se. However if either party wanted to publicise that relationship in order to attract further business, then in that situation a visual identity for the partnership may make a lot of sense.

JL: Ethics are becoming an increasingly important aspect of professional design practice. How would you define the role of the professional designer in the context of ethical visual communication?

ALPT: This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer with 'hard' rules. In principle, I think it is the responsibility of a designer/s to ensure that he/she/they believe in the business objective, and that he/she/they don't intentionally set out to abuse the visual vernacular they co-opt in his/her/their solutions, or in fact abuse the viewers. I do draw a distinction between 'shock value' and 'abuse' - a good example is eBay's policy of not allowing the auctioning of Nazi memorabilia on their website.

JL: In your view, has the practice of CI changed in the past decade and specifically after 11 September 2001?

ALPT: The events of 11 September were grave crimes and a shock to the world, but I don't believe they have much bearing on the practice of CI. CI has not so much changed in the last decade as it has been subsumed within the broader category of 'branding'. While this evolution has been positive insofar it has encouraged corporations to take a more systematic and holistic approach, it has meant that pure CI design may have lost some of its importance or uniqueness as a business tool, relative to other branding activities.

JL: After almost a decade, 'branding' is still the hottest marketing jargon of the day. I often feel uncomfortable with the way that marketers, organisational managers and designers use it. These parties seem to be talking about different things and I often doubt if the word has any REAL or conclusive meaning. Where do the three worlds meet and what is the position of design and CI in the strategic
corporate management chain?

ALPT: Corporate identity is one tool within a branding strategy, and branding itself is only one tool in corporate strategy. While there has been a lot of noise about branding over the last 5 years or so, it is important to understand that it is not always, nor should it be, the highest priority of the CEO and senior executive team.

In terms of business impact, there is still no clear, quantitative correlation between business performance and branding/identity - if you try to correlate changes in published brand valuations with changes in total shareholder returns, you will find a very weak, or no, relationship. However, the fact that there is no clear relationship doesn't mean that branding and CI work is not important. What it means is that branding is only one of many factors affecting corporate performance, that it is often not the most important factor, and as a consequence, branding and CI service providers have a harder job of convincing clients of its importance relative to other management tools.

Where branding and CI design stumbles in a corporate setting is when its advocates are so desperate for legitimacy that they make unrealistic claims about the relative importance (rather than value) of design. This desperation is unnecessary and can be quite counter-productive, as it calls into question the judgement and objectivity of the advocate. A good designer can synthesise a visual solution within corporate constraints that elicits an appropriate emotional response in a client's customers - and they can do this on demand ! This very nearly qualifies for the label of magic and should be recognised as a partly ineffable talent, as well as the product of careful research and much professional/personal discipline and attention to detail. So this is what I believe designers should be proud of, and should sell to their clients. It is on that basis that I argue that design is a valuable tool in the execution of corporate strategy.

I don't believe that design per se is a useful tool in PLANNING corporate strategy or corporate SCENARIOS, as it doesn't directly provide a framework that encompasses the highest-order corporate issues of: shareholder value, competitive positioning, asset productivity, organisational structure, performance management, etc. However, it can be an exceptionally powerful EXECUTION TOOL once the corporate strategy has been set. And as a way of articulating different corporate options, design can be quite powerful as it can crystallise and clarify the differences between options and make the final decisions of direction easier to make.

JL: How does the practice of globally competitive CI relate to the ethics of globalisation?

ALPT: There is obviously a one-to-one relationship between global CI and globalisation, so to that extent I would argue that well-executed global CI perfectly reflects the underlying ethical position of the globalisation strategy. Whether or not globalisation itself is ethical or not is an entirely separate issue.

JL: In your view, how important is the role of the vernacular and regional cultural expression in developing CI programmes.

ALPT: The vernacular is everything in CI! However, what cannot be assumed is the relative proportion of existing vs. new vernacular. Since the point of competitive advantage is a distinct and well-perceived differentiation between competitors, there will always be some degree of new vernacular implicit in the brief of a CI programme. The skill of a master designer is to find the balance between existing vernacular that reassures and welcomes the viewer, and new visual elements that excite and inspire the viewer to update their opinion of the client or the issue.

JL: Which companies/organisations, in your view, can be considered as masters in managing CI and why?

ALPT: One of the issues of graphic design is that it is ephemeral, so I tend to overlook one-off examples of brilliance and focus on companies that have demonstrated consistence in focus over a few years. IBM - because it has one of the oldest CI programs in the world, and was quite innovative in its relationship with Paul Rand. GE - because it includes its moniker in almost every business it owns, in recognition of the power of its corporate reputation. Nike - because it is relentless in its visual self-promotion, and still manages to look for creative alternatives to expressing itself.

JL: Who would you consider to be the ultimate master/s of CI design?

ALPT: As per your previous question, I will name only a few examples with longevity and magnitude of impact - obviously there are many, many more that could be included in this type of a list. Paul Rand - for his work with IBM. Wally Olins - because he wrote the definitive modern book on CI. Apple Computer Design Team - because each product they design defines the ongoing evolution of that company.




A summary of correspondence between Andrew Lam-Po-Tang and Jacques Lange on the topic of current corporate identity practice in preparation of the Icograda Identity/Integrity Conference which will take place in Brno, Czech Republic from 18 to 19 June 2002.

About Andrew Lam-Po-Tang
Andrew Lam-Po-Tang is a member of the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) where he has served as General Manager and is currently Website Editor. He is a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Australia and the UK, with experience in a broad range of industries and management issues, including e-business and IT issues for telecoms, financial services and industrial companies. Prior to receiving an MBA from Insead, France, in 1993, his graphic design experience included founding a design consultancy, Lam-Po-Tang & Co., and working as a graphic designer with Cato Design Partners. He has written extensively on matters related to design management and professional practice. Andrew's passion is the nexus of design and business, and seeing designers succeed commercially.

Contact:
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W: www.agda.asn.au/

About Jacques Lange
Jacques Lange is a partner in Bluprint Design, an award-winning consultancy based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is active as an advisor, author, consultant and adjudicator, and an editorial committee member for the academic journal, Image & Text . He is a founding member and president of Design South Africa and is a member of the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa. Since 1990 Jacques has been a part-time lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Pretoria. He was the chairperson of the Continental Shift 2001 Icograda Congress in Johannesburg and was co-opted to the Icograda board in October, 2001.

Contact:
E:
W: www.bluprintdesign.co.za