08 November 2006
Sara Curtis
Sara Curtis

When most people think of the most trusted professions, 'marketing' and 'branding' don't exactly rank near the top. Designers are well aware of that fact Manifesto attested, integrity among design professionals is a topic of fierce debate in boardrooms, chat rooms and bedrooms across the continent. So 'Identity/Integrity' was a fitting and timely theme for the most recent Icograda (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) conference, held in Brno, Czech Republic last June. Five hundred designers from 44 countries came together to discuss integrity in corporate branding and the power and responsibility graphic designers have in shaping identity programs.

The Icograda conference featured 10 internationally-renowned speakers, each of whom focused on some facet of the 'Identity/Integrity' theme. England's Wally Olins, a global expert in the field of corporate identity and author of more than a dozen books on the subject, talked about how countries have themselves become brands, and the importance of a positive national image in terms of tourism and investment in a country. Olins and his firm, Wolff Olins, created recent branding campaigns for England ('Cool Britannia'), Spain and Germany.

In a similar vein, Bo Linneman of Denmark, talked about how the 'crown' logomark (Denmark is a monarchy), created by his firm Kontrapunkt, has been highly successful in integrating all state institutions under one national image, while also appealing to the patriotism of the Danish public. Linneman says after the logomark was rolled out in several new state-owned identities, other corporations came forward wanting to use the crown as well, viewing it as an affiliation with the most respected Danish institutions. (After Linneman's presentation, an English woman in the audience remarked how, if British corporations started using a royal-themed trademark, British citizens would not react so positively. Linneman replied, "Well, I guess our queen is a lot hipper than yours.")

Others provided opposition to the discussions of how to create successful and profitable brands. The esteemed typographer Ahn Sang Soo spoke about how "the brand destroys individual tastes," lamenting the fact that "teenagers get their taste from brand strategists." And perhaps the most compelling of all the presentations came from Canada's own David Berman, ethics chair of the GDC in Ottawa. Berman's seminar, titled 'How logo can we go?,' focused on international branding and marketing campaigns, and the 'visual lies' created by designers to create false need for products and services. Berman showed slides from a recent trip to Tanzania, where several of the towns are basically sponsored by Coca-Cola hospitals, schools and even churches, prompting the inevitable hypothesis that Coke has indeed become a religion. "Over consumption is the most destructive force on the planet, threatening the stability of the natural environment," Berman said, imploring designers to listen to their conscience when designing branding campaigns, and to donate 10 per cent of their time to working on projects that help repair the damage done to the planet.

All the presentations were followed by panel discussions. The differing opinions served to broaden awareness and narrow gaps, rather than angering people and driving
them apart. It was fascinating to listen to conversations between students from El Salvador and top level designers from Australia. Despite obvious cultural differences, it showed that all designers face many of the same challenges.

Many countries in Eastern Europe, however, are still facing the basic challenges of convincing business that design and identity programs are even necessary. In the evening during the Icograga conference week, speakers from eight countries and Estonia, among others did indeed give perspective on the state of design in Eastern Europe, and it was pretty harrowing. According to Laszlo Lelkes, a teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, "there are 3,000 graphic designers working in Hungary, and the logo for the post office was designed by Alan Fletcher." Lelkes spoke movingly of the lack of confidence corporations have in design and in local designers. "There is fantastic intellectual potential, but young designers are cut off. Companies do design in-house, and the results are horrible, and they don't care." There is no Hungarian design magazine, and the graphic design association is losing members and clout, because young people are getting frustrated. "There is nowhere for us to even exchange ideas." The sentiments were echoed by people from Bosnia-Herzegovena (where 23 of the 188 graphic design association members were killed in the war) and Romania, where design has been dismissed as a "Western-oriented attitude, harmful to the Romanian political powers."

Other events held during the conference week included student workshops, the Icograda regional meeting (attended by Icograda members from more than 30 countries), and the Brno Biennale, an enormous international design competition that was celebrating its 20th anniversary.

There was certainly no shortage of networking opportunities and stimulating conversation to be had during the Icograda conference. It was an exhilarating experience meeting so many designers and design media from around the world - next Icograda conference, to be held in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2003.

About the article
From Applied Arts (Canada) Vol.17, No. 6, November/December 2002, p. 20. This article is re-printed with permission by the author.