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March, 2011 Monthly archive


Monday saw David Cameron launch StartUp Britain, a private sector initiative designed to stimulate entrepreneurship in the UK. With the support of 62 organizations including Microsoft, Google and eBay, StartUp Britain will pledge discounted services including broadband internet, computer training, free advertising, consulting, mentorship and even discounted rent to startups.

Sounds all good right? Well sure, unless of course you’re a design company —right there on the home page, ‘Create a logo’— click that and the best advice they can offer when branding your new venture is to send you to a US based company dedicated to providing crowd-sourced logos for under $300. How could anyone in their right mind place a picture of Sir Richard Branson, CEO of one of the worlds most powerful brands, with his thumbs up on the homepage and directly underneath recommend having a logo designed by literally anyone for $295 and expect to be taken seriously? I won’t even get into the fact that it drives business outside the UK when many design companies are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Thankfully, the link has now been directed toward the DBA.

As I write this it seems that complaints must have been filed and the link now leads to the Design Business Association where users can find a UK design company to fit their needs. Sadly, it seems the DBA itself even recommends businesses ask several design agencies to pitch for their work. That’s right, the DBA condones free pitching.

Is there a conspiracy to undermine the industry? Is anyone on our side?

Let me state the dumbfoundingly obvious: most non-profit organizations operate on very tight budgets. So, understandably they deem the most direct need of their end users to be the best area to focus their efforts, and money. Quite rightly so, but the beneficial can also be a little more abstract, for instance; a homeless charity could consider providing shelter for the night, or a soup stand as being paramount, which seems fair enough—but what if the homeless aren’t aware of them or where they are? In that scenario investing in a ground level awareness campaign would make sense.

Sometimes a bit of lateral thinking and a third party perspective can help to find a solution to a problem that may not have even been spotted. A couple of years back I worked on a project for a central London borough who wanted to build a website where bored young people could find things to do in their area. Sounds easy enough, but how do you get a notoriously cynical set of urban kids involved and interested? How do you stay cool to those that know it all? You get them involved on their level. Our solution was to stage an X-Factor style talent contest, the finalists of which were then formed into two youth teams. These teams went on to brainstorm and design their own ideas for the website which went to the public vote — all publicized by themselves in their own networks at school and on social sites — the result? Young people in the area knew all about the site before it was even launched, we ended up with a youth team that would gain further experience as ongoing editors, designers and contributors, and three years on the site is still going strong.

Non-profits should recognize that in the same way businesses need to provide the most relevant products, services and experiences for their customers, they need to do the same, though perhaps for different reasons. The third sector is quite different than the private sector, non-profits have different goals, requirements and audiences and therefore pose quite unique challenges. We can, however, draw comparisons between the two and findings from working with consumer focused companies can be transferable and offer advantages to the non-profit.

For example, while a company may have a product to sell, non-profits are essentially ‘selling’ their service, so similar techniques can be used to generate awareness, inspire change and encourage participation and donations. Let’s focus on the latter for a second; donations are hugely important to most non-profits, it is after all, their lifeblood. Donors and trustees are also consumers, they understand and speak the language of today’s brands, marketing and advertising. When a message is communicated well, consumers respond positively. It’s absolutely vital to aspire to the same level of visual and strategic thinking when producing communications for charities and non-profits. Users will quickly bounce away from a website that doesn’t resonate or deliver information quickly, easily and in the correct tone of voice. Flyers or posters will go unread if their execution is sloppy or off target, your organization as a whole may not be getting its message across because of poor branding — one result of all this is lack of interest and therefore missed opportunities to raise funds. Another is that those in need may miss the point or not feel connected with your ‘brand’. Thoughtful, intelligent design and strategy is proven to give return on investment, that’s why businesses invest so much in it. There’s the important thing, design is very much an investment that will repay its cost over and over, it is not a superfluous luxury.

Unique considerations

Different strokes for different folks:
You may have several different key audiences, ie; end users, the general public (donors), sector professionals/partners and trustees — each should be targeted individually and you may decide to create defined sections on your website with relevant information for each. The same goes for any collateral you produce.

Sell a cause rather than a product:
A brand is as much an emotional experience as it is anything else, by engaging people on an emotional level you will make stronger bonds with all audience types. Being a part of creating positive social change is of ever increasing importance in people’s minds, use it to your advantage.

Social causes, social space:
Social media services like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are excellent free resources that can help you promote fundraising initiatives, generate awareness and build loyalty within your audience. They are also a great way to find out what people think and they will often spread your message for you. If people will rally on Facebook to get a single to the top of the Christmas charts, you can guarantee they’ll be up for a good cause.

Clients and creatives

Depending on who you ask, the mention of branding will get you some very different responses. Some may wield crucifixes against you and proclaim the number of the beast, others might confess their addiction to vintage Adidas trainers, rave about their favourite cereal or rehash tabloid stories of how so and so charged $4 million for just italicizing such and suches logo. One thing you can be sure of is that branding is a subject everybody has an opinion on.

What’s in a brand?
What is it that makes us love or loathe a certain coffee shop or the computer we type away on as we get wired on lattés? A common mistake is to consider branding as being simply a logo. While the logo is an invaluable and core element in a company’s visual branding, there’s a lot more to do if you want to win a place in the hearts and minds of people. Or even if you just want to shift some product. Successful branding begins at the heart of the organisation — the way it thinks, the way it works, the way it talks through to the way its staff think, talk and work and a lot more in between.

Everything you do, everything you communicate and every element of communication should reflect your company’s ethic, core value and positioning. Business strategy is as much a part of the brand as the outward appearance of it, that may sound obvious but it can be overlooked. Case in point: McDonalds, quite ridiculously, attempted to reposition themselves in certain markets as a ‘healthy’ option. They tried this by introducing salads and sponsoring sporting events. Offering healthy options is great but when it turns out that your chicken salad contains more fat and calories than a Big Mac it starts to look quite untrustworthy, or even ridiculous. Let’s face it, it’s going to take more than some wood panelling and a couple of fruit salads to get people running to McDonalds when they fancy a healthy meal.

So, stay honest when trying to portray who you are and what you’re about as an organization. Which brings us to the first step along the way, and probably the most important—defining your company’s ethic, core value and market positioning.

Who the hell are you?
It sounds like a simple enough question, but even large corporations can have trouble defining themselves, especially if they’re involved in many different markets and verticals. That’s why they often spend an incredible amount of time and money with large brand strategy agencies asking themselves the question ‘Who are we?’—hmmmm existential corporations—wtf? That’s great if you can afford it, but lengthy discovery workshops, internal surveys and consumer focus group sessions are understandably out of reach, and probably unnecessary for most small to medium sized businesses and non-profits. There are however, huge benefits to be had by addressing these issues and it needn’t break the bank. No doubt you have a good idea who you think your organization is, but it’s always good to keep an objective frame of mind, so step back for a moment and ask yourself some questions:

  • In one short sentence, describe what your organization does
  • Who is your competition?
  • Why should someone choose you over your competition, what sets you apart?
  • In your field of business, what do you think are the three most important factors when choosing a product/supplier from a customer’s point of view?
  • What, if anything, does your competition do better than you? Be honest now.
  • What do you admire about your main competitors?
  • What would you say your three key strengths are?
  • What would you like to do better?
  • How do you think your organisation is currently perceived?
  • How would you like your organization to be perceived?
  • What size is your company, and are there any pros and cons related to this from your customer’s perspective?
  • What qualities do you look for and value in your employees?

That’s a quick start at a self-analysis, It’s also vital to find out what your customers and potential customers honestly think, so try and ask them if you can.

Some good starter questions could be:

  • What, if anything, do you recognize about my organization’s current branding?
  • How would you, the consumer, describe my organization’s personality?
  • Assuming my product/service is an area of interest to you, would you choose my product or a competitor? If so, which competitor and why?

So now you’re building a rounded view of who you are, how you’re perceived, who you’d like to be and how you’d like to be perceived. This is the first stage a branding agency would walk you through, no doubt throwing in a few workshops, focus groups and a bunch of meetings with fancy cakes along the way. That’s all good but it gets expensive. These are the same kind of questions I ask, they’d likely be more in-depth and tailored to you and your business, but the aim would be the same—to get an understanding of exactly what makes you and your customers tick, what sets you apart from the crowd and how we can get that across most effectively in your communications.

Clients and creatives

I want to talk for a minute about the relationship between the client and the creative, and why listening really is a habit that pays off at both ends. I’ll be dabbling in the dark art of the obvious analogy, so bear with me.

Let’s suppose that I have a serious heart condition and need to have open-heart surgery. I can tell you with no hesitation that I want that anaesthetic to keep me knocked out while the folks in green are poking around inside my chest, give me a double-hit if necessary. Only the darkest of masochists would stay awake to offer pointers, advice and make special requests like, say, what colour thread should be used to stitch up that troublesome left ventricle. Rest assured I won’t be having words with the surgeon before the op suggesting that it could be better to leave the heart as it is, and… ‘maybe try a few slices on the lung instead’.

I also want to know that anyone asking me to lie down unconscious while they slice and chop away at my internal organs has taken some X-rays, done the right tests and has the proper qualifications to get me back to some semblance of working order. Now, fair enough lives might not be at risk in the serious business of graphic design (just don’t ask for comic sans or I will put your head in a vice), but we can learn something from the analogy — we need to listen to each other and to trust each other, by doing so we can get the most out of each others expertise.

Listen to your client
Sounds like an obvious point, but after talking to a lot of designers and clients over the years it seems that quite a few quickly become frustrated and either end up at war or more commonly just become quietly bitter and passive aggressive. Needless to say, nothing good will come from this kind of relationship.

From the outset we as designers and art directors should be listening to our clients in order to determine the goals and necessities of the project. Some clients may have a lot of marketing experience or have their own in-house team, in which case goals, proposition, content and an idea of deliverables may already be in place. Others may know they need to be promoting their products and services, but are at a loss at what to do and need our help to work out the best plan. One thing is certain, business owners know their business inside-out and they are in the best position to tell us about it. We’d be crazy not to use this to our advantage.

Collaborate where possible in order to define exactly what’s needed in order to successfully deliver the right message. Take time to educate your client as to why you are suggesting what you are. If your work makes sense that should be an easy job, your client will thank you for it and you’ll have earned their respect which means that next time, you’ll have an even better experience.

Listen to your creatives
Everybody hates people reading the newspaper over their shoulder and back seat drivers certainly aren’t at the top of anyone’s Christmas card list. You’ve gone to the trouble of finding a design company or a freelancer you believe in, so believe in them. Trust them to do what they do best and let them get on with it.

Start out with a broad, honest insight into who you are and what your business is about and discuss between you exactly what you aim to achieve. This planning stage is vital and really is the key to an efficient and therefore economical process. Next, let your creatives do their thing and come back to you with what they believe in. Don’t try to micro-manage every aspect of the project, you will not only save yourself time and stress, you’ll also build a healthy relationship with your creative team who will be able to stay focused and excited about your project. This empowering approach will help you get the best work out of your chosen design agency or freelancer.

Get the right people for the job
All this hinges on one thing – finding the right people to work with. Every trade and industry has its cowboys, charlatans, pretenders and frankly… bullshitters. It’s certainly true that some are better than others and it’s not a simple matter of cost. Find people that speak sense in a straightforward manner. Find people that are interested in you and that question your objectives. Find people that provide thoughtful solutions, and don’t simply want to ‘pretty things up’. Avoid yes-men. Avoid people that want to offer you the cheapest price possible — if it sounds too good to be true, it is. On the same token, and probably a no-brainer, avoid those people with astronomic quotations. Good design takes planning, consideration and can’t be knocked out in an afternoon, but it doesn’t need to cost the Earth. Just find honest people with thoughtful, engaging work and take it from there. Let them do for you what they’ve been able to do for others. People that produce consistently high quality work don’t do so by accident, they do so because they know what they are doing and they have a process for doing so.