When it comes to understanding corporate design, it's not just about rules and regulations. There's plenty of room for creativity when you're working for 'the man' and you can earn a tidy sum, too. Darren Smith delves into this essential area of design.
Let's play a quick game. Skim through your regional copy of the Yellow Pages and take a stab at how many companies are listed there. Now multiply that number by all the other regional issues of Yellow Pages in the UK. Then multiply that number by the number of countries on the planet. By now, your calculator will be gasping for relief. There are literally millions of businesses worldwide. Irrespective of what their business happens to be, these companies are linked by one common imperative: the need to reach out directly to their customers. And that's where you come in.
Corporate design accounts for an overwhelming majority of work in many graphic designers' portfolios. It comes in two flavours: corporate identity and branding, and promotional work. In simple terms, corporate identity and branding exists to create and maintain the public image of a business. The consumer has to know right from the off that product X is produced by company X. Then, once your core identity has been established, fun stuff like promotional literature will take your brand message forward to build desire for your products and make sure that consumers appreciate what your brand 'means'. Branding consistency is vital. Giving out mixed messages is a crime punishable by mass defection by your consumers.
Wally Olins CBE is chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants and is widely considered the world's leading brand guru. "A brand must be absolutely trusted," he says. "If you don't demonstrate clearly and effectively what the product is or how it works, you've failed."
"The key to creating a successful brand is to get the functional characteristics right first," Olins continues. "If you have a working product or service, your customers will start to trust you. But only when these functional characteristics are perfect will you begin to develop the emotional face of the brand."
These emotional characteristics are the building blocks of a good corporate identity. Examples include clean, simple design, such as Apple's rather lovely, instantly recognisable product line, or a George Foreman-style company spokesman approach. Whether the brand focuses on a reputation for fair trade, a dedication to five-star service, or a commitment to using only the finest ingredients or construction materials, there will be an appropriate and effective brand identity tool for communicating it.
Whatever these emotional characteristics are, a good brand will emphasise them for the audience. "Making a good product is definitely the priority," says Olins. "But to sell a good product you need emotional factors to add distinction in the marketplace."
An excellent example of tight corporate identity is Green & Black's, purveyors of ultra-fine organic chocolate. Though it's romantic to think otherwise, even the most delicious chocolate in the world can't survive in a branding vacuum. Green & Black's award-winning corporate design is carefully controlled so that all product packaging is immediately recognisable. A sophisticated logo and typeface combine with high-quality packaging and precise positioning to showcase the brand's traditional handcrafted values and excellence. The size of the logo on the packaging makes it stand out on the supermarket shelf, and the range-wide colour coding system is quickly and easily comprehensible by shoppers bombarded by complicated branding.
But Green & Black's success doesn't stop at its eye-catching wrapper. Promotional literature and advertising reinforces the core values of the brand to build desire for the products. And the key to getting the branding right, Olins insists, lies in the designer's ability to understand the company image or message.
Choose your ground
A large proportion of corporate design work is produced in-house. That's a very different environment to working freelance or for an agency, and at first sight seems to be an option somewhat lacking in glamour, but working 'on site' for the parent company can bring some pretty valuable benefits.
"There's job security, for a start," says Ben Green, an in-house designer for one of the UK's largest wholesale drinks retailers. "An agency is a much more high-pressure environment where there can be a high staff turnover. Working in-house brings other benefits, too, such as pensions or share schemes and the hours are much better!"
In-house design puts you right at the heart of the design mix with a higher level of control over a company's identity and the kind of freedom and responsibility that's rarely experienced by young agency designers. On the downside, however, the single-purpose nature of this type of employment can act as a brake on your creativity, your motivation, and ultimately maybe even your career.
"Focusing on one theme - alcohol - I find there's little variation in my job," says Green. "I try to experiment where I can, but I do feel stuck in a rut at times. It's also difficult to move up the ladder. In fact, sometimes there is no ladder. In small teams you don't often get art director or creative director roles to aim for, so that incentive is taken away."
In-house workers can become the 'sweeper-uppers' for agencies, which, not unnaturally, tend to keep the most creative projects to themselves. Taking a less cynical view, agencies with teams of highly-paid creative designers do have big overheads to cover, while the in-house designer often works alone or in a small department. Like it or not, most of the big, well-known identities are handled by creative agencies, and breaking into the agency world isn't easy.
"A phrase I've heard a few times is that 'agency people like agency people'," says Green. "The experience I have working within one industry means I'm labelled as a certain 'type' of designer. It's hard work to prove to agencies that I have other skills as well."
But the grass isn't always greener on the agency side, as Ben Carratu, an ex-designer at a top German automotive agency, admits. "Clients do expect a lot from their agencies," he says. "The hours can be really punishing and the pressure is on all the time. Competition is fierce, and working in a hierarchy can actually restrict your promotion prospects if internal politics come into play."
After a spell as an in-house creative director, Carratu made the decision to go freelance. It's a decision he hasn't regretted. "There's a big difference," he says. "My workload is much lighter now, which gives me the time and freedom to try out more creative solutions. I think my work has really improved as a result."
Is corporate design boring? Certainly, staying within the tightly prescribed confines of a telephone directory-sized corporate identity bible can be about as creatively liberating as designing a bus timetable. Fear plays a part, too. "A lot of design these days is very boring," Olins admits. "Corporations tend to answer to the bean counters first and foremost, and when it comes to public image, most of them are too afraid to rock the boat for fear of upsetting the shareholders, or just plain cocking it up."
But some brands have enough flexibility to inspire innovative creative solutions. With Brand Jordan, creative director Jason Herkert borrowed recognisable corporate elements from umbrella company Nike, then developed them to create a unique identity based on the star profile of Michael Jordan. By employing illustrator Tim Marrs' rough and ready street art graphics for the launch of a new product, Brand Jordan was able to appeal to a targeted audience of street basketball fans. These fans were previously unavailable to Nike because the focus of its corporate message was slightly off-axis. This 'tweaking' of an overarching global brand to reach a niche market shows how a strong corporate identity can maintain its consistency of message, yet still offer room for exciting new creative directions.
One Aim magazine - a quarterly customer magazine produced for Toyota by Haymarket Network - also benefits from flexible corporate guidelines. While the magazine must maintain the global brand message of Toyota, it also has another important agenda: to develop the Toyota F1 brand and to maintain Toyota's image as a forward-thinking company.
Toyota branding is kept to a minimum and the editorial flatplan often includes illustrated features and covers designed as much to engage the reader as to reflect the expected car/motorsport content. The result is surprisingly effective - the magazine feels fresh and entertaining, and the branding is subtle enough to get its message across without being too intrusive.
Branding your soul
Corporate design is everywhere. It's a crucial element in helping a company reach its target audience, but it's not always perceived as a good thing. Intrinsically linked with big business and capitalism, branding is blamed for a multitude of sins: making people fat, making people smoke, increasing people's debts, exploiting developing countries and traditional trades...
But branding in itself is not evil. Branding is inert: it's just a tool. How a brand is deployed and portrayed has immeasurable power and influence in all social and cultural ideologies - from sports and consumerism to health and art.
With anti-globalism lobbyists, political groups and charities concentrating on their own branding to improve the consistency and impact of their message, branding has grown beyond its traditionally commercial origins. And as the emerging Asian and Eastern markets grow in confidence, Olins believes that the role of the corporate designer will change too. "Current corporate design lacks a cutting edge," he says. "But this will change - it has to. New competitors and a faster-paced marketplace mean many traditional corporate strategies are becoming obsolete. Businesses will need to rely on distinctive branding and innovation in order to survive. For the corporate designer the opportunities are limitless."