Thursday, February 18, 2010

Designing out advertising

Writing in The Guardian earlier this week, Jackie Ashley called for a ban on advertising on such as public amenities as bus stops, payphones, taxis and so on. The main thrust of the article was that excessive advertising is the root cause of the unsustainable consumerism that drives British society, not because we are all driven, brainwashed, directly to the tills by every bit of advertising we see, but because it creates a sense of dissatisfaction with what we have, and a desire to seek happiness through material possessions. What really caught my eye though, was the above call for an end to advertising on public places.

"How much prettier and more restful the urban landscape would be" she writes. Clearly, this is a lady who has not been without her mobile phone for a long time. Such a fate befell me yesterday, and I had to use a payphone. As I approached the bright silver kiosk tucked away by the Tube barriers, her musings came back to me. There is a touch of rather un-Guardianesque nostalgia about them - echoes of Boris Johnson harking back to the days of red telephone boxes, routemaster buses and the like. But the fact is that most of today's amenities seem designed with advertising in mind. Certainly if all advertising was removed, my local bus stop would not be a more attractive or interesting place. The same can be said of stations, payphones and even libraries.

Of course the major flaw in her argument (and one that she studiously avoids) is the financial implication. The hand-wringing over the decline in children's programme-making is directly linked to the ban on advertising to kids cutting off the funding. Similarly, if train companies weren't allowed to advertise on their services, ticket prices would probably be considerably higher. The Guardian, the newspaper for which Jackie Ashley writes, would probably cost upwards of a fiver. You have to get money into public services somehow, and given the state of the nation's finances, cutting off advertising revenue does not seem like a prudent course of action.

Notwithstanding such pragmatism, it would be nice to see some iconic design adorning such public places, heirs to the likes of the bright red phone box. That advertising is the route of consumerism is an over-statement - the media, celebrity culture and the banks are complicit in the same circle. But it would be a shame if every area of life submitted to it. However, stripping away the advertising from today's urban spaces would reveal a joyless cityscape im which function has overcome form. We may not be able to change the world at a stroke, but why not start with the bus stop?

Ideas on a postcard please - or failing that, the back of a bus timetable.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Whole New (Brand) World?

In Tuesday's Metro, Simon Manchipp, "founder of the London-based design practice SomeOne" (it says here), wrote a piece about the death of the logo, declaring that the public don't want them anymore. Far better, he says, for brand to offer "immersive brand world experiences", citing a recent online survey. It is not made entirely clear exactly what this means, but from what we can deduce, it seem to mean a flexible identity that can be adapted to suit different pieces of communications.

There are are two possible responses to this, the short one, and the longer, slightly more considered one.

Let's go with the short one first: it's rubbish.

Now for the slightly more detailed version. Campaignable identities are not a new thing, but the idea that consumers have completely lost interest in logos looks a bit ridiculous when you consider the number of people walking around wearing a Nike swoosh on their trainers, eating at the Golden Arches, before getting into their Renaults and driving off into the Sunset.

The dominant trading environment for most brands and products remains the retail store (and yes I've read The Long Tail). These stores are not, for the most part, conducive to creating "brand worlds" and the visual shorthand of symbols and iconography remains the most effective way for brands to communicate and consumers to select the product they want. We all recognise and have some kind of emotional response to, for example, the Coca Cola bottle, the Innocent pip, The Famous Grouse's eponymous hero, etc. Yes we do have deeper and more active relationships with these brands through different communications channels, but these symbols are still hardwired into our conciousness and are guaranteed to trigger a response.

Now what Mr Manchipp was talking about was the 2012 European Championship identity, which has been developed to be customisable by supporters from individual nations. In the fact that it is designed to be more dynamic and flexible than the traditional static logo, it bears comparison to that other 2012 logo which got rather a lot of tongues wagging, the London Olympic Identity. The whole point of that, and why it was doomed to ridicule after being unveiled in such a ham-fisted way, was that it was meant to be animated so that it could be stretched across lots of different sub-brands for events, sponsors, merchandise etc. It was, and is, customisable.

But it is still a logo.

Symbols remain immensely powerful communication devices, For organisations of all sizes, they are as important internally as they are customers, providing a vital touchstone for all to rally around in good times and bad. This is why flags have such emotional resonance, even in cynical, sceptical, broken Britain.

The logo is not dead - technology and the communications revolution have given it new life.