Gone with the Wind

August 23rd, 2011 by Mat Dolphin

A couple of months ago we took a trip to the Pentagram offices in Needham Road, West London to attend a talk by designer, Pentgram partner, author and all round nice-guy Angus Hyland. The talk focused on symbols and was organised in conjunction with the publication of Symbol, the recent book by Hyland and Steve Bateman. The talk was utterly brilliant and the book is equally so. Highly recommended.

Whilst I could write at length about the talk itself and the points Hyland raised, there was one thing he said that particularly stuck out for me. When talking about the more unusual, quirky and perhaps even awkward logo designs from years gone by Hyland said…

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“If you go through the wind tunnel you will never end up with your quirky Pirelli logos* – everything becomes anodyne. Quirkiness comes about through a combination of client naivety and budget.”

*The evolution of the Pirelli logo

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The ‘wind tunnel’ effect he was referring to was the client approval process. The part of any design project were the client (or group of clients) make changes, tweaks and amendments to the design which ’round off the edges’ and essentially dilute the purity of the original concept.

This post is certainly not a rant about the client asking for changes to be made. Good design can work brilliantly as a collaboration between the designer and the party who are paying for the service. I’m not an artist and the creative work I produce is not a vehicle to express my own views and opinions. It’s design, and it’s sole purpose is to communicate the messaging of the client or product. The kind of designer who throws a tantrum at the request to make changes should maybe consider a change of profession. That said, there are certain changes which can take a significant amount of the core idea away from the design and result in the original thinking behind the design being, at best, watered down or possibly even lost completely.

What could go wrong?
The addition of pointless or confusing brand elements. The insistence on colour, type and layout changes to appease personal taste. The request to add something in an attempt to ‘fill up the white space’. Requests of this kind don’t necessarily ‘ruin’ a design, and there are times when they may even improve it. More often than not though, the result is a ‘meet in the middle’ compromise which leaves the concept of the design in a state of limbo.

Is there a way to combat these changes?
Well, yes. But it’s not easy. If you don’t want the thinking behind your design to end up in a conceptual no mans land, the only answer, I’m afraid, is to have WPI — ‘Wind Proof Ideas’. Ideas so fucking brilliant that no amount of client input will affect them. Ideas which stand up to the most rigorous cross examination and come out intact. If you have a valid reason for every single design decision you make and a well-reasoned argument against every request which takes the design a step further away from it’s original brilliance, you’ve done it. You’ve come up with a design concept so spot-on that the wind tunnel of client feedback can’t rob it of its the purity and soften the corners.

A very simple defence, but far from easy to achieve.

Another key factor to this situation is obviously trust. However brilliant, original and inherently ‘right’ your idea is for a particular piece of communication, the client needs to agree with you on some level. They may have concerns and doubts (after all, it’s their money), they may even be scared (as Bernadette Jiwa rather eloquently points out here), but your job as a designer with a good idea is to reassure, explain and educate why the idea will work brilliantly and not be improved by the addition of a huge logo. Some clients will take a bit of convincing, others will take a lot, some will point blank refuse to be convinced, but if the idea is mind-blowingly good enough it is our duty to push it past these niggling worries and into fruition.

Perhaps the days of characterful, slightly weird looking Pirelli style logos are behind us and the approval process of the corporate machine will blunt any sharp edges on anything with a suggestion of quirkiness. But if the ideas are amazing and the thinking behind the design is strong enough, no amount of client requests will result in your concept being gone with the wind.

But what do you think?

Thanks for reading,
Mat


6 Responses to “Gone with the Wind”

  1. All good points and a lot of these issues come down to starting off with a great client relationship. If boundaries are set early it can make it much less stressful later.

    A good idea that has worked well in the past is to make the client feel like they are part of a collaborative process right from project inception. If they feel like the idea is as much theirs as the creative teams (even if this is not entirely true) it makes them fully believe in it later, especially when it comes to presenting to their internal stakeholders which is where, more often than not, the problems come from these days.

    Comment by Martin Lee — August 24th, 2011 @ 12:06 pm |
  2. This is a wonderful can of worms you’ve opened… I’ll be interested to see the stories that unfold.

    I’ve always relished meeting a client for the first time, as it’s a genuinely exciting experience, regardless of brief, budget and so on.

    And as nice as it is to be connect with a client, whether that be on a creative or friendship level, it all boils down to solving a problem, and creating something that surpasses the clients’ and/or customers’ expectations (that last bit is the holy grail).

    And Martin is absolutely right when he says about presenting to internal stakeholders. I’ve found this with the large corporations where, in some cases, the creative concepts have been withdrawn days before senior presentations due to fear of rejection. These are usually the ideas that push the boundaries or take the visual style/tone to a new or different level. Perhaps that’s where the classic ‘three concepts’ was born? And presenting a clients’ brand and ideas back to them? That, for me, doesn’t add value to the project. Generating new ideas are why we (designers) are at the table!

    I’ve always offered to present the concepts to the internal stakeholders myself/with my team. And if you haven’t met them before, this opportunity may give you a single nugget of detail that could change the project for the better. Plus, of course, it makes “us designers” more human than simply functioning from behind a desk.

    For me, I find the start-ups and smaller companies more fun to work with. The budgets are tight, the brief’s more open and they are a wee bit more welcoming to a designers experience and ideas.

    But that’s just my take…

    Comment by Ryan Dixon — August 24th, 2011 @ 1:03 pm |
  3. This is spot on. A strong idea has the strength to see past some of the sometimes baffling amends and changes that designers face.

    I agree with Ryan that smaller companies can be more open, but I have also found that because they are the business owners and much more emotionally attached to their money, that sometimes they want to design it themseleves and try and use the designers skills to do so, which can be frustrating.

    I suppose whichever way you look at it, there will always be some clients no matter how great the idea, that will always assume that their ideas are better! Insight into what design means to the client will always help in understanding whether they think design is just going to ‘make it look nice’ or something deeper and more meaningful than that.

    Comment by Gemma — August 24th, 2011 @ 4:28 pm |
  4. I appreciate your observations and insights into defending ideas. It’s a problem as old as time, but the more that’s at stake, the more skittish people become. As Charles Kettering, the American inventor, put it: “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.” That’s part of the reason Steve Jobs departure from Apple is so widely lamented. He managed to keep the big ideas pure.

    Coincidentally, just this morning I just posted thoughts on guiding ideas through treacherous waters: http://bit.ly/qUDWTQ

    Comment by Dan Woychick — August 25th, 2011 @ 5:13 pm |