Turner Duckworth: Turning heads on two continents

The stylish work of design firm Turner Duckworth has been on the radar of design aficionados for some time. But in the past year, thanks in part to a blossoming relationship with Coca-Cola, the firm has achieved an unprecedented level of acclaim and visibility. The firm is unusual in that its founding partners—David Turner and Bruce Duckworth—are divided by an ocean, with Turner running a San Francisco office and Duckworth manning the helm in London. It’s not a case of one office being an offshoot of the other—on the contrary, TD has been split up from the get-go, and it seems to have worked out well, according to the partners. one.design spoke with the two of them recently, and as usual, they were ensconced in their separate locations at the time.

Bruce Duckworth: We actually started out working together sixteen years ago, when we set up shop in London. But we were only there about three before David followed his then-girlfriend off to San Francisco with a view to hoping it would all work out and it did. [Both with the company and the girlfriend, who became his wife.-Ed]

We’ve often said the reason we’re still in partnership after all these years is that we’re 6,000 miles apart from each other. It’s been our strength. Each office generates its own income and each client relationship is owned by a particular office, but the creative work goes back and forth between the two. And that’s been a great thing over the years because it gives you that different perspective on the work.

In each of our studios we have a little model of a rocket, from Tintin’s “Adventures to the Moon.” We gave it to each other, because we’d said many years ago that we wanted to have adventures in design. That’s a little visual reminder, a symbol to remind ourselves to keep having those adventures. And it really works. For example, when we took on a large project here for a DIY chain called Homebase, we were concerned because it was a huge project—they needed something like 40,000 packages designed for them. We thought, this could end up being a chapter in our history called “the wilderness years,” because it could take us out of circulation. But we look at our little rocket and say, what the hell, let’s take it on, even if it seems like a big challenge.

We don’t think of ourselves so much as a design firm as a consumer branding company: and so, whatever that means, and wherever it goes, that’s where we’ll go. As long as the challenge has a member of the public at the end of it, then we’re interested. But we’ve stuck to our core skills.

We’re all trying to get that brand experience right and today there are many more vehicles for getting personal with your customer than ever before, more modern brands are finding it easier. Cohesion is the key word, I think; not “consistency,” which has a tendency to become corporate and dull, but cohesion. The days when you used to be able to just stick on a commercial are over—so now every little tiny piece of communication has to work much better. And it has to be kind of tailored to individual situations, but at the same time it has to all fit together. That’s cohesion.

We’re known for the simplicity of our work; I believe that if you can strip away everything that’s unnecessary, you end up communicating what’s most important. Packaging can easily become muddled, because design is constantly being added on, without taking anything away. People add, and add, and there comes a point sometimes when you have to go back to a clean sheet of paper and start again. In the case of our work for Waitrose, that simplicity and clarity is part of the brand ethos. Packaged brands tend to have to say everything to everybody all the time, because they never know where they’re going to be situated, what corner they’ll be in or which shelf. Whereas the store can determine exactly where its own brands will be placed – so the owned-label can sit there very cool and sophisticated, next to the other guys, and say, “We do everything they do.”

Design is becoming way more important than it has ever been. Because it’s such a consistent message and is tampered with once every five years instead of every year, that cohesion/consistency is more important. Ad agencies are struggling to know where they fit. I know ad agency people will disagree, but I tend to think designers have a much more long-term view about branding than the ad side has traditionally had. And when I work with ad agencies, often it seems the work is tactical rather than being geared for the next five years.

David Turner: We try to always have a mix of the big brands everybody’s heard of and entrepreneurial brands, so we work with quite a lot of startups. To take on something like Coke was a concern at first. We’d done some Coke-related projects, but not on the main brand. And when we were asked if we wanted to work on the main brand—well, you know, we’re not a huge agency, and we’re full of people who love design. And I said, I’m worried that this could be the job that kills my agency. I also felt that what Coke had done in recent years, didn’t interest me. And they said, “That’s exactly why we want you to do it.”

Coke had a similar conversation with Dan Wieden before convincing him to take on the assignment. When Coke showed us some of the ads Wieden had begun to do for the brand—beautiful, simple, and understated—that actually convinced me to take the job. I thought if that’s possible on the advertising side, then maybe it is possible on the design side and let’s have a go at it.

Coke’s first brilliant move was internal branding—to rename the department so that it went from being something like “design services” to “creative excellence.” Just by calling yourself that, you kind of set the bar high. Which obviously means your job isn’t that secure because you’ve got to deliver on creative excellence. It says, internally, “Look, we care about this stuff.” And by hiring David Butler and Moira Cullen—both with a strong design background—they put internal design advocates in at a decent level, and gave them the job of fighting tooth and nail to do great work.

With the aluminum Coke bottle, we were trying to get this complicated visual story down to the absolute simplest it could possibly be, while doing something that’s bold and unexpected. We oversized the logo, so there’s no angle from which you can see that whole logo. Most logos, if you do that it falls apart—if you see it from the wrong angle, you don’t know what brand it is. But with Coke, it’s so recognized. You can snip a bit off it and show it to somebody and they’ll know it’s Coke. And so we were able to supersize and wrap it around, and that has an incredible confidence and positive feel to it. It feels like it’s exploding with joy, or at least that’s the way I see it. At the same time, we felt the packaging also has to be simple, with nothing else on it. Packaging for a lot of brands often becomes an opportunity to tell lots of stories, and to promote some deal at Six Flags, or a theme around recycling, and so forth. We felt we had to strip away any information that is more about selling you stuff than helping you understand. We said, “Look, the Coke can should just be a beautiful red can—and all this other crap shouldn’t be on it.” And when you do that, it inspires the consumer to say, “This makes me feel great. It’s not somebody selling to me.”

I think one of the biggest services we provide is to constantly have the point of view of the consumer in everything we do. So in the case of Coke, what does a Coke consumer want to see? Where graphic design plays a part in experience is making things really clear and at the same time, making them kind of exciting. Particularly with Coke, where most of the delivery of product is standardized in terms of form, graphic design can do this great combination of making it easy to understand and at the same time making you really want it. I think this is what Apple is genius at—they make you feel that everybody within Apple is just having a blast. And these days, the brands that can give the impression that the people inside the organization love the brand, those are the ones that really connect with consumers.

It’s different for different brands—with Metallica, for example, it isn’t just about making everything as simple as possible. It’s more about using the graphics to communicate that they’ve gone back to their roots a little bit. Just by creating a reworked logo that was more reminiscent of their earlier logos, instead of their most recent ones, it immediately told their fans, “the Metallica we love is back.”

It’s amazing how attuned people are to these subtle things that happen in graphic design. These are things that seem technical when you talk about them, but people actually have a real gut feeling for them. I’m always amazed when, in design presentations, people who aren’t designers will talk about the curve of an S and what that makes them feel. Part of what’s so beautiful about design is that a lot of it is not conscious. An ad may tell you something, but with design you just feel it.

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