In creating brands, design is often an undervalued asset.
By Steve Sandstrom
A graphic designer's business has been changing over the last 15 years. We are often crossing over into other design disciplines (3-D, interactive, industrial and product design, environmental, architectural, display, and broadcast design) or we are teaming up with designers from these other practices as consultants and sometimes partners. This multimedia approach is mostly the result of clients who want their brands to have a cohesive design philosophy and aesthetic. And as a result, the perception in the business world that design is important is growing. Clients are realizing design as a means for success. They believe design is strategic to building brands. This added interest and respect for our profession is something that I imagine existed in the heydays of Paul Rand and Saul Bass, before television advertising took over a client's focus and marketing budget.
Graphic design has been a part of the visual language of every culture, yet its proliferation may actually have contributed to it being taken for granted. When pop artist Andy Warhol did his Campbell's Soup can prints, did he credit the packaging designer? Did Roy Lichtenstein give credit to the graphic or commercial artists he ripped off in the name of fine art? The original designs were created by what Tom Wolfe described as "anonymous primitives," in his keynote address to the first AIGA national conference.
Industrial design has had considerable impact in recent years: Apple, Volkswagen, Oakley, Nike, Herman Miller's Aeron chair, Volvos with curves and ultra-flat TV's. It's hard to find a regular toothbrush these days. Michael Graves' designed home accessories created a reason for the style conscious to shop at Target. Now Target positions itself as "design for all," but I find this going a bit too far. Walk inside any Target and experience what Target really is: an ugly mass merchandiser, just slightly less ugly than some others.
What Target has is an accommodating corporate identity and a name that doesn't end with "mart." The graphic simplicity of Target's identity allows its position "design for all" to be more acceptable. Wal-Mart or Kmart could never make that claim. You can tell from their parking lots that they are not even remotely about design. Their signage lets you know that.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, Frank Gehry's architecture made another Guggenheim Museum as notable as the art inside. Philippe Starck's interior design sensibilities have made a difference for Ian Schrager's hotels. Design is a marketing buzzword—a household term. Never in my career has the awareness and recognition of design been like it is today.
Of course, not all design is good. The work is often decorative or without much of an idea or strategic thinking. At times, a piece of design's most redeeming quality might only be that it is trendy. Good design, however, remains typically undervalued. Perhaps graphic design suffers the most out of all the design disciplines in this regard.
As a business, graphic design is often conducted as a small (under 20 people) or single proprietor/freelance model. Most creative individuals have no mind for running a business of any size, so keeping the overhead and responsibility to a minimum size helps. There are larger, successful firms who command higher fees and are often run with better business sense, but the industry is all over the place with regard to fees and charges. And many designers will work for almost any amount if a project is exciting or interesting enough. Perhaps a key reason design has been undervalued is that the business of graphic design too often operates more as a service than a profession, and that is where advertising has done a much better job as a business model.
Design and advertising working together strategically can be a powerful alliance. We have partnered with many different advertising agencies on many different kinds of projects— designing ads, typography, packaging, broadcast graphics, props, posters, etc. Sometimes these ad agency relationships are great, and sometimes they aren't. Rarely are we involved early in the strategic stages, or given an appropriate budget or time to do the work. We get respect for our talent, but not as often for our thinking. However, we have been fortunate to have some great opportunities and terrific projects working with some of the brightest and best ad agencies in the country. And some of these collaborations have resulted in amazing work. We enjoy these relationships and know how to work well with agencies because Sandstrom Design actually grew out of one.
Dollars and Sense
When I make a claim about design being undervalued I should have something to back that up. So consider this: sometimes we are hired or recommended by an agency to develop a new identity for their very large client who everyone agrees could use a little help with their logo and image. The agency will give us a thorough presentation of the client's business, any research results, and explain their strategic thinking and creative solution for an ad campaign. This might include a new positioning line and recommended corporate philosophy. The agency may have suggested or even convinced the client that the time is right to review the logo and design something that better fits the campaign strategy and new direction for the client's marketing. A totally integrated campaign – it's like nirvana for marketing people.
This creates an interesting situation for us, the design firm. First is the consideration of what the cost will be to create this new identity. If, for example, we said $250,000, there would be stunned silence. If we said $100,000, or even $50,000, there would be throat clearing, and the comment might be that they had no idea a logo would cost that much. The agency just wants something nice to finish the spot. Something for the bottom of the print ad that doesn't suck, keeps the client happy and works well with the concept.
In a large market, an agency with a national client could easily charge $350,000 to $500,000 and up for the production of a single 30-second television spot. This spot might run for three-to-four months. It is true that it would require a team of talented and specialized people to produce such a TV spot, while it might take only one person to create the new corporate identity. But a logo is not created to last three-to-four months. It is a requirement that the logo be able to span many years and be the single symbol for this company.
Then consider this: the agency and the people working on the account will not likely be working on that business for the length of time the logo needs to function. In fact, it is possible that the agency's creative director will not be on that account for the rest of that year. And even less likely that the art director and writer will still be doing the ads six months from the time they brief us on their campaign and strategic plan. The next creative team will want to tweak the concept a little. It is unlikely that the positioning line will survive two years. But the logo?
As designers, we have to discern the real, meaningful qualities and lasting direction out of all the input from the agency and client. These qualities have to resonate beyond the ad campaign to create any long-term value. We can't allow a solution that just looks good on the ads and makes the agency creatives happy to be the answer if it doesn't hold up to a higher standard. So what is this worth? A 30-second commercial vs. a logo. Graphic design is undervalued.
A similar design firm/ad agency scenario can be applied to packaging. The agency might suggest that their client's packaging needs to fit into the look and feel of the ad campaign. Again we have the situation of package design needing to last longer than an ad campaign. And there is a different dynamic with packaging. The package houses/touches the product and in some cases nearly becomes the product. This is typically a more intimate consumer relationship than advertising, which is generally created to engage many consumers at a time. Packaging is created to engage with one consumer at a time.
A designer friend said she was once confronted with this question: "How much money will this new logo make for the company?" Because it was very clear to the client that advertising dollars could translate into measurable profits, but it was very unclear how much profit a new corporate identity could create. Therefore, the fee for the identity seemed questionable to the client. What if the identity was so bad it hindered the client's credibility and an unknown amount of business was lost because of this? How much is that worth? The value of an identity can be immediate and grow long term, but there's no absolute system to measure it.
It's the Shoes
Ad agencies often believe they are the builders and guardians of the brands they work on. And in the case of Wieden+Kennedy and Nike, most everyone would agree. They have had over 20 years in that relationship to make their case. Few agency/client relationships last that long or are that committed to creative excellence. Still, I believe good design can be more responsible for branding than advertising.
I worked at Nike from early 1984 to the end of 1988. When I started, the company was focused on manufacturing functionally innovative athletic footwear. Apparel was an afterthought—it was really any t-shirt, sock, bag, warm-up and basic cheap sportswear they could sew a logo on. The Nike business had grown to about $850 million by then, and it had taken them about 12 years to get there. Yet, in less than a third of that time, Reebok had grown to $1 billion. How could this happen?
Nike had reinvented sports marketing in the '80s. By the time I arrived, Nike was already a legend for its creative advertising despite limited media exposure. John Brown & Partners in Seattle where the tagline "There is no finish line" originated had set the standard high. The great work continued briefly at a small Portland agency called William Cain until Dan Wieden and David Kennedy left with the account. In 1984, some groundbreaking work was created by Chiat/Day, much of it focused on the LA Olympics. But since the late '80s, Wieden+Kennedy's remarkable run of Nike work has influenced all advertising.
Nike produced the most technically advanced and durable shoes for athletes. Male athletes. Functional, technical, athletic footwear, but generally unattractive. Nike's women's shoes were built specifically for women, but they looked just like the men's shoes with different colored swooshes. And because the shoes were so functionally driven, they had wide toe boxes, which made women's feet look fat. Nike sacrificed style for function. Reebok focused on style and made no outward commitment to performance.
Reebok had forgettable advertising (remember?). They had fewer and less significant athlete endorsements, but exceptionally cute aerobic shoes for women. Not great functionally, just soft and cute. They made women's feet look small. They came in boxes emblazoned with the British Union Jack, making them appear more cool and, well, British. They appeared to come from the place of so many trends in pop culture and music. Of course, the shoes were made in Asia along with Nike and virtually every other brand.
Women, being generally more style conscious than men, value design (beyond cars) as a part of their lives. The boys club that was Nike overlooked aerobics because it was primarily a women's activity. It must never have occurred to anyone in Nike's management at that time to look in their closet and count the number of shoes their wives owned. The number of women participating in sports was on the rise, but they were not given much attention at Nike as a consumer group. Phil Knight admitted this in an annual report (around 1987). He gave the company an "F" for the way Nike handled the women's business.
Reebok was beating Nike with product design that appealed to women and then crossed over to men as they entered the aerobics and fitness scene. (Where there are millions of women in tights, there will soon be men.) Nike had the best advertising and the best technically functioning shoes, but that couldn't outsell Reebok's better-looking sneakers. Air Jordan helped Nike stay closely competitive with Reebok, but it wasn't enough to overtake them. The point is, good design can overcome bad advertising, but it is really difficult for even the best advertising to overcome bad design.
When Tinker Hatfield designed the Air Max, the first Nike shoe with a visible air bag, style was finally introduced to Nike's functional technology. And that started a revolution within Nike. A commitment to designing apparel that was both technically innovative and attractive followed. Nike chose to commit to design (and to women) and injected design into every aspect of the company. Product, footwear and apparel design, graphic design, advertising, display and merchandising design, architectural and retail design, exhibit and event design, package design and Web design. (Of course, I left at the beginning of all this.) Nike became infused with design. The company doubled. And doubled. And doubled. This commitment to design has led up to over $10 billion annually and the brand dominates internationally.
Of course there are many significant aspects of business that make a company successful beyond a commitment to design. Advertising is only one of them. But design has projected Nike past any consumer need. It has created desire for their products and fulfills it. Design has done more in creating the image of Nike as a leader than even their bottom line has. So I ask, what's worth more? The world's best advertising or the swoosh? Ads helped build the brand, no question. Those ads added value to the brand, no question. But for Nike, innovative design and the commitment to design is the brand.
Some impressive marketing people have suggested to me that design will be the thing in the future of business. Chris Riley, a former planner for Wieden+Kennedy, started his own strategic marketing firm with this philosophy: Design first, then advertise.
Some ad agencies have considered design as a possible business strategy or at least as a business trend. Many agencies are adding design groups to their creative staffs to broaden their capabilities. This happened in the late ‘80s as integrated marketing had become popular, but the design groups didn't last long in the agency system. One west coast agency --had an in-house design group that grew to over 100 people. It evaporated.
Design is not the focus or core competency of an ad agency. Sometimes the most important function of having an in-house design group is simply to help land new business by offering the all-in-one solution to a prospective client. It is often sold for less than it should be. It is typically used to support the ad work—designers are usually trying to work with the established look of an ad campaign to create a piece of collateral or some point-of-sale materials. Rarely is design within an agency as strategic as it could be. Working in an ad agency can still be a good opportunity for a junior designer, especially if becoming an art director is appealing. But working in a traditional ad agency is usually a frustrating dead end for a talented and intelligent senior designer, because design is not the focus of the firm's business and is rarely understood or appreciated.
I think the only way for advertising and design to become a successful, lasting business relationship under one roof would be a true partnership—ownership shared by both of the endeavors. This way both disciplines have respect and importance in the agency's business model.
We are witnessing the formation of firms that are not the traditional agency model with design as a key component. And I think we will begin to see more design firms adding advertising to their services because some client relationships—particularly those that appreciate the level of brand building and insight that strategic design has provided them—are asking for this. This is an interesting switch. Whether or not design firms can be very good at advertising is to be determined. They would most likely have to improve their business acumen, gather the depth and understanding of the complex business of doing advertising, and then possess an unwavering passion to do it well beyond the look of an ad.
To read more of Steve Sandstrom's article, pick up a copy of the latest issue of one. a magazine.