“Remarkably touchy lot, designers”

In his second CR column on new identity work, creative director James Greenfield suggests that the mainstream media’s knee-jerk and ill-informed reaction to logo design is an insult to one of our strongest creative exports. Graphic design needs to fight back.

Welcome to brand hell
This week saw the release of new logo for The Met. Two weeks ago there was the refresh of the Premier League. Two weeks before that it was Uber. As the decade rolls on each branding project is met with an increasing amount of attention, scorn and, in some cases, ridicule. Most brand teams expect this feedback, accept it and shrug their shoulders at inevitable public backlash from ‘logo obsessed zombies’ as The Met director Thomas P Campbell termed them this week.

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The new identity for the Premier League by DesignStudio

The part which confuses me, however, is how much mainstream journalism is fuelling this collective ire and misunderstanding for the general public. From the cabbie telling me the new Premier League logo was crap and cost millions because he heard it on the BBC, to the Guardian setting up a competition to rebrand the Premier League because, in their words, “Frankly we think that you can do better…”.

Better, they believe, than the respected design company I was once creative director of; better than the team of people, with their collective hundreds of years of experience, who spent months working on this? Because it’s all a big joke, right?

The Guardian’s reader competition elicited some frankly pointless, unfunny riffs on the Premier League’s wealth and also some serious attempts (the genuinely funny part of the whole thing, in their pure stupidity). Yet the Guardian is a repeat offender with this brand of humour. In 2015, Andy Murray’s new logo by Aesop was met with the same idea alongside an insightful review from Paul Campbell that the new logo “just looks like a few black lines on a white background”. The BBC debuted a similar approach for the ultimate controversy logo, the 2012 London Olympics, with similarly dull results. What did either news organisation really get out of these exercises?

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Personally, I feel these ‘competitions’ are disrespectful and thinly veiled click-chasing by media outlets looking to sustain big visitor targets and create reader engagement. When I saw the Guardian’s most recent competition, I took to social media and got in touch with the head of sport for the Guardian and the Observer, Ian Prior, to ask him about this competition and why they felt compelled to run it.

A few tweets in, his response was “Remarkably touchy lot, designers?” suggesting later that I should “save my tears”. At the time, my reaction was of frustration and surprise. Here’s a serious leading newspaper treating our industry with a patronising pat on the head. They cover a myriad of topics to appeal to a broad set of tastes, yet it seems branding isn’t deserved of their attention beyond those pure lols.

We don’t see every new aeroplane, sports arena or digital product design met with such derision, the mainstream press lining up with “Crap, we think you could have done better!” Ian’s response and that of others led me to question ‘Why do they have issues discussing branding and why is it such a rich seam of scorn?’

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Wolff Olins ‘recently unveiled identity for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The logo (see top of post) has proved divisive on the internet

It’s just colours and shapes
I doubt there’s one definitive answer on why we’re the butt of this particular joke. One place I start though, is the thinking that graphic design is perceived to be easy. It’s colouring-in and a few shapes, slapping new logos on old brands, something anyone could do with the right software and some time.

The counterbalance is that we, as designers, don’t really help ourselves – could it be the fault of our egos? We often take ourselves so seriously, which, in turn, leads our own discussions into “I can do better” – not to mention the arguments about kerning, colour and which typeface is best. If we act like this online, in public, then maybe the press take their cues from that?

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I also believe that misperception is easy in our industry, which, ironically, is branding’s beauty – its simplicity, when it’s good, is also its key attack point. It’s why so many people miss the semiotic triggers which make them buy goods, engage with messages and watch content globally every day. Not every journalist lacks the insight or skill to talk about these important jobs with grace and understanding, however.

On wired.com, Margaret Rhodes wrote a long piece about The Met brand and its background. She concluded towards the end of the piece that “New logos will always and forever invoke knee-jerk reactions, but that’s all they are: sudden, involuntary, and, very often, personal. The true value of a new graphic identity only becomes apparent over time.”

This line struck a chord with me as it took me back to 1997 and Magaret Thatcher’s reaction to the British Airways World Image tail fins designed by Newell & Sorrell. Her disgust at their global appeal and the loss of the Union Jack showed how ahead of their time they were. I can’t begin to imagine the social media storm if that was to happen today.

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Photo by Adrian Pingstone, August 2005, Wikipedia

Some launches are more controversial than others, of course, depending on how invested the public are in the project. In the Premier League’s case, the richest football league in the world faces accusations of a lack of connection with fans – they are treated less like fans and more like customers – against a backdrop of record breaking TV money and fan ticket protests.

All valid concerns, as the world’s most supported game skirts around the moral limit of capital and what should be for profit or not. But I think some journalists let this affect their own take on the new logo by letting their feelings about the brand’s actions cloud their reading of the new visual brand.

The author Thomas E Patterson wrote around this ‘personal infection’ in journalism in his 2013 book Informing the News. He argues the desperate need for thorough journalism that doesn’t use facts without context, doesn’t let personal theories get in the way, that stands up to scrutiny.

Now, I’m not saying design reviews are as important as democracy, justice and social liberty, but for the 500,000 people directly employed by design in the UK, contributing 7% of GDP, well, some respect and understanding wouldn’t go amiss.

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The age of entitlement
If we take a step back from the topic and look at the wider trends of the digital revolution then the role of the ‘self’ plays an interesting part in this story. We live in an age of connection where millennials pour every thought into the world through the powerful computer that’s in every pocket. (In his excellent book Anti-Fragile the essayist and risk analyst, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, discusses the increasing ingratitude of the masses in this globalised digital age: his is an analysis of randomness and the over-confidence that many in this century display.)

If all designers can talk about is colours or kerning values or how with five minutes of their own time this logo could have been so much better, then how do they expect people who run organisations to take them seriously as people who can make a really valuable contribution to their business? Let alone the press who need to sell more papers and adverts, whilst wondering what’s going to happen in the face of dwindling reader numbers.

There’s also an observation on my part that it’s a lot of younger commentators who are doing the damage. Their lack of experience and excitement around a launch causes them to fire off tweets and comments without considering how it would feel if others were discussing their own work. The golden rule for people fresh out of college – those people you’re attacking could one day be your team mates. How would it feel reading those tweets out to them in person?

We live in a perfect storm where time-poor journalists misinterpret easy work created by overly sensitive designers with over-inflated senses of their own place in the world. A situation not helped when one of our own threatens to sue a well respected designer because his obscure geometric theatre logo looks like the new Tokyo 2020 logo. That story did so much damage to us a collective group and led most of the people I know to be deeply frustrated. Triangles, squares and circles are the building blocks of the most basic of identities and nothing, literally nothing, is original.

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Time to break the cycle
All designers can be guilty of moments of indulgence, lacking self awareness in our pursuit of perceived control and perfection. Are we just boring ego manics? I don’t think so. If any other collective endeavour was treated with such repeated contempt, how would their union or representing body respond? We need to represent our values, stop being so nice and own the conversation by being a bit more up-in-arms. Maybe it’s time a body such as D&AD owned this conversation and showed mainstream journalism it’s time to take our design endeavours seriously.

In these uncertain times here’s a booming export the whole world looks to us for, one which delivers a great career to our young people and is working to be diverse and inclusive. Graphic design – it’s mainly pens, just like journalism was.

James Greenfield is founder and creative director of Koto. He tweets @gradiate. See studiokoto.co and @studiokoto. His first CR column, on the recent Uber rebrand, is here.

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