Why 2017 should be a time for more collaborative, participatory brands

Design isn’t decoration, it has to reflect the behaviour of its users, and our users want to have a voice, says Pentagram’s Marina Willer, a jury chair at this the 2017 D&AD Professional Awards

Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

The role of the designer is changing. The era of the lone creative genius silently working at their desk is over. People no longer respond to overbearing inflexible brands, and why would they when collaboration, diversity and changeability have become key tenets of modern life? Design isn’t decoration, it has to reflect the behaviour of its users, and our users want to have a voice.

The world we live in is more mixed, more cosmopolitan, more challenging and more complex than ever. We live in a divided society, and every brief brings with it the possibility to start a conversation and brings people a little closer to each other than they were before.

The Wolff Olins-designed identity for Tate and a banner at Tate Modern. The design team was headed up by WO chair Brian Boylan and creative director, Marina Willer, now a partner at Pentagram in London. Photos: Tate Photography © Tate 2013
The Wolff Olins-designed identity for Tate and a banner at Tate Modern. The design team was headed up by WO chair Brian Boylan and creative director, Marina Willer, now a partner at Pentagram in London. Photos: Tate Photography © Tate 2013

2017 presents us with the opportunity to create more public and collaborative brands, whether it’s a political campaign, an identity for a corporation or a poster for a museum. I first became interested in participative brands a decade ago when, based on a strategy defined by Wolff Olins, I helped to create an ever-changing brand system for the Tate which used a “living” mark to allow users to find beauty based on their own perceptions. I’ve since implemented open systems for clients like the Serpentine Galleries and seen other examples of it, like my brilliant Partner Michael Bierut’s MIT identity, which introduced a system that can generate endless combinations of beautiful, understandable modern-day hieroglyphics.

Campaigning for participative design is very different from saying that everyone can be a designer. Great design is a craft and a skill, because brands need good designers like buildings need good architects. Neither is it a plea to let go of grids and guidelines, because it’s difficult to create beauty without a system for it to exist in. Rather, it’s a call against inserting too much discipline into our designs, a stubborn habit which leaves no space for collaboration and co-creation.

In the times we live in it’s impossible to be dictatorial and just say you have to use Helvetica or a certain colour or a certain type format. We need create the structures or flexible frameworks that allow things to grow within them in an organic way. Our role is to negotiate between the beauty of Swiss design and the joy of improvisation and rhythm – to mix science and art. The magic of modern design can only happen when we get that balance right; that’s when we create brands that last because they are owned by everyone.

It’s never been more essential to break out of the silos of designer and creator to work with everyone and for everyone. When we watch the news, we see a world that is closing doors, with Brexit, Trump and the tragedy of millions of refugees who are unable to find a home. If the world is shifting, so is design, and we need to help make that a positive change. We need to create work that delivers connection through beauty, rather than beauty for its own sake.

And what impact would collaborative brands have on awards, like D&AD pencils? Well, work that celebrates diversity and collaboration would be rewarded; work that connected us to the world makes impact should be rewarded; and work that is for people, not for judges would be rewarded.

The days of awards as self congratulatory should long be gone: no more fake briefs for clients that don’t exist or judges that don’t vote others out of jealousy. Awards need to set an example by celebrating work that facilitates social change, defines culture and determines where design is going next. Otherwise what is the point?

Marina Willer is a Partner at Pentagram Design and D&AD 2017 Professional Awards Jury President for Branding

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