The art of corporate design
John Lloyd, 2009

A lot has been written about the theory and practice of corporate identity. The territory, once the preserve of designers, has been colonised by management consultants, accountants, lawyers, business school professors and design managers. Today, you can find books about corporate identity or corporate branding, as it is now more widely known, that cover market research, strategy development, marketing, corporate positioning, brand architecture and brand valuation. These things are necessary in building a compelling identity but in the midst of all this sophisticated theory and analysis there is a danger that the contribution of the graphic designer and the significance of corporate design may be under-valued.

The power of creativity

It is obvious that it takes a lot more than a logo, symbol, typefaces, colours, and formats to create a corporate brand. The strength of a brand is measured by what people think of the organisation as a whole, not just by what they think of its visual representation. There are so many things, from the quality of products and services, the ease of use and clarity of brochures and web sites, the design of the premises in which the company conducts its business, to the way you are personally treated, that determine your feelings about a company. From a practice with its origins in graphic design, the consultancy I co-founded, Lloyd Northover has, along with others, pioneered the development and widening of the corporate identity discipline. The leading corporate identity design consultancies have grown to provide the full range of related research, strategic consultancy and counselling services. They advise on marketing and corporate communications programmes, and work with specialists in training and organisational behaviour to help fulfil the promises inherent in a corporate brand.

But, to produce an inspired creative solution you need more than this; you need an outstanding creative talent. It is clear that many of the new entrants to the field – the business school academics and the management consultants – lack creative imagination. They need as many processes, charts and diagrams as they can get, to help them find the answers. The best designers have a knack of picking up what is needed, and going quickly to the heart of the problem. The genius of great creative minds like those of Le Corbusier, Charles Eames, Saul Bass, had little, if anything, to do with customer segmentation and business process analysis.

The key component

Although it is only a small component in a corporate identity, a logo or symbol has a crucial role to play in enhancing perceptions of an organisation. It encapsulates and communicates, in a very immediate and direct way, the distinctive character of the organisation it represents. Like a national flag, it provides people with a tangible focus. For employees, and customers, it can help to galvanise a sense of belonging, loyalty and pride. Over time, the mark becomes strongly associated with the organisation, enabling outsiders to identify instantly its products, communications and physical assets. A good logo or symbol is not ephemeral; it outlives advertising campaigns, product life cycles and people. It, quite literally, adds value. Customers are happy to pay a premium for a good name and a strong brand. Brands, in the form of names, logos and symbols are, in themselves, valuable assets. They are priced by accountants; incorporated into financial balance sheets and exchange hands for spectacular sums of money. The IBM brand, designed by Paul Rand, was valued at over sixty billion US dollars in 2009. And, because its link with the organisation grows closer over time, the device continues to give greater value year after year.

The elements of the creative process

Contrary to what many people think, being a designer is not easy. Many professionals – accountants, lawyers and doctors, for example – follow established routines and for them each day is much like any other. For a designer, a new day presents a fresh challenge where an original solution has to be fashioned from almost nothing, avoiding repetition and plagiarism, rather like a painter facing an empty canvas or a writer or composer starting with a blank sheet of paper. The most creative designers are blessed with a natural talent, are never satisfied with mediocrity and drive themselves hard. In his book, Design, Form and Chaos, Paul Rand said that to achieve good design you need: inventiveness, intuition, judgement and experience. To those qualities, I would add: intelligence, curiosity, and diligence. Intelligence, for obvious reasons and because designers need the intellectual skills to be able to assimilate, sift, filter, assess, interpret and organise masses of information; curiosity, because an interest in the wider world, and continuous learning, lead to knowledge and because knowledge provides the necessary resource from which a designer needs constantly to draw; diligence, because persistent effort brings results. Tough as it is, creative design is a stimulating and rewarding experience. Nothing beats the excitement you feel when you know that you have found the right solution to a client’s problem.

Art versus design

So, what is meant by The art of corporate design? And, what do the terms art and design mean in this context? In many respects the words are interchangeable. The Concise Oxford Dictionary mixes the words and describes art as ‘imitative or imaginative skill applied to design, as in paintings, architecture etc.’ Design is defined as ‘preliminary sketch for a picture, plan of building, machine etc.’ In the past, the words were often used synonymously. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists published in 1568 uses both words interchangeably. He describes the Florentine painter, Giotto, as being ‘drawn instinctively to the art of design’. A fresco or sculpture needed to be designed or planned before it could be painted or carved. The acts of painting and carving needed great art or skill from the artists who competed avidly to outshine each other with their virtuosity. So, by art I mean, in the context of corporate graphic design, the skills and visual judgement required by a designer to originate and execute a creative solution. As a verb, the word design means to pursue the process of producing the creative solution; as a noun it means the creative solution itself – the ultimate design.

Throughout the Renaissance and up to the end of the nineteenth century, art was truly commercial. Artists were paid to create designs for walls and ceilings or to produce portraits. Many of them ran thriving businesses and employed several assistants. The messages to be conveyed by the works of art were not those of the artist but, rather, of the client who might be commissioning a religious subject to decorate a church, a secular subject to adorn a town hall, or a mural extolling the virtues and achievements of a noble family. The fields of art and design were inextricably linked. In the modern world there has been a separation between these areas of creative activity. To a large extent, modern artists have divorced themselves from the direct influence of clients and patrons. As a result, artists now set and solve their own problems. Fine art has become an expression of the artist’s ideas and preoccupations, whereas a graphic designer is paid to express his client’s identity and messages. In this regard, it could be said that the working practices of the modern graphic designer are closer to those of the artists of the Renaissance than they are to those of contemporary fine artists.

The expression of the self by the modern artist and the expression of the client by the designer seems to me to be the main difference between the fields of fine art and corporate design today. Corporate identity design is not, and I believe should never be, about the self-expression of the designer.

A successful designer will study the research, absorb the brief, understand and empathise with the client organisation, and will then deploy his creative skills to the full to give unique expression to the corporate entity. That is the art of corporate design.

John David Lloyd: