The big shift: mastering the art of change in the age of change

Globally, there’s a major design shift underway. A shift away from ‘the big rebrand’ and towards continuous design thinking. A shift away from ‘safe’ makeovers and towards explorative processes. A shift away from design as graphics, packaging or user interface and towards design as sensorial experience and organizational guide. The question is how to master this change. In this industry insight we offer three steps we’re taking at VBAT to remain on the forefront of global design thinking, for our clients and for ourselves.

But before I begin, I’d like to tackle one key misconception. And it’s this: that design is simply about aesthetics. It’s not. These days brands that walk through our door perceive design as much more than something beautiful. They see it as an increasingly important driver of interaction with their consumers.

  1. Embrace design as a continuous process

    The big question is how to recognize shifts in design and, just as important, how to adapt to those changes. Graham Sturt, creative director at VBAT, says the most recent shift is different from previous ones in that it has catalyzed a complete rethink in what a design agency can and should be. At VBAT, this rethink has led to the hiring of new types of designers and a new approach in how we develop our talent.

    Today, our agency’s creative department consists largely of specialist teams. Each team has its own specific clients and its own unique approach. For The Heineken Company, for example, we created a dedicated unit that continuously works on 15-20 design projects for the Heineken green brand, and a separate unit whose focus is helping Heineken break into new categories by crafting entirely new propositions and rolling them out.

    For Enoki, a new healthy Asian fast-food proposition for Dutch Railways, we adhered to the brief by designing a refreshing brand environment. But we also created content, including the menu, in collaboration with the food design collective Mister Kitchen. For ING, we assembled a specialist team capable of thinking from a ‘smallest device perspective’. This approach contributed to ING achieving its transformation into a digital-first bank.

    Sturt says: “For ING, we reversed the typical design process by starting with an analogy: what if ING only lived on a smartwatch? Using a building blocks approach, we streamlined its typeface usage into a single unique typeface that could live as easily on the watch as it could on a billboard.”

    This is more than just dressing up. It is encouraging and educating designers to think like content creators and brand guardians. It treats design not as an end product but as a continuous process. In more and more cases, design is just the beginning.

  2. Cultivate a culture of curiosity

    Embracing design as a continuous process can be exhausting for everyone, most of all the designers. To fuel their curiosity and encourage a broader perspective, we push a future-forward agenda full of master classes and collaborations. A recent workshop on Biomimicry with Brazilian designer Fred Gelli, for example. Or a collaboration with The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious movement aimed at ridding the world’s oceans of plastic.

    These programs often have no clear purpose other than to inspire, yet a large number of them lead to new partnerships and collaborations. To the point, just like every creative, designers love world-improving projects. A few of ours at VBAT include a long-running branding and communication partnership with Amsterdam Gay Pride and EuroPride 2016.

    We have every intention of continuing our program of bringing in experts to help us understand the world better. It’s great that these efforts often lead to meaningful initiatives, but mainly we do it because it helps our designers to grow individually and collectively.

  3. Don’t forget who you are

    To do something continuous, design or otherwise, it has to be second nature. You can’t fake it. As our agency continues to expand its footprint across Europe, Asia and Latin America, we’ve come to realize the important role our ‘Dutchness’ has played.

    The Dutch are highly entrepreneurial, highly efficient and have an extremely good eye for detail. Whether it’s architecture or graphic design or horticulture or land reclamation, no other culture is so skilled at making something useful out of absolutely nothing.

    Or, as my colleague Graham Sturt, a native Englishman who found his way to the Dutch promised land likes to say: “The Dutch have a very open-minded and direct way of working. They are both wise and curious.”

    Wise and curious – that’s a good combination to have in an industry that is continuously changing. We’re proud that precisely these two characteristics are engrained in our DNA and we’re eager to export them to new clients and new cultures.

In conclusion, mastering the art of change in the age of change requires, in our experience, three things. First, create specialist teams that allow you to remain fast and flexible. Secondly, fuel the curiosity of the creatives you expect to deliver continuously by educating, inspiring and challenging them. Finally, understand what made you great in the first place and use it to grow your business and leave your mark on the world.

Mark van Egmond, Brand Director/Board Member, VBAT