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John Whittingdale Design Branding

Design's image problem: The price of everything and the value of nothing

By Chris Moody, creative director

May 11, 2016 | 5 min read

The BBC’s nemesis John Whittingdale heads up the government department responsible for the design industry – Culture, Media and Sport.

Aside from the fact this is a farcically broad remit (the equivalent of having a department of Things, Stuff and Wotsits) it also appears to have a relatively light touch in terms of the creative industries. However, over the past few months there has been a surprising amount of media focus that has truly united all of these industries around the topic of design, and unfortunately it has been in a largely negative way.

In sport, the Premier League was taken to task about its new identity, while 2016/17 Championship team Aston Villa were also quizzed by the media for committing to a new brand expression.

The main challenge here wasn't the work itself, it was the questioning of a need for change at all. Why bother? What's wrong with the old stuff? Is it really necessary? These are sadly common questions asked of most design projects.

The flippant answer is that change is good; change keeps the world fresh and bright. A more realistic response is that the world is moving fast and to keep up, brands need to adapt, grow and morph, particularly in a global arena like football.

Much like a football team, a modern brand expression is never complete; it needs to be constantly tweaked, developed and new formations regularly tested. In the same way that Leicester utilised a huge dashboard of sports science techniques to storm to the title, a brand presence should be constantly being updated and streamlined. You wouldn't run Windows 3.0 on your new Samsung Galaxy, so why on earth would you keep the same homepage or even logo for 15 years. Change, including graphic change, keeps you sharp and competitive.

The return on creativity

After time wasting, the other main accusation is wasting money. Again like football, all design press ultimately comes down to cash. The figures attached to design work are more often than not deemed monstrously high.

One of the reasons for this is that design is seen as a 'nice to have'. It's what kids first do at school, it's often more related to play than profit.

This is the challenge designers often feel the most nervy about responding to. It's hard to measure the ROI on design, but the truth is, it is often huge. It is striking for example how PwC has raised the profile and power of its whole organization by using brand and identity as a change lever. It now sits below only Lego in a recent list of the world’s most powerful brands.

Good design is good business and good business makes money. Last year, the UK creative industries as a whole contributed £8.8 million to the UK economy every single hour, and the UK currently has the second largest design industry in the world, and the largest in Europe. Which leads us to another point...

In the cultural (and political sphere) there was also a great deal of sniping about a pamphlet: the-pro Europe campaign booklet produced by the British taxpayer for a cost of between nine to 10 million quid.

Now while it certainly didn't cost that (not unless the government is spiking the printing ink with baby unicorn blood) the design issue with the pro-Europe leaflets wasn't the expense, it was the execution.

Convincing the public to remain in a progressive and collaborative relationship with our European neighbours is a just, worthwhile (and frankly obvious) cause, but it was approached with a complete lack of creative thought. Was that really the best that we could do? Imagine how the Dutch or the Swedes would have dealt with it? Good design can break boundaries and change minds but our leaders need to change their perception of what is good enough.

Design is not the fluff that goes around our lives; it's an important part of driving commerce, £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy. Design is fun and design is at times, play. It is also business critical, it's of tremendous value to industry, our economy and our day-to-day lives.

All design costs money and takes time, great design adds value and brings longevity, but the best design changes our world and our lives for the better.

Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins. You can follow him on Twitter @moodythinking

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