Sharing 08: Method Designing

This recent client is a user led charity set up to champion, promote and assist disabled people taking control of their own care provision through the adoption of a personal budget.

Prior to personal budgets being made an available option, those requiring care or assistance in the course of their daily lives were at the mercy of the local authority who dictated exactly what care would be provided, and how and when it would be administered. Typically, this arms length approach to care management, based on only a rudimentary assessment of need, leads to a compromised and often infuriatingly impractical solution for the service user.

The introduction of personal budgets were recognition by the state that it can’t apply a one-solution-fits-all approach to care. Individuals are just that, individual, and their care needs differ on a person by person basis. Considered a victory of common sense by many, in effect personal budgets take the money the state would have paid for an individual’s care, and instead hand it directly to the individual. Putting that budget in the control of the end user is a simple way of ensuring the right sort of care is provided, as the decisions are made by the very person who needs it, and they’re free to make whatever decisions they wish by spending the money any way they see fit.

One member of the group I met during the consultation process, a wheelchair user with experience of both the old system and the new system, was very keen to inform me of the life changing effect this switch had brought him.

Prior to the changeover, he had been at the mercy of a twice daily visit from whichever rushed nurse was in the vicinity, who had to hurriedly fit in assisting him bathe and get in and out of bed around a hectic schedule racing around providing similar care to people all over town. His situation highlighted how difficult it is to live any sort of meaningful life when your daily routine has to fit around the inconsistent timetable of a badly overstretched nurse. Having only been able to get out of bed at 11am and put back there again at 4pm, and allowed only the occasional shower, it was clear the system really wasn’t working.

Upon taking control of his own affairs, he was able to employ a regular personal assistant of his choice to be there when his timetable dictated, to provide the exact and consistent assistance he needed. Be it child care, transport, assistance getting to work, assistance with domestic responsibilities, whatever, now he had started calling the shots, his care provision could finally start living up to its name.

For the same cost to the state, personal budgets allow a meaningful and productive life to be lived where before, all too often only mere existence was permitted. A victory for common sense it certainly is. However it’s far from plain sailing.

With all control handed over to you, you have all the responsibility. You’re on your own. The task of employing your own personal assistant might not initially sound that tricky, but when you realise how little you know about advertising for and interviewing staff, employment law, disciplinary procedure and all the things companies employ full time HR departments to deal with, you start to realise how complicated it’s going to be.

Compounding the already terrifying nature of that prospect, typically those choosing to take on a personal budget are those coming from the old regime of day centres and health visitors, entangled in a lowest common denominator, state sanctioned bureaucracy where a culture of reliance and placidity is almost positively encouraged. So overnight, people are propelled from a world where their bedtimes are decided for them by people they’ve never met into one where they’re suddenly faced with such baffling and very serious subjects as the intricacies of employment law.

It’s a massive eye opener, a huge step to take that is both wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. But of course it’s a step very much worth taking, and should you chose to take it, my client is there to provide any help and advice you may need. And being a user led organisation, they can do this because they’ve been through it themselves, so they know the ropes better than anyone.

With that information and more gathered over a number of meetings and conversations, it was time to start working on a new identity for this group before their impending relaunch.

From the information gleaned, it was clear the most vital message this logo had to convey was that of change, of ‘before and after’. We wanted a device that could clearly communicate the confines of the old system and the benefits of the new, whilst addressing the fact that taking such a step can also be a terribly scary prospect.

With those three messages to communicate in one device, the open box was the eventual solution. Not just open though, our box had to be burst wide apart. It needed to show that the walls can come down, and what that means. It had to show that the rules can change, that you can be the master of your own destiny and that you can do whatever you see fit to do.

Funnily, this idea informed not just the actual concept behind my design, but also its delivery. This logo has actually caused me some inner turmoil as it breaks just about every rule I have. Nothing follows a grid, nothing sits level and the type sits at an angle across the box below, with everything existing in pseudo 3D space.

As a result of this haphazard structure, it’s a nightmare to align with anything on a page, it needs a huge exclusion zone and it really doesn’t scale well. It relies on halftoning to properly reproduce in single colour and it uses shading and subtle detail easily lost. It’s more illustration than logo, an aesthetically complicated solution of the kind I generally try to avoid. I was happy that it makes its point with satisfactory concision, it just does so in a slightly untidy way.

But it’s not the result of laziness or lack of care, of me settling for the first composition that came along. Really, that untidiness is the design, informed directly by the message it had to convey.

The game has changed, the walls have come down, the rules have gone; if I couldn’t allow myself to work like this, how could I do justice to the message? If I was to let my preconceived graphic designer idea of what makes a good logo dictate the outcome, then I wasn’t waving goodbye to the rules at all. I was still trapped in the system myself.

So I alone (or rather the brief, using me as its agent) had to be entirely in charge of proceedings. I had to do what felt right. I needed to leave the confines behind; to hell with the so called rules dictated by the design industry, the old regime. We now live in a high-def, digitally printed world so forget self imposed, antiquated one colour plus black limitations, forget convention and classical tradition – if I want to use a full colour illustration as a logo I can, and if it works, then I will.

The very fact that it’s a bit eccentric, informal and ignores the plane of the page it’s on, the very fact that it doesn’t easily slot into a layout like some modular, conformist A-size proportioned, swiss minimalist corporate icon is why and how it feels like it does its job. That’s why it stands out from the other logos it will frequently sit amongst. Every time I tried to tidy it up so it would better pander to my designer’s OCD (and trust me I tried), it felt wrong, it lost something and it stopped communicating its point.

It’s funny. Looking back now the project is over, I’m actually surprised by the extent to which the brief informed the design process. The sentiment of the message became my attitude to its delivery. My commitment to the design process felt like it actually led to me ignoring all the design rules I usually love. I absolutely was not designing to appease myself nor any other designer; not even those specific ones I knew would be judging me when reading the eventual and inevitable blog post. The client’s considerations were the only ones I had, I was designing totally for them. And they were very happy with the result.

There was an extra requirement of the brief that I actually chose not to discuss with the client; a key part of the design process that I decided to keep to myself for fear that my thoughts could have seemed a little grandiose. It felt very important to keep in mind that this organisation is user-led. The story of the individual I shared above, the story told to me during our first briefing session represents not just the experiences of the people this organisation is trying to appeal to, but also those of the people who run it. So I felt that this logo had to be a little more than a simple symbol of identification. It had to face inward as well as outward and perhaps act, however subtly, as a bit of a manifesto. Whether it does this or not I might never know, but hopefully I designed in the potential.

I must apologise if I sound a little self impressed – I really don’t mean to. I’m well aware it’s not the Olympic Rings we’re dealing with here, nor is the end result necessarily a particular favourite of even my own recent output. In fact as is always the case with any completed project, hindsight makes me wonder how far I could have taken it had I the benefits of more time, more bottle and, fundamentally, more talent.

So please don’t assume the apparent enthusiasm you’ve just read has been hubris, and that I’m holding aloft my recent work as the shining proof of an epic new dawn in graphic design. Yes, I’m sufficiently happy with my work done here, but mainly I share this project with such enthusiasm and in such tiresome length because it provides a great example of why I find the creative process such a deeply fascinating journey.

Sharing 06: Music

To provide a break from the usual kind of stuff I’ve been sharing over the past few months, I thought I’d post this recent project as it’s something a bit different.

When you go into a high street shop or a chain pub there will more often than not (unless it’s a Sam Smiths or Wetherspodders) be music playing. This music generally isn’t merely the result of a random shuffle of the barman’s iPod – like anything else in the world of marketing and commerce it’s actually a carefully considered, licensed, paid for service. My client is one of the biggest providers of this service in the UK.

They carefully tailor music to the particular clientele and setting, with a relevant selection of MP3s stuffed onto the hard drive of a dedicated music server which is then installed on site. It’s geared up so staff can control it, allowing them to tweak the playlist to suit the mood. Say a bunch of blokes walk up to the bar wearing parker jackets and smart jeans, staff can change the playlist to include more Paul Weller or Ocean Colour Scene. That sort of thing.

The system can also be hooked up to the lighting and flat screens around the premises, so at that moment in the evening where the pub’s lights dim a bit and the music gets louder, it’s often all just the result of a simple button press switching the system over to ‘evening mode’. And you know it’s time to go home.

All this is controlled by the staff using touch screen monitors like the one here. Stylistically they’re all similar so I’ll just show the one, but there are various screens which allow for full manual control or automatic play, the selection of various environments and creation of playlists. It’s all very clever stuff but it was in need of a style update, which is where I came in. The above is the result.

Obviously if you’re really cool you just slam the Wurlitzer with your fist and it instantly starts blasting out your favourite 50’s rock and roll hits. But for everyone else there’s this.

Sharing 04: Conversation

Recent client request:

“We want something classy, long lasting. Do you know the Olympic Rings logo? We’re after something like that. We don’t want something rubbish, like the London 2012 logo.”

No pressure then? I love requests like that. They’re perfectly understandable of course – the Olympic Rings are timeless, instantly recognisable, elegant and beautifully simple. I get why a client would make such a request. It’s just clear that they haven’t considered the true weight of what they’re asking.

Basically they’re a small regional charity with next to no money, expecting a quite cheap graphic designer working out of an attic in Sheffield to design for them a logo that can compete with that of the Olympic Games.

It’s setting me up to fail really, isn’t it. Of course I’ll try my hardest, I’ll pour everything I have into the project, but if the client is hoping my work is going to outdo one of the world’s best known and well loved logos, I’m guessing my proposal is going to be a source of disappointment.

To avoid such disappointment you’ve got to explain fairly early on to the client why they’re asking the impossible. But it needs to be done tactfully, the point needs to be delivered in such a way that it doesn’t simply look like you’re trying to cover up a lack of skill.

The following was my emailed reply to the above request; my attempt at nipping the issue in the bud. It seemed to work.

“Logo design grows harder with every passing minute. With so many out there in the world already, with no two allowed to be the same and with hundreds being born every day, hitting on that perfect, iconic solution is far more difficult today than it was when some of the world’s most admired logos were designed. It’s worth noting that the iconic and timeless Olympic Rings motif was designed in 1894, a full 28 years before the term ‘graphic design’ was actually coined.

 In 2011 then, the designer is required not to simply focus on a general overview of the client (which will no doubt be little more than a loose set of details applicable to many others) but instead hone in on the finer details which make the client unique. Any organisation that can justify its position in the world will have at its core a unique and valuable quality, and it is the job of the graphic designer to identify it and bring it out, to make it stand off the page. To communicate the idea to the right audience, to turn that unique quality into a strong identity.

The logos typically seen throughout the community, voluntary and social sector tend to follow a formula, as just a quick scan of the web will highlight. Even if you limit your search to local organisations you’ll see many logos featuring overlapping colours, circular motifs, multiple figures standing in circles, interlinking circles, joined hands in circles and so on. There are only so many ways one can design logos for a sector so frequently focussed on collaboration, support, diversity and social causes, if all one does is focus on those blanket qualities. Unfortunately, in 2011, most of them have been done a thousand times over.

So when handling this project, I’ll try to look beyond those qualities pretty consistent to the sector, and instead target those qualities unique to your organisation. These are the qualities that I identified during our meeting, from listening to the group and studying and dissecting the fundamentals of your constitution. By focussing on those qualities unique to the group, we will find a solution that is unique to the group.”

Sharing 03: Railways

Recently I designed the new identity for this organisation, a charity and not for profit with the aim of reinstating a regular service to currently disused railway lines running through the city. The group formed in 2003 but after a bit of restructuring they’re planning on a relaunch later this year in a bid to attract more support and increase membership.

I’ve talked about trains on this blog before. We love our railways in the UK, but we seem to be confused about what a train is. It seems the ones we like are those funny old round ones powered by steam. The ones we decommissioned decades ago in favour of more efficient, faster and more relevant ones powered by diesel or electricity, the kind that don’t require a grubby man with a shovel to feed coal into a boiler.

It’s 2011, and these guys wanted to show that they were a modern group with modern aims. This isn’t a heritage railway project set up to satiate the desires of steam buffs. This is a practical, forward looking transport initiative working hard to bring a useful and relevant service to normal, everyday people who are at the minute reliant on cars or a patchy and infrequent bus service.

In search of modernity, naturally I headed straight to the 1960s. During the initial briefing it was agreed that the British Rail identity from that decade was something to aim for, so I got to work trying to capture that, but without using arrows of any description. Arrows are a hackneyed device at the best of times, but they’re all over the railways.

It’s been a funny job, this one. The organisation at the minute exists as a community campaign group, but in the future they may, or may not, be involved in the actual running of a railway. The best course of action for them to move forward is still unclear, so any identity has to be as open ended as the group is. It’s a strange client to have really – one that can’t say for sure what sort of client it might be in a years’ time.

Right now they don’t have much money kicking around, so bar a few higher budget bits of literature to get the word out, there’s probably going to be a lot of photocopies being handed around at various events the group attends. Any graphic design used in this way needs to be clear enough to survive such treatment, but at the same time it could well be seen in the future in all its full colour glory from a moving train window. So it has to stand up to that, it can’t look cheap.

Simplicity was key really. I had to focus specifically on those aspects of the group that are permanent. We know what the end result wants to be, we know the goal, so we’ll focus on that. That way, the content of the logo is also something to aim for.

Of course, as with all logos, it needed to be versatile and easily recognisable. And it needed to be of a style that distanced itself from the stuffy vintage image so frequently the distraction of the sector. This is a group that is serious about reinstating the rail service and goes about its business with an eye on the future, not on the past.

The stationery is similarly simple, with a bit more colour used on the batch of leaflets they’ve so far had printed up. I thought it was quite important that any literature they put out made their new, refreshed aims perfectly clear, so I pushed for the bold use of the mission statement on the front cover.

They only had 50 of these done. It was a bit of a last minute rush job for an event the group was attending, so they’re nothing special. To keep costs down they were printed on quite a flimsy stock and the layout is rather uninspiring because of the time constraints, the large amount of copy and a lack of inspiring imagery. Cheap and cheerful, they did their job fine but I’m working on something a bit more substantial at the moment which will involve a bit of photography and some nifty folding. I’ll share when I get the green light.

In an earlier blog, completely without context at that time, I posted a Harry Beck homage route map I produced for the group, designed to illustrate how their plan integrates with the city’s current and proposed public transport network. Apparently it’s proved quite a useful tool in convincing people how valuable the project is, which shows how a picture can say a thousand words. I also designed and built their website which can be seen here.

Sharing 02: Old People

This organisation was a pleasure to work with. They’re a forum consisting of older people who represent other community groups and organisations in the area, coming together to discuss and take action on the issues that face older and elderly people. They engage with the relevant powers that be, from health authorities to local councils, in order that their concerns don’t get overlooked, they make noise where it’s needed and make sure attention is paid to the right things.

They approached me with the request for a logo that was, above all else, calm and mature. They wanted to avoid ‘trendy’, yet were keen to shake the image of stuffy old people. Any solution had to be relevant in today’s world, but at the same time it needed to reflect the subject matter which is, essentially, about old age.

I thought about the brief. It seemed like a bit of a paradox I had to communicate really. We’re modern, but we’re old too. How do you deal with that?

My attention turned to reassessing what age actually is. The forum exists to combat that common assumption that with age comes irrelevance. It’s there to ensure the needs and concerns of older people aren’t dismissed, by those in power, as the irrelevant bleatings of blue rinse biddies (their words). This is what my design had to communicate.

I had to think about what older people offer that’s unique. What can the group say that other people won’t have considered? What do they bring to the table? The overwhelming answer seemed to be perspective. Wisdom based on experience. They’ve been around a long time. Older people are relevant, they’re here getting on with it like everybody else. They’ve just been here a bit longer.

That’s where the logo came from. The bold, modern sans serif typeface states the relevance of the organisation in the modern world, sitting off the page at a dynamic angle. Beneath is the classical serif shadow it casts, a subtle indication of the years of experience that lie behind their words and actions.

At first glance it’s a device not immediately noticeable, but I like it that way. It highlights the mistake commonly made by those the forum exists to engage with. It’s a logo that shows it pays to pay attention. It’s a message delivered in a calm and considered way, in much the way the group goes about its business.

Sharing 01: Engineers

These guys are a new start up engineering consultancy specialising in the design of building services. No, I didn’t know what that was either until they told me. Basically it’s pipes, cables, ducts and the like – the sort of stuff mostly hidden away in engine rooms or concealed behind suspended ceilings. Yet, as they were keen to point out, without such services even the most architecturally magnificent building is nothing but a large box. A building is made by such things, they are fundamental to any architectural project and the larger the project, the more complex they become.

Where the expertise lies with this consultancy is at the design stage of such a project. They use bafflingly complicated CAD software to plan and design the complicated networks of facilities that keep a building’s inhabitants supplied with that which they take for granted. They ensure that water will flow from taps, that thermostats will adjust temperatures, that switches will make bulbs glow, and they ensure it happens as efficiently and reliably as possible.

These are the qualities I used to direct the design of the logo. I let logic drive the project in much the way they themselves do with their work. Engineering isn’t art. It’s not about personal opinion, it’s a science. The only way to do something is the right way, and these chaps seem quite passionate about, and justifiably proud of, their ability to do just that.

I decided therefore that pure logic should be the only consideration of any design I did. This wasn’t the time for expression or creative indulgence. There was a job to do. A job I wanted to do in the same way the client does theirs.

First things first then, I needed a grid. I wasn’t going to do this by eye. Even my early sketches couldn’t be done by eye. Everything had to behave itself from the very beginning, so the grid came first. With that in place I started looking at the content. The brief stated that the logo was to be the initials of the company directors, the content was set. So I knew what it needed to be, I knew the grid it needed to conform to. Now I needed a method of constructing that content.

In the world of engineering an effective method of improving efficiency is to employ modularity, using fewer but more versatile components. So I did the same. The stylised initials are built of modular construction, with the design using only two separate components – the square and the quarter-circle.

The accompanying typeface is a mixture of Bold and Thin Helvetica Condensed, chosen in this instance for its obvious legibility. The type conforms to the same underlying grid that shapes the graphic, tying the whole logo together in one cohesive form.

With legibility a priority, the flat colour and the simple composition make for a scalable logo that should survive being used across all media, from a favicon to the side of a Transit van. Driven by pure logic, efficiency and order, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they went for my first proposal. After all, engineers will be the first to point out that it’s quite hard to disagree with logic.

Sharing Work

It’s been quiet around these parts recently. The last proper blog I posted in March was about an exhibition that’s now a dim and distant memory.

I’ve been quite busy with work for the last few months, so it’s been hard to find the time. Not because there aren’t enough hours in the day, but because I find my desire to write comes mainly when I feel the need to have a creative outburst. During the blogfest that was the beginning of this year work was a bit quieter, so my unstimulated brain needed the outlet.

With my creative muscles being well flexed during the day and therefore happy to relax in the evenings, it leaves the blog a little bit untended. So I’ve decided to mix business with pleasure and start sharing a few posts focussing on bits of work here and there.

It also puts my money where my mouth is. It’s easy for any designer to spend hours pulling apart the work of others knowing theirs is safely hidden from view. So it seems only right that I put mine out there for the three of you to judge.

However, I will avoid including within the copy any client names. I’m not trying to hide anything, I just don’t want my blog popping up when people Google for those I’ve worked with. So if my words seem occasionally vague, that’s why.

I do have another reason for sharing my work beyond filling the blog. I’ve spent many years as a designer having my relationship with the brief, with the client and with my own work filtered through layers of middle management. I’ve lost hours, days of my professional life sitting in board meetings as narrow minded, ignorant powerpoint jockeys pull apart my work before it gets anywhere near the client, purely in the name of justifying their bafflingly vague job titles and assuaging the guilt they feel, deep down, about their professional impotence being so highly rewarded.

Now I’m doing it all on my own, I call the shots. I go out to talk with the client. I do the listening. I do the note taking. I come away and I do the thinking. And then I go back and say what needs to be said. I present my work. I show work that I have done, that I have made the decision on.

So now, for the first time in my professional life, I feel like I have some ownership over my work. I don’t look at it seeing only the compromises forced by pointless middlemen. I see my work, designed purely to answer the brief. The work of one person, done to the best of my abilities.

I’m not saying it’s great work, I’m not boasting. I’m not pointing out how wonderful it is. I’m certainly way behind where I’d like to be at this point in my career. I’m just saying my work is now mine. It’s me, finally, and I’m not ashamed of it anymore. I’m designing the way I like to design. The way I was taught to design, the way I believe works and happily, the way that works for me.

Because when it’s done properly, design is not vapid bullshit. It’s not snake oil sales. It’s valuable, useful and relevant. I’m done with vapid bullshit. I’m a proper graphic designer.

And for the first time in near enough a decade, I’m actually starting to be okay with that.

Unportfolioable Skills

A graphic designer lives by his or her portfolio. So what happens when much of your skill set isn’t visible in your portfolio?

Here’s an email I received on the last day of my previous job, sent from one of the mid level managers (the acronyms are development code names for projects):

“I know you don’t always like a lot of fuss, so I’ll do this low key.

I just wanted to say a quick and sincere word of thanks for all the outstanding work you’ve done on my projects. I feel you have been a little bit of an unsung hero, you sit quietly and literally get on with things, and even when we get strange and daft requests, you’ve took them all in your stride and fixed them up with the minimum of fuss.

Would SSR and SST have been quite so great without you? I suspect not.”

Throughout my career so far I have made myself very useful. Perhaps a bit too useful, because I’m now starting to regret it. Reliability and dependability are qualities that rarely get you chosen for the prestigious work when there will always be a thousand bread and butter jobs that need doing to keep the company afloat.

Sometimes I wish I’d spent more time being a prima donna. The glory-hunting type that moans when they’re not creatively stimulated for even the briefest moment. Yes, I’d be a nightmare to work with, arrogant, unreliable, my projects consistently late and in a mess, but at least my portfolio would be impressive.

And while it’s nice to be called an unsung hero, to thrive creatively it helps – just occasionally – to be sung.