> 15 SEPTEMBER 2009 | 19:55 GMT

Have we failed?

by contributor Larry Ackerman

I had lunch recently with an old friend and competitor who’s been around the identity and brand consulting field for many years. He asked me what I saw as the future of the “industry.” I remarked that if we could get through this past year intact, the future looked pretty darn good. That said, I also told him that I think the future looks potentially bleak. 

 In my view, our profession - it ain’t an industry - hasn’t really evolved in decades. For all the increasingly quantitative acumen we apply to problem-solving, we’re still all about naming, logos, design systems and communications (read: messaging). 

To be sure, these are essential outcomes. But there is more we can do. Many firms, including my two fine alma maters (Anspach Grossman Portugal and Siegel & Gale), for years have played around the edges of “employee alignment” and “operationalizing” the brand. But seemingly logical and profitable service lines such as these just have not shown staying power. We have failed to institutionalize and incorporate them into our portfolio of offerings. 

By contrast, other consulting professions evolve, regularly — strategy consulting, accounting, IT, change management. 

As someone who’s spent his career in this field of identity and brand, and loves it, I am sad to see so little innovation in core practices and in the thinking and theory behind them. Yet I can’t think of a richer vein of gold to mine than the notion of a company’s “identity” and the powerful business implications it holds. 

Why don’t we innovate? Are we in a profession where there is nowhere to go? Are we intellectually disinterested? Is it that we have clients who just don’t care - or don’t know enough to care? Or do we lack passionate (and effective) leaders? 

So: have we failed? Or are we just getting started? 

Show of hands (or comments): How many of you feel there is room to run in this field? How many feel things are just fine as they are?

21 Remarks:

  1. By Roger van den Bergh
    15 SEP 2009, 22:57 GMT

    Larry asks “Have we failed? Or are we just getting started?”  Taking a long view, I argue strongly for the latter. Yes, we are just getting started.

    We are only at the beginning of a long integration of identity and identity design into the general process of creating new products and services, as well as using identity strategy and design in larger issues such as the environment and the global resource distribution. To put this in perspective, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the James Watt steam engine made it possible to mechanize mass production, thus igniting the industrial revolution.  It was a hundred years later, the beginning of the 20th century, when Peter Behrens worked as a “Total Designer” for AEG in Germany, and 30 to 40 years more before Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss started to experiment with design to improve sales for mass produced goods, using product design and corporate identity as business tools. 

    In other words: The identity profession is still quite young (as indeed is the case with all consultancy businesses, except for accounting). After a slow start, it really began to grow in the 1950s, when companies like Lippincott & Margulies and Landor Associates joined the likes of Dreyfuss and Loewy. Since then, the number of consultants and consultancies has mushroomed. 

    A sign that we are just getting started is the increase in popularity of industrial and graphic design at schools both in the USA and abroad. Well done and effective advertising campaigns by Target and Apple also increase the good design awareness by the general public; the fact that the number of IKEA stores has substantially increased globally also illustrates the demand for good, functional, attractive and afford able household goods and furniture. This only increases the need for talent behind all these scenes – for consultants, and lots of graphic and industrial designers. 

    Of course, there always will be mediocre design, crummy products and kitsch. Thank God! Hence the perpetual urge by designers to revolutionize things, helped by fast-evolving and constantly changing technology. Have we failed? Absolutely not.

  2. By Scott Lerman
    15 SEP 2009, 23:33 GMT

    Hasn’t evolved in decades? Really? That is a bleak view.  Personally, I’m with Roger. Not only has there been significant progress and innovation—more is on the way. 

  3. By Tony Spaeth
    15 SEP 2009, 23:56 GMT

    Taking a longer view, a hundred year view, Roger is undeniably right; corporate identity is a new and growing profession (although Roger might agree that its growth in planning lags behind growth in design). But from the considerably shorter perspective of my own generation, I must say I share Larry’s depressing sense of decline in the value our profession adds, as perceived in leadership suites as well as press and public. We seem to have become cosmetic tacticians, no longer the strategic mentors I belive we were becoming in the 70s and 80s — perhaps because our own leaders in that era cashed out, rather than in. 

    I continue to believe that dollar for dollar, identity (superbly designed) can be the single most powerful tool at a leader’s command. I will continue to fly this flag. But I am particularly disappointed that it has gained little visible traction in the world’s leading business academies. Please show me I am wrong, friends.   

  4. By Larry Ackerman
    16 SEP 2009, 0:56 GMT

    interesting comments, Thanks, all. Question: Does “identity” exist - intrinsically, and as a profession, if design isn’t part of thte process?

  5. By Abounding Media
    16 SEP 2009, 2:05 GMT

    I heard someone say recently that you are not really innovating until your ideas are scaring people to death. I think that’s true. Most innovative notions from the past have been cast aside in favor of that which was “safe” at the time.
    In other words, I think your question answers itself. If you are ready for a shakeup, I think you will likely be open to embracing the next scary, innovative idea. So yeah…things are just getting started.

  6. By J
    16 SEP 2009, 2:36 GMT

    “no longer the strategic mentors”
    Not from my experience.
    Our clients look to us for direction on every aspect of how they go to market. The companies I have worked for, and currently work for are often at the table with our clients leadership, not just marketing, but the CEO and other vendors like Ad Agencies. We would never start a large identity project without first formulating and articulating the strategy, as this informs the reason for an id change, or new id.

  7. By David Airey
    16 SEP 2009, 10:21 GMT

    Larry asks, “Does “identity” exist — intrinsically, and as a profession, if design isn’t part of the process?
    My question: When is design not part of the process?

  8. By Gabi Toth
    17 SEP 2009, 3:58 GMT

    It’s all so cyclic… when concepts were being bold, differentiation was on behalf of design quality. Now that design quality has reached an acceptable level, we’re back to the basics - we need fresh, strong concepts. We’re in search of more than just the line, the triangle, the circle, the square, and their nicely put cousins. We’re on the verge of a new battle for completely new ideas, irrespective of the continuous stream of comfy, talented design renderings of the old primitives. NEW!, BOLD!, even SCARY! (as one has put it on this comments list) are keywords for the evolution of our profession. We should either have shocking ideas NOW and define a sustainable trend for the coming decades, or we should just gradually wait and leave it to the ongoing crisis.

  9. By Larry Ackerman
    17 SEP 2009, 16:06 GMT

    Let me respond to David Airey’s seemingly rhetorical question, when isn’t design part of the process? It is an understandable question. Over nearly 3 decades of consulting on corporate brand and identity issues, I have come to recognize that a company’s identity, like a person’s, is the unique characteristics that define how it creates value in the marketplace or the world. It can be discerned and articulated and then applied in countless ways, strategicallly and operationally, to the betterment of the organization and its stakeholders. This form of implementation doesn’t require design at all - yet bringing design to bear as the visual cornerstone of identity adds great benefits, including a more perceptible sense of logic and discipline that helps communicate the nature and impact of the company’s identity. 
    When speaking with clients and others, I almost always use the human being as my point of reference: That is, think first about your own identity - what makes you who you are. The same notion applies to organizations. That’s the place to begin any conversation about identity. And within that context, we have a long way to go to make the most of identity as the extraordinary force it is. 

  10. By Tito Avalos
    19 SEP 2009, 23:20 GMT

    I think graphic design hasn’t evolved according to circumstances. Brand Identity / Corporate Identity requires today more of what Peter Behrens used to offer, but things have grown more complex and our capabilities still lie within the visual imagery theme. We need to be more prepared, we need to understand management issues and corporate culture in order to better lead the whole process. It’s a great issue to keep up with.

  11. By David Sanchez
    21 SEP 2009, 21:24 GMT

    Very stimulating post Larry.
    Hello Everybody,
    I have mixed feelings about the branding vocation (in all shapes and forms); it almost feels superfluous like a typographer nowadays. However when companies can’t afford to lose, identity and brand consulting take a center stage.
    Are brand consultants some kind of stigmatized alchemists? For many yes. (from my observations)Do some people don’t care? - absolutely, but it is our duty to remind them more than ever of our value.
    It Feels almost like working with an occult science, given bodies and souls to companies and their business activities. But I find it every challenge very fulfilling.
    I defer to believe the branding industry is innovative nonetheless in a way I might also infer that is hard to be innovative as a function of complexity of the unique culture of every business we consult with. Is almost like a mathematical equation where we factor in business decisions.
    I rather think brand consulting is in flux or adaptive; at least from my professional perspective.
    The future holds many challenges and a wide variety of opportunities for the craft.
    Again Excellent Post Larry.

  12. By Dan Dimmock
    22 SEP 2009, 15:13 GMT

    Good discussion. While I pondered, I couldn’t help but recall a conversation I recently shared with a rather well-known, former Group CEO, about exactly this, innovation. In summary: He told me that brand consultancies (referring to several we listed in our top 10), no matter what the issue their clients faced, would only ever be in a position to sell brand consultancy solutions - strategic, creative or otherwise.
    As a result, he saw this an opportunity for a new breed of innovation consultancies who, in his opinion, were more flexible and able to look at those issues from a much wider angle, providing an even greater level of professional guidance — informational, technological, tactical… et cetera…
    Bearing in mind, this senior leader is from a brand identity background, his words were, and still are, very difficult to ignore.

  13. By Ilija Dragisic
    22 SEP 2009, 17:32 GMT

    A very good topic Larry.
    I have read your question and other remarks. I have payed attention to the part where you are talking about institutionalization and incorporation “employee alignment” and “operationalizing” the brand process within the offerings of consultants firms. I think that the word “institutionalization” says a lot about where to make a move.  The essence of pushing the boundaries forward for any profession, and to avoiding degrading, lays in its recognition by educational institutions, ie. providing the scientific classification for particular area.
    Mentioned professions: IT, accounting, management, etc.. are professions that are studied at universities and for which there is a PhD. There are no PhDs in the graphic design as a profession let alone in the creating visual identity for corporate and other brands. (Please correct me if I am wrong). So I think it’s necessary to move the profession of creating visual identity of brands to a higher social level through the recognized educational institutions.
    The  interesting comparison is what Tony said, and it is that: “progress in planning and forming brand strategies go ahead of design”. I think that it is also necessary to educate better young designers and pay more attention to adequate areas in design to make it advanced.
    The essence of design is in psychology and perception of the human mind, so it is necessary to pay more attention to these areas in order to create a shift in the design profession. Shapes, sense of composition and harmony come naturally to talented designers and it is something that they carry in themselves, what they know less is the psychology and perception of the human mind and there is need to devote more attention to these areas in the lectures in schools. Progress of the design itself is conditioned by the progress of technology, because upgrowth of technology is slower then human mind, and progress in planning and forming strategies solely depends on understanding, knowledge and awareness of the human mind in the field of creating visual identity of brands.
    If we make these moves we will have brighter future as consultants.

  14. By Denis Riney
    25 SEP 2009, 23:05 GMT

    I think the “consulting” business generally - incl mgmt, brand, change and other flavors - has gotten less innovative over the last 10 years.
    Great ideas drove the growth of the major consulting firms in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but few have emerged since then. When was the last time you saw a “big idea” in this business - compared to the original BCG “experience curve” or growth/share matrix work, or Index Group’s “reengineering” or McKinsey’s “overhead value analysis”  or others? 
    Maybe the branding business needs a new big idea - and whomever has it will prosper!

  15. By Corporate Branding Identity | Tony
    27 SEP 2009, 14:38 GMT

    Very informative and stimulating comments. Saying if the industry failed or still getting started is rather too early right now. The world of web and graphic design and corporate branding evolves as we speak so it’s hard to determine the outcome of your field til it’s right before your eyes.

  16. By Luc Doucedame
    24 OCT 2009, 0:28 GMT

    Larry I would have to say that we are just getting started..
    Being relatively new to this business it’s always fascinating to see these discussions happening from pros who have had a couple of decades in the trenches under their belts. Especially when one considers that 10 years ago these conversations simply would not have happened (at least not on this scale ). The brand business has taken center stage over the economic downturn.( i.e: Kraft, Starbucks, syfy chanel, jack in the box, Citroen, Airfrance, Sprite, Pepsi, xerox, Gatorade, nickalodeon, etc.). Shouldn’t this alone show the merits of our work and innovation?
    The wealth of understanding and knowledge we all have at our fingertips now has cheapened our tools. Whether that be strategic thinking, processes, brand alignment, production,  typography, composition, color theory, ect. We are no longer gate-keepers to a secret world. Our tastes and understanding of these tools are no longer experiences confined to  the studio or college class room but are available to everyone through countless blogs and portfolio sites. As you touched upon I don’t think the question is ; why havn’t we added more tools to our portfolio of offerings but rather, what are we to do with the tools we have?  To me the lack of change in our approach only suggests we have it more figured out than we ever did before. It shows an elevation of our field from intangibles and theory to common practice and documented results. Though we have defined the language, I think there is plenty more to say.

  17. By Gregory Moulinet
    27 OCT 2009, 2:55 GMT

    I believe identity design and its “industries” are evolving on different parallel timelines.
    Can we call these evolutions “progress”? it depends on who we are asking and which dimension of design and identity we are talking about.
    First there is client timeline. The clear understanding of the value of a CI system and a branding strategy by top executives has probably never been better. This is a recent evolution, probably during the last 10 years. Remember when people were looking at you like an alien when you talked to them about “branding”?
    The word “branding” has evolved. How many advertizing agencies or graphic design studio call themselves “brand consultant” these days?
    The word “design” has also evolved. In popular culture design meant mainly “graphic design”. Since 3-5 years we are seeing a much more hollistic approach and use of the word design. “Design thinking” seems to lead the way in the new found popularity of the word and the new type of academic programs linking business, art, graphic design, science and architecture together seems to perpetuate this new found perception.
    About what has evolve in practice. Many tactical graphic designers have converted to strategic thinking. Many strategist and business executives have converted to tactical design thanks to digital technology and good “how to” books. Verbal and visual identity design are sometime handled by the same person now. Digital identity design and the recent discoveries of social network possibilities on the net are a major evolution I believe. Many new strategic system brought from various fields and incredibly diverse sources are now part of the tool box of identity designers.
    Not only the future is bright, there is currently a recognition (wrongly or rightly) of what an identity designer is able to do and the value it bring to a business.

  18. By Elsie Maio
    28 OCT 2009, 23:49 GMT

    Hey, great to see my old colleagues still wrestling with the most important issues!  Hi Tony, Larry, Roger and all others engaged in the debate. I’m with you, in this concern about the impact of our work as professional advisors, thought-leaders, and alchemists — designers all (with a small d).

    Here’s where I net out:  In 1999, I wound down my traditional brand strategy consultancy chiefly out of boredom.  My feeling was that the professional mechanisms of ‘branding’ were perfected, and I had to have a bigger impact on making the world a better place by driving the CONTENT of business identity rather than simply its EXPRESSION.  So, for the past ten years, I’ve been practicing what we coined  ”SoulBrandingSM:” aligning corporate behavior with the higher social values — in a way that boosts business performance.
    In those early years, most of the applications were for clients in Northern Europe (not surprising given the social-consciousness in many markets there) and in speeches and seminars.  But now,  society’s disillusionment with the ‘financial fundamentalism’ that the U.S. perfected, and the global gap in corporate trust, “social business” has become a popular mantra.  I urged designers, branders, and CEOs then, and still do, to go inside their own souls and discover what they cared about.  What kind of world do they want to see?  Because we are the dream makers. Those of us privileged enough to influence business leaders, to create the beacons for growth (which is what strategic brands are, I believe), have our hands on the levers of the breakthrough change that business and society are calling for.  

    What can we do? Our very first step is to insist on the integrity of the expression: insist on seeing the proofs of the message the client wants to convey.  We are the front line in business integrity.  Show them how to match the ‘walk’ and the ‘talk’ before handing over the next great creative branding concept or design.  

    Next is to integrate the inputs of those who will have to deliver with those who make the brand promise.  I’m encouraged by clients’ willingness to integrate functions in such decisions these days. To bring together in one workshop, for example, the CMO, HR, GM, Communications, CIOs to hammer out authentic, relevant and liveable promises.  

    In sum, the times may look dark from a cash flow perspective — but that pain is opening the heart of business to become more authentic, innovative and humane.  Let’s walk in and lead!  XOXOXO Elsie 

  19. By Henry Kaye
    06 NOV 2009, 5:31 GMT

    Since Design Coordination and Corporate Image - FHK Henrion + Alan Parkin (1967). In looking at the timeline of major contributions and milestones, it’s very difficult to ignore that aside from obvious improvements in efficiency and the internet (which is of relative competitive advantage for no one), most progress has been semantic. The door to the c-suite was opened in the late 60’s… yet most designers continue as solution providers rather than effective problem solvers, heralding the same popes and gurus, subscribing to a linear worldview that’s remained static in education, subjugated by award ceremonies and the design press, and confined to the narrow straightjacket of industry expectation. Our assumptions firmly rooted in the past… once this changes, we’ll then be able to think about the future.

  20. By Gregg Palazzolo
    08 DEC 2009, 21:59 GMT

    Can Left brainers EVER be educated in the Art of Branding in respect to ‘visual aspects’? All can say what they like, yet fail to convey why they like it. I believe the profession will continue in somewhat obscure, edgelike fashion for years until the continuing wave of Creatiive CEO’s takes firm root.
    Next year (May 2010) marks our 30th year in pursuit of perfecting the underworld of brand building and are still hopeful for a mass exodus from convention.

  21. By miles
    18 DEC 2009, 14:29 GMT

    I see the short term future of branding particularly bleak. ‘Branding’ has become shameful, and that’s because it has become a tool for dishonesty. To use the old hairdressing metaphor, businesses want a haircut that will make them look like who they think ther clients will fall for, not a hair cut that suits their face, and so they look stupid most of the time. This mismatch has put the industry (it’s not a profession Larry) into bad repute. we know it, we must face it, and it is not attractive to the best creative talent entering the market. Thus the short term future will be designed by the mediocre. No amount of customer centric or ethical posturing will correct this, these aspects are part of the problem.

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