Fundamental shifts in how global brand design consultancies approach the creative process.

In recent years, there has been a fundamental shift in how we, as global brand design consultancies, approach our creative practice. As never before, design is seen as a strategic business competency essential to success. This position, however enviable, has not been an easy climb, and we have endured significant challenges along the way.

Like everyone else, we have been navigating through a fierce economic contraction, all the while absorbing fundamental changes to our profession based on social and technological innovation. As a practitioner who has managed a global design consultancy for decades, I see these changes as welcome news. Disruption creates new leaders, and a new type of consultancy has emerged to serve brands in our hyper-connected, data-driven, international marketplace.

The Ascent of Graphic Design

Those of us who have been around awhile well remember the golden age of graphic design — the days when mythical creatures like Paul Rand and other designers lectured clients on the righteousness of their ideas. Just think of Mad Men’s Don Draper, and you’ve got the idea. We were the experts. We had the ideas. We alone knew how to market and design your product.

After fighting our way up the corporate and academic ladder for years, graphic design was finally coming into its own as a legitimate enterprise, bolstered by the emergence of brand building. Brand building eventually became seen as a distinct practice separate from advertising, which continues to struggle to overcome its campaign-focused fetish and let go of its legacy practices. Design’s integral role in brand building was cemented during this time and continues to grow today.

Several challenges to the design orthodoxy occurred over the next few decades, including the digital revolution, democratization of communication, and purpose-based business culture. These disruptions turned the world of graphic design on its head, transforming the industry from one of self-aggrandizement into one of equilibrium, conversation and social-mindedness. Although difficult, this transition was necessary and ultimately elevated the role of design in business around the world. We formed stronger, more intimate connections with our audience (brand users) and with our clients (brand owners). We embraced open communication and collaboration like never before. And we became more socially responsible, eager to make a difference in the world.

Digital Revolution

The digitization of the graphic design work process was one disruption to the imperious design agency, both in the creation of content and in the ability to communicate in real time with clients worldwide. As masters of specialized handcraft, traditional graphic artists were forced to learn an entirely new skill set, and many stepped aside as modern design practices took complete control over the now-digitized process. The threat of desktop publishing that had been stalking us for decades was finally knocking at our door. On the computer, designers could work faster and produce cleaner work from start to finish. Sharing a design with a client and getting feedback could happen in minutes rather than hours, and revising a design became a breeze. Design became cheaper and available to the masses; anyone with a computer and the right software could create a page layout or alter an image.

More brands could afford advertising, package design and marketing campaigns, while consumers, exposed to more and more design, became more design savvy as well. Brands became acutely aware of the power of design and had to continuously elevate their aesthetic expressions to the highest levels. It was an exhilarating age for brand design agencies.

Although we had initially feared the effects of digitization, we soon realized that it was leading us to a much better place, to a more sophisticated and intellectually satisfying form of consultancy. Digitization amplified the value and immediacy of our work. Our visual acuity, rather than hand/eye coordination, became the basis for our commercial value. We built stronger relationships with our clients, thanks to quicker and more meaningful collaboration and communication.

Democratization of Communication

Another disruption came when the Internet, and soon after, social media, brought us new means of connectivity. More than ever before, people could choose where, how and what messages they wanted to receive and to broadcast…and brands were one of their favorite topics. Instead of brands simply pushing out messages they deemed important to their audience, consumers could do their own research, form opinions and publish them online. Multiple media platforms with ease of access for all led to the loss of imperious control over brand messages.

Consumers, empowered by an abundance of information and disillusioned by traditional marketing techniques, began to trust and value the human element above perhaps all else. They believe that we are a part of something larger than ourselves, that we have a responsibility to others and to the world around us. They demand that brands and businesses adhere to this core belief as well, insisting on transparency, authenticity and social responsibility in all we do.

Brands that have embraced this new business ethos are thriving. They welcome dialogue with their consumers, building relationships with them and sometimes even encouraging hacking and customization (à la Maker culture). Brands that do not understand this shift in the dynamics of the relationship are finding their business threatened and they are quickly being left behind.

Before the democratization of communication, brand design consultancies mirrored the behavior of our clients, pushing our ideas out with a sense of self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Today, we are engaged in helping our clients replace the transaction-focused communications of old with meaningful social interactions, leading to a more personal, human brand expression and experience. Authenticity and transparency are the currency of the social media age.

By embracing open and social platforms, seeking out the power and wisdom of the crowd and tapping into the social data layers, we recognize that our visual acuity must serve not only the invention of ideas, but also the curation of them. We are not the only source of creative content as was the standard practice in the past. However, rather than diminish the design industry as one might expect, this spirit of social collaboration has instead re-energized it. Instead of designing for the consumer, we can involve them in the process and design with them. We can mash ideas together that one would not have thought possible just a few years ago, leading to unexpected and delightful ideas and innovations. In the spirit of constant reinvention, both brands and brand design agencies must be in constant flux and open to change.

A New Purpose-Based Business Culture

These changes in the design industry, of course, are part of a larger story about changes in business culture. The contraction in the global economy has caused businesses of all types to look differently at their purpose and business imperative. Although the world economy continues to rebuild, we will never go back to the way we were before.
In his book, GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, Jim Stengel states boldly, “maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible, in fact, they are inseparable.” Stengel speaks from experience. Not only was he Procter & Gamble’s global marketing officer for almost a decade (with an $8 billion-a-year budget), he studied 50,000 brands for ten years in preparation for his book.

In his study, Stengel found that the brands that exhibited phenomenal growth had defined specific brand ideals — noble purposes for being, shared goals to improve people’s lives. This was the single most important factor separating the successful from the unsuccessful. “The counterintuitive fact,” writes Stengel, “is that doing the right thing in your business is doing the right thing for your business.”

To position oneself for significant growth, a business or brand should identify and define brand ideals that relate to one of Stengel’s “Five Fields of Fundamental Human Values”:

  • Eliciting joy — activating experiences of happiness, wonder and limitless possibility
  • Enabling connection — enhancing the ability of people to connect with another and the world in meaningful ways
  • Inspiring exploration — helping people explore new horizons and new experiences
  • Evoking pride — giving people increased confidence, strength, security and vitality
  • Impacting society — affecting society broadly, including by challenging the status quo and redefining categories

Keeping these values in mind while crafting your brand ideal will ensure that you remain relevant today and in the future. Stengel identified what he calls the “Stengel 50,” the top businesses in his 10-year study; all had brand ideals and all outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by over 400 percent — hard proof that connecting and collaborating with consumers is smart business. An imperious design agency has no place in this new business world.

Our Journey to the Brand Ideal

We, as a global brand design consultancy, embrace Jim Stengel’s concepts and believe they are fundamental to brand building today. In fact, we worked with Jim Stengel to discover our own brand ideal a few years ago. Stengel facilitated a meaningful workshop for LPK wherein he guided us through discussions and brainstorms until we could clearly articulate our beliefs, values and brand ideal.

We believe that there is boundless creativity in all of us. We believe that design is inherently about how to make things work better in people’s lives, and this is what enables design to help businesses perform better as well. We recognize that nothing of consequence happens without the courage to fail, and that as creative people, we have a responsibility to sense and contribute to the unfolding future. From these beliefs flow our values — freedom, honesty and trust, curiosity, collaboration, accountability and excellence — and our brand ideal, “to give brands the creativity, vision and courage they need to be extraordinary.” It is on that basis that we challenge ourselves every day to embrace the inevitable chaos of uncertainty and inspire others to do the same.

Our brand ideal delivers on Stengel’s values of “inspiring exploration” and “impacting society.” We want to do wonderful, fun, creative work, but we also want it to have a higher purpose in the world around us.

The New Brand Design Consultancy

I   welcome the timely death of the imperious design agency. It ran its course and it’s time to move on. The new global brand design consultancy is still in a process of evolution, but its values are based on social responsibility, open communication and participative design. We have a new purpose, we are part of something larger and we are dedicated to improving the world around us in all that we do. We have stronger, more intimate connections with our audience (brand users) and with our clients (brand owners). And as never before, design is seen as integral to all aspects of business.

The challenges inherent in change are exciting and energizing. We have the opportunity to make a bigger difference in the world than ever before, and I for one am excited to be on this journey.

Jerry Kathman is president and chief executive officer of LPK, the largest independent brand design agency in the world with offices in North America, Europe and Asia. Jerry is recognized within the industry as a leading authority on the role of design in brand building. His global experience has provided Fortune 500 companies with insights into both the opportunities and pitfalls of building a global brand in today’s rapidly changing world. Kathman also serves The Design Management Institute as Chairman of the Board of the Design Management Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to heighten awareness of design as an essential part of business strategy. DMI was founded in 1975 and has members in 49 countries.