The corporate search for visual identity:
by Dr. Ajanta Sen
Writings on issues connected with corporate Identity programmes adopted by many organisations and the relevance of having design initiatives to make this happen.
Corporate image-building exercises are not new to the Indian industry. However, the seriousness with which it is practised in the West has a great deal to do with their open markets and the ensuing competition - leaving the corporate world to have to deal with the usual tides of mergers, strategic alliances and such. Under the circumstances, corporate image design could begin to work almost like a therapy.
What is a corporate identity system?
It is like the calling card of a company that simultaneously seeks to convey two critical facets of its identity - one, a clear sense of purpose for the corporation and two, a sense of belonging that it enjoys both amongst its people within (the corporation) as well as outside of it. In the long run, a corporate image building exercise is meant to stem the hidden costs of 'impersonality' that usually sets into an organisation that is too complacent about itself.
Contrary to popular perceptions, corporate identity systems cannot be conveyed merely through slogans or a logo or its annual report. On the other hand, it is a composite of the following: (1) the products that the company makes or sells (or both); (2) the building(s) in which the company's activities are centred; (3)the company's communication material ranging from its advertising to its instruction manuals; and of course, (4) the packaging for/of its products. Since all these have a visible and a tangible quality to them, they can all be subject to the design process. Where, in contrast, there are the intangible and yet equally determining elements of corporate identity, such as the behaviour of the company towards its people within as well as towards its clients outside, that cannot be subject to a design process. These are, in stead, usually shaped by Human Resources Development (HRD) specialists. However, in any sound corporate identity strategy, the design must be such as to facilitate rather than be isolated from the company's HRD interests.
There are the usual market imperatives that make it axiomatic to undertake a corporate design programme. Increasingly for example, are the pressures of worldwide competition on the one hand, buttressed by government regulations on the other. And which are compounded further by the progressively strengthening lobbies of consumer rights, investor awareness and employee morale - all vying for the corporation's attention. However, what interests us here is to examine how axiomatic is industrial design as an input in making such corporate image-building exercises successful. Also throwing open the question of whether industrial design has the cutting edge to justify such investments. It would appear that historically, the gateway to corporate designing initiatives has a direct relationship with the prevailing level of industry-designer liaisoning/interfacing. What, therefore, is the point at which the industry feels compelled to call in the designer? It might be of relevance to trace the corporate search for visual identity in terms of some of the well known corporate image-building exercises world wide.
Industry and the Designer:
The liaisoning between the industry and the designer has had an early precedent in Europe. There is the example of the commission that the firm Tropon gave Van de Velde in the 1890's which included an entire line up of design-needs - from the poster for the given product to its packaging and its prospectus. Then there was the commissioning given to Peter Behrens to design for the Allgemeine Elektrizitatsgesellschaft (AEG), everything from the note paper heading to the building itself - an early example of complete design co-ordination. And yet another one with Frank Pick's series of design elements for the London Underground Railways in 1923 that gave the amalgamated transport system of that metropolis a co-ordinated pattern. Yet another early example of such industry-designer link, with an effort towards co-ordinating design elements across products for a single company, was Olivetti. Olivetti had already paved the way for design co-ordination through the efforts of its first advertising manager (in 1928), and who was later to become the company's president - Adriano Olivetti. Under his aegis, Marcello Nizzoli not only provided designs for posters but for Olivetti typewriters. This remained in addition to the other distinguished artists/designers such as Bruno Munari and Giovanni Pintori employed by the company.
It is often assumed that corporate design's evolved role in the West is tied up with its state of industrialisation. Which could be true. But equally, the successes and failures of these companies could hold some lessons for others heading for similar scenarios. It would be interesting to understand the collective thrust/ collective culture behind corporate design commissionings.
When Celanese Corporation, a diversified industrial group with Devoe Paint as one of its products, had embarked upon its corporate design programme, its post-War chairman Harold Blancke had slated/envisaged the programme to be one of its "most effective tools for competing in the world of business and industrial communications." This was at a time when the company was grappling to emerge from rough financial patches into a strong growing concern under Blancke's chairmanship. The impression that Celanese was no more just a manufacturer of fibres but a major chemical company needed change. Once again, it was Saul Bass & Associates who would come up with the strong curvilinear "C" that has come to be so widely acclaimed for making it representative of both heavy industry as well as of high fashion - the two principal business interests of the Celanese group. Bass was clear that Celanese Corporation's synthetic fibres for women's wear and all the accompanying high style came from the company's "industrial 'smokestack' area with all its chemical plants and refineries." For him, the challenge lay in the "virtually irreconcilable nature of the contradictory visual requirements of the (design) problem." However, at the end and much to Bass' credit, design became the most important catalyst for being able to bridge the notion of paint with that of fibres. This was done by using visual clues that would establishing a connection through the shared lowest common denominators, viz., common materials, processes and research for the two product groups. Part of the global strategy for this billion dollar corporation would arrive from design inputs that enabled it to form a unified and expressive visual identity.
Aspects of Visual Identity:
One of the main features of corporate design is its visual identity. It is a device with which one visualises a corporation and its product(s) or service(s). Like the way Procter and Gamble's candles during the mid-nineteenth century had become distinct in their shipments from those manufactured by other companies. Just because some dock workers had decided to brand P&G's crates with a star. And yet, this single visual feature had landed the company with such distinction almost as if in affirmation of its credibility as a quality conscious set up, that the company actually ended up taking a clue out of this success to refine the star as a tool to market all its other products.
While the star on P&G's products had connoted quality, there is the other well known instance of Otto Preminger's movie of the fifties 'The Man with the Golden Arm,' whose symbol of a fragmented arm designed by Saul Bass, had come to connote the very notion of success for Hollywood. And this at the height of television's assault on the big screen. As a corporate identity for the movie's campaign promotion, the symbol of the hand had become so well known that when the film first opened on Broadway, the only element to appear as a form of its announcement was the arm in blazing lights on the marquee along Times Square - there were to be no titles, no copy - just the symbol which had seemed adequate enough to cause the necessary advertising impact. But most importantly as a business proposition, the value of the symbol had turned out to be at least a million dollars extra in ticket sales, in the estimation of Preminger its director.
Visual identity in a rather compelling sense, therefore, is like a calling card for its company. And in more ways than one, it continues to represent "a fast, persuasive, high-impact element of communication," where one of its most important functions remains the creation of strong consumer recognition and awareness. As Bereswill, a senior communications executive with experience in design and implementation of strategic communications states: "history has shown that once an organisation has committed itself to producing quality products and making the public aware of its brand items, consumers tend to return to that same brand again and again."