Help: I Need Design, Not Another Designer.


by Jonathan Ford, Pearlfisher

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A lot has happened since I started out in the design business. In the 80's I had an amazing experience working at the highly influential Michael Peters & Partners just as packaging design became big business and brands realized they needed to get smart by design. Being with these talented people – in such a creative environment - had a huge formative influence on me as they created timeless packaging design classics like Windsor & Newton inks and Joseph perfume, to name just two.  In those days we put our designs together literally by hand and, in fact, I met my current business partners there as we worked slooowly through the night because of the intense craft, skill and passion for design needed to produce brilliant creative ideas and solutions. Global packaging design, and the business of it today, can trace its modern day influence to some of the designs and people that worked there. 


Windsor & Newton Inks, circa 1984

Then in 1990 I went to New York to work for the newly established Michael Peters New York Studio. Within a year I watched that recession destroy a company that had grown too big, too fast, too poorly advised, but which somehow had never lost its creative focus. In its time Michael Peters was like a Bauhaus of modern design and it inspired a generation of new design agencies to start up, and the design market started to expand, with the likes of Lewis Moberly in the UK and Joe Duffy in the USA, each with their own aesthetic which in turn inspired more design companies. And so on. 

But then came the age of the new and digital. The AppleMac was born, technology sped things up on an exponential upward curve, and along with my two partners Pearlfisher was born 18 years ago to this month in 1992. During the ever-changing and volatile years since we have somehow gone from being 3 partners with no clients to a good looking 18 year old design team. One thing that is central to what we do today, and when I stumbled out of Art school is.. Design. And, it’s been intimate.

But no more. Nowadays anyone can be a designer whizzing through work at the speed of light in a galaxy of bright stars called the design industry. In the UK and USA something like 95% of all design businesses are 5 people and under and only 3% are 30 people and over. There are hundreds of thousands of us working globally like creative ferrets on our ever speedier Mac pads with ever speedier deadlines with ever speedier solutions, for ever speedier clients, who change jobs at an ever increasing speedier rate and can get in touch with us even faster, from anywhere in the world. The design industry is an ever expanding universe of in-house design teams, breakaways, start ups, virtual agencies, partnerships, mergers, hybrids, collectives...whatever you name it, it’s out there - and happening faster. 

Pity the poor client who has to choose one: they simply turn to that humungous filing cabinet in the hangar where they've been storing all the stuff they've been given over the years and - if they survive the avalanche of creative material, blurb and whatnot that they've dutifully "kept on file" - they assemble a long list, then a short list of experience and newness, and get us to fight it out for their business. Somewhere along the line and out of the competitive ether of designers desperate to win business, the idea of asking for and doing work for free emerged. And in that pixellated moment of must-have business madness, designers forgot, forgot that - unlike advertising - what we offer is a skill... not a service.  They sold out their profession - and themselves - and became servile.

We all know that free work doesn't pay (our reasons are on our website) and, frankly, low-paid pitches are a real unspoken problem and a discussion which I’ll save for another time. But what it underlines is how crap the industry is at selling itself these days. If you are a design savvy client you won't have a filing cabinet like the one I described because, of course, you'll draw on existing relationships and recommendations or trawl the Internet. Prior to writing this I had a rare peek at my competitors websites  - and it wasn't pretty. There's a lot of fluff out there: smiling faces, hyperbole about brands, borrowed credibility, dubious testimonials, obscure language, 3rd party endorsements, and a host of copycats. (Boy are we going to rework our website soon). As an industry we've become the Microsoft of brand communication - in a desperate effort to say everything we've lost focus: Slogan!Award winning! New! Unique process TM! We love clients! A new type of agency! We do that too!... and because there is a samey look emerging alongside the samey language and sales pitch, the white noise is unbelievably amplified.

I recently had a very interesting discussion with the Head of Design for a luxury brand company. He said he would no longer use a "traditional designer or company” for his packaging. Feeling the ominous chill I asked him what he meant and he said he was working with architects, fashion designers, aircraft and car designers, hotel and interior designers for packaging and brand projects. “Oh! so you mean rock star designers” - I desperately tried to choke out in my last line of defence whilst still looking in control. “No”, he said, “I want to work with people who design, people who know how to solve problems and use all the materials at their disposal to create a design that is long lasting and unforgettable”.  

Ask yourself, Do you talk about Design or do you Design? Have you smothered Design in layers of undifferentiated language that no one understands? In doing so are you fudging what you stand for, who you are and what you believe in? And just who are you really? Are you unforgettable? 

We have great design examples to talk about (as do my competitors) and so, truthfully, it’s not just this that sets you apart anymore. It is who you are, not what you say you are. It’s a combination of your personality, your design work, your design people, your design culture and all this is real and tangible and differentiated. You may be the new kids on the nano-second novelty block or if you get past that and then become established but indistinguishable  - as we were a few years into our business -  then these are the real design challenges that have to be addressed in order to stand out from the 100% expanding chatter.

And this brings me to the same end point as per my last article for The Dieline. It keeps coming back to standing behind what we do: Design. Cultures define themselves by the artefacts they leave behind and never before has it been so imperative - in a world where everything is fluid, insecure and intangible - that Design is the one thing that stands the test of time, is worth investing in and which has a value that should not be sold short in terms of making peoples’ lives better.

The enduring power of good design speaks for itself. Just take a look at the list of names topping the annually published list of Cool Brands -

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