Image Control, The Australian

Image Control

I went looking for a new CD player last week. The choice came down to either a Sony or a Philips. Everything in the store cost about the same price and sounded pretty similar. The main difference was that the Philips and the Sony range just looked and felt a whole lot better. That’s all. Or not quite all. The companies that make these funky audio goods have a secret about how to sell their stuff. A secret of design.

As Sony president Norio Ohga says, “design may soon be the only element that differentiates one product from another.” He should know. As head of one of the most successful electronics corporations in the world, Ohga knows what makes Sony so successful: no leading edge design, no market leadership.

This was also the message of American consultant Robert Blaich’s recent lecture tour on design management. He first acheived desgn-world fame running the corporate identity of the well known American furniture company, Herman Miller. The recognition Miller gained for its chairs, tables and storage units since the 1950s continues to this day. The Miller style did not end with the furniture but continued through the distinctive graphics and packaging. In considering all of Miller’s output together and ensuring everything was designed in a stylish consistent way, Blaich pioneered the idea of corporate “design manangement”. This is a lesson still lost, unfortunately, on a lot of Australian companies.

In the 1980s Blaich took a close look at Philips. Charged with the responsibility of rescuing the company’s flailing image, he undertook a brave “visual audit” of the electronic giant’s sprawling operations. According to Blaich, one of the legacies of companies going multinational is that the look and feel of their products loses its easily recognisable identity. At Philips, there was no cohesive strategy to manage the image of the megalith’s products. In the marketplace, image is King. At Philips, anarchy ruled. Each planning and production department in Brazil, the US or the UK pursued its own style. Fourteen product divisions were busily churning out anything that could be plugged into a wall-socket. Yet there was no discernible Philips “public face” that connected the enormous range of these appliances.

Blaich’s “audit” prompted Philips to establish order where chaos reigned. This may seem suspiciously like standardisation, but Blaich insists there is plenty of room for diversity within well-chosen design standards. He talks a lot about “harmonisation” and “blending”. Each element in the company’s product line, advertising, and packaging becomes part of a complex harmony.

During this period Philips brought their products and packaging back into line, and they developed new products with the involvement of designers from the word go. Consumer audio products were made under a new program called “Moving Sound”. New-look boomboxes, discplayers, and walkmen recaptured the loyalty of Philips’ fading youth market. The matte-black Darth Vader look was abandoned in favour of bright colours, rounded forms and funky graphics. The advertising and graphics were an orchestrated part of a total design-as-marketing strategy. They looked good, sounded great, and sold even better. They captured the loyalty of the youth market at an early age.

This way of thinking goes to the heart of design management and corporate identity. In the late twentieth century, the image encompasses the product and the company it represents. Products have become indistinguishable from the corporate web that weaves them into existence. At the same time they must continue to differentiate themselves from other products. This is where the designer comes in.

Philip’s success shows the overriding importance that “look” assumes today. The complex unity of corporate image strives to achieve the status of “art”. If brand awareness and brand loyalty are crucially linked (as most champions of corporate ID insist) then the corporate look is one of a company’s most crucial assets. A coherent design strategy differentiates the good from the ugly. Bad design is simply bad business.

This argument obviously appeals to designers, but hardnosed business people still need a lot more convincing. Cost, marketing, time-to-market and technological innovation are mostly considered by business to be separate issues. Although Blaich makes an extremely convincing case for the importance of design in corporate strategy, it will be some time before our grey flannel brigade rush for the cover that design management offers.