Published in the tipoGráfica magazine in 2006
This analysis of the design of graphic corporate images and non-graphic images, proposes an in-depth review of the concept of design. The differences between the image a company transmits and how it is actually perceived shows that it is possible to design aspects other than just signs and objects.
The design of the graphic and the non-graphic corporate image
All of us have, for different reasons related to our everyday lives, some form of contact with companies, banks, institutions, department stores and municipal or government offices, in order to buy something, pay a debt, learn about public events, or for multiple other reasons. It may be face-to-face contact between a citizen and an employee or official of a company or institution of some sorts, or it may be communication by phone or in writing.
The company approached is usually not the only one in its sector; all banks or department stores offer basically the same goods or services. These companies within a same sector compete with each other for the favour of the citizen-customer and they resort to different strategies to achieve their aim, among them the design of their corporate image, also called corporate identity. However, these competing companies are not the only ones to resort to this visual medium in order to promote their interests. Non competitive institutions such a municipalities, governments, railroad lines or airport managing companies, also use corporate images to create a positive attitude on the part of the general public. The primary function of this corporate image is to represent symbolically the identity of the company or institution and, through it, create a “favourable image” which will attract the citizen to their interests.
However, as often as not, when visiting a company or institution, the visitor leaves often feeling irritated or offended by the treatment received by its employees or officials, and this even in the case of companies or institutions which have good, even very good, graphic corporate images. On such occasions the citizen may well ask himself: what is the point of a good graphic image when direct and personal contact with the company produces a “negative image”? When this happens, he will be justified in thinking that the pretty and aesthetic graphic corporate image is merely a cosmetic operation, since direct contact has demonstrated the discordance between how the company actually is and how it represents itself symbolically. This other image is here described as the “non-graphic image.”
Now, the subtitle of these reflections: “The design of the graphic and non-graphic corporate image,” implies that this image, which is not based on normal graphic signs, can be designed. This proposition will undoubtedly seem odd to a designer, since a corporate image is not normally viewed as anything more than a collection of graphic signs and the norms regulating their application and use. However, if the end pursued is the design of something that does not have the nature of either a graphic sign or a material object, it will be necessary to reflect on the very concept of “design” as understood by the professional establishment and attempt to determine the very basic concepts which guide its exercise and which would enable a more universal definition of this activity and on the basis of which then to approach a task of this nature. First and foremost: how do designers themselves define design? One such definition within the world of graphic and industrial design could be something like this: “design, designing, is a process of work delimited from its inception by a number of different conditioning factors, whose aim is to determine the defining aspects (material, technical, semiotic, communicational, of use, etc.) of an object, be it physical or a sign, destined for a predetermined use and which is materially produced, or reproduced, in greater or lesser quantities by means of some technical procedure.” This definition is, possibly, sufficiently comprehensive to correctly explain what these disciplines conceive to be the nature of design. Nonetheless, nothing in this definition enables us to discern the existence of design in a non-graphic image. This definition – and other similar ones – explains a specific function of design and, hence, is ineffective in terms of explaining, in a broader sense, what we are presently attempting to clarify. It is necessary to go into greater depth to identify a more universal definition capable of embracing other forms of design.
During the 1980s the word “design” emerged from the almost total ignorance that surrounded its meaning and invaded the everyday language of the general public and communication media. The connotations of the word were mostly negative as a result of a phenomenon known as “design objects,” which caused design to be perceived as something cosmetic, superficial, as beautifying adornment, applied aesthetics analogous to applied art, but in essence vacuous and lacking substance. Nevertheless, in recent years this negative meaning has changed for the better and today we find comments in the press suggesting that almost anything is capable of being designed. For example:
“The European Space Agency designs its global strategy for 2002-2006.”
“Design of a quantum network wherein the messages are undecipherable.”
“Giscard d’Estaing presides the convention that will design (…) the Europe of the future.”
“The Government submitted (…) a bill designed with the sole objective of cutting off terrorism’s sources of financing and its support.”
“Citizens, everywhere, take for granted that political programs are designed in order to win the elections.”
These are just a few examples illustrating the current popularity of this expression.
The design of these strategies and political programs, among others, may appear alien to the professional designer whose designs are always for physical, material objects, which mankind uses to achieve specific aims, and the use of the term can therefore be found to be surprising in contexts where the objects designed are very different to everyday objects, in particular because they lack a specific material nature. What is the object “political program” like? What is its shape? What is its design? After all, “designing a political program”, a strategy or an attitude is, from whatever the angle it is viewed, a correct statement because it can actually be designed always providing that design is interpreted in a universal sense and not strictly circumscribed to the above mentioned professional activities.
The great difference between objects designed in accordance with standard graphic or industrial design procedures, on one hand, and the concept of design as per the previously stated examples, on the other, is evident and leads to the immediate question: if the common denominator between these disciplines and the examples offered is design, what definition is capable of encompassing both and at the same time recognizing their differences? To achieve this goal we must get to the very roots of the matter and ask ourselves what are, in their most fundamental sense, the meanings underlying what is universally understood as design. Once defined, these basic meanings could provide a basic conceptual framework to assist the process of comprehension of other work processes, equal or similar to design – interpreted in its conventional sense – even if neither of these processes nor the objects they produce are usually defined as design.
Any clarification process needs a solid basis to sustain its arguments. This basis is speech. Any exchange of meanings between a speaker and a listener, between a writer and a reader, and all the understanding of the world and everything in it, takes place with speech. The meaning we issue when speaking lies in the words and their sequence to form phrases. This is how meaning is created, and thus things and the world are made intelligible. Words are, furthermore, filled with meaning and hence are a source of knowledge; they harbour their history and the roots of their origin which reveal their broadest and most profound meaning.
Ethymology states the truth of words. The word, like so many others, comes from the Greek root étimos, “true, real,” and logos, “word.” In other words: ethymo-logy: “the true meaning of a word.” With reference to our present concern, the truth of the word design lies in its origin, it derives from designio, intention, which in turn derives from sign.1 By sign we understand the form, configuration, the essential figure of something, that concrete aspect that permits us to call it what it is.
This root word sign has generated many words to which it confers their essential meaning. For example: signal; signs; signalize; signatory; significance; ensign-flag and others. All these words and their meanings have an essentially visual nature, they refer to a signal, to the something signical, to what is signifying and is, thus, showing itself. Both de-sign and de-signate also refer back to this sign-nature.
The act of endowing something with its proper sign-character, with its essential form, would, therefore, be the showing the identity of that thing. In other words, a thing is its sign and the sign is the thing. These different words, permeated by the notion of sign, also contain references that aim precisely at the notion of identity in that which is signalled, as in ‘identity signs’ or in the ensign-flag, that signals the identity of a country. This reference also occurs, although in a different manner, in the sense of what is signalled and in this way is shown to the world, is revealed to our understanding as what it is, in its identity. Hence the identity of the thing lies in its sign, in its visual appearance. Moreover, such identity signalled by the sign in turn reveals the designio of that thing, that is to say, the intention, purpose or end to be achieved through its use.
Sign and designio, or in other words, “aspect, form, figure” and “finality, end, purpose” are, therefore, identical, they both merge in design. The action of endowing a thing with a sign is, hence, called de-sign.
In days gone by, the word designio was called deseño (in Spanish); the root both words share with design, underlines the intentional nature of the act of designing. Non-canonically, designio could also be interpreted as de-signio, as intención-de-signo (sign-intention), the intention of endowing a thing with its figure, of endowing it with its sign by means of the act of de-signing, in such a way that the pursued designio becomes manifest in the form of a sign; that it becomes factual reality. When this takes place, it means that designio, the intention, has become design, it has taken form, has acquired its sign, has become visible and exhibits its being. According to this line of reasoning, the basic concepts leading to a universal definition of design would be: sign-designio-design, on the basis of which the following formula may be proposed:
Design is intention become sign
Thus, in the degree to which a de-sign is the fruit and consequence of a de-signio that informs its being, this de-sign is designio become sign, an intention turned form, figure which, upon signalling itself, identifies itself with the sign which is its identity. This definition would thus be the conceptual framework mentioned at the beginning of this essay and which underlies every design producing process.
From the perspective of the proposed formula, it may be observed that there are numerous activities that involve design, even if none of them are necessarily described as design. Victor Papanek2 goes as far as stating that every human action involves design. Interpreted in the sense that design is designio turned sign, it could be said that this statement is true, although from another perspective it is possible to criticize it, although this is another kettle of fish. Be it as it may, all these different forms of design and designing may be perfectly understood as such on the basis of the universal definition proposed.
Having reached this point, and before getting more deeply involved in the subject of non-graphic corporate image, it is necessary to clarify the two forms of describing it. Some call it “corporate image” while others prefer “corporate identity.” Both definitions involve basically the same: designing the diverse graphic signs, such as symbols or logotypes, choosing colours, corporate typeface, illustration typology, copy composition styles, etc., and conferring an overall coherent image to all the communication items in such a way that the image can transmit the desired communication concepts and, as a whole, be the best possible symbolic representation of what the company is, its identity, thus achieving a favourable attitude on the part of the general public.
Yet this company identity does not manifest itself solely in the form of graphic corporate image signs. The recipient of such corporate images is never a passive subject. As already indicated, the treatment a citizen-customer receives from an employee of a company or a city hall or a government civil servant, will produce an emotional reaction that the recipient will consciously or not experience as a “good / bad image.” Since the experience is direct and personal, it is more real than the graphic representation of the corporate image. Sometimes the behaviour of just one employee can evoke the notion in a client’s head, that the whole of the company acts as this one. A personal one-time experience tends to be generalized to define the whole.
A specific behaviour or attitude is communicated by means of signs. A face and its expression, a mouth and its words, hands and their gestures, all issue signs: a smiling face or a sullen demeanour, a pleasant or aloof expression, a friendly or brusque gesture, a warm or cool tone of voice, clear or unintelligible speech, etc., all are signs. The sum of these signs creates a spontaneous, positive or negative, emotional response in the customer as to the “real” identity of the company for him. And if, upon entering into actual contact with the company, this experience does not coincide with what the corporate graphic image communicates, both that image and the company cease to be believable.
Hence, this situation gives rise to the question whether it would also be possible to “design” attitudes and behaviours of company employees in accordance with the graphic corporate images being designed. On this matter, Villem Vossenkuhl, author of the prologue to Otl Aicher’s book Analogical and digital,3 states:
“Aicher’s philosophic considerations are a propaedeutic theory of design and development. In his opinion there is nothing that cannot be designed or developed and this is applicable to one’s actual being, to one’s coexistence with others and nature, to the objects of everyday life, to life and to thought. The capacity to project, to design, is learned by doing it. What we do and in which sector we do it is secondary, the only thing we must not do is allow ourselves to be guided by pre-established parameters and plans.”
According to this perception of design, it would be possible to design oneself, one’s way of thinking, “one’s coexistence with others,” one’s relations with people. If this is so, it is worth thinking that even if the contact between a customer and a company employee may be just a brief “coexistence” – though it may be repetitive since the average citizen frequently visits his favourite department store, his bank, or uses a public service, etc. – the company should be concerned that its customer’s attitude will be as positive as possible, in order to ensure his satisfaction and his loyalty and, thus, transmit a good image.
A great number of companies have good graphic corporate images, yet most of them fail insofar as their non-graphic image is concerned. The exception is the rule. Therefore, a corporate image design project should envisage both aspects and the corresponding action programs should be designed to ensure that this image be a true reflection of the company, that the graphic and non-graphic images form a cohesive unit. This will enable the company to achieve credibility.
Now, with regard to the possibility of designing attitudes, which would be tantamount to designing the non-graphic image of a company, and even if it were just for a theoretical speculation, we may take the proposed design definition as point of departure.
Design is an intention converted into a sign
To start, an attempt should be made to clarify the relationship between the concepts of this definition and the design of what we will, generically, call “attitude.” This term encompasses a broad concept that includes the behaviour or the stance of an individual, both with respect to the things that happen around him and those that happen to the individual himself; his reactions, thoughts and feelings in the face of the many, positive or negative, impacts or impulses which accost him and affect him in one way or another throughout his day.
On the basis of the proposed basic definition, there is no intrinsic difference between the design of a product, a symbol or a corporate image, and that of something that does not have a material nature, such as an attitude. The subject can become a project. As in any design project, the first step in the process leading to the definition or formulation of the intention, of the purpose or end desired, consists of a prior analysis of the problem, the fundamental reason why a change, i.e. the design of a new attitude, is considered necessary. It is essential to establish clearly what it is of the attitude one wants to modify or re-do, so as to be able to design the means to achieve this intention. The fundamental aspect to be borne in mind in this respect, is that a given attitude one wants to modify, is always the product of a way of thinking, a way of perceiving oneself, the world and things in general.
Focussing on a change of attitude, hence, presupposes modifying the way of thinking that has led to the unsatisfactory situation that needs to be changed. This means going beyond the mere representation of a role during an eight-hour office day; it implies a much more far reaching change.
The sign must be designed in order for the intention to become reality, for a sign to take shape, for it to acquire permanent form. Since we are here considering a change in attitude, in other words, designing something immaterial, something mental, this change can only be achieved by means of some kind of programmed action, training, daily practice. This is what sportsmen do: they train each day to reach their established goals. Repeated practice is what creates a new model attitude. This daily practice, this work is veritably the design process, the process of self-design. However, practice, daily training, is time consuming, and the time required will vary in each case. This will involve reorganizing everyday schedules and making room for a period of time to be devoted to such training.
The repetition of each exercise will contribute to the progressive configuration of the sign, and the final format it will take. The sign, in this case the new attitude, will be configured and complete when the point is reached where living is the exercise itself, when the intention and the form, the intention and the sign, have merged into one.
1. Zimmermann, Yves. ¿Qué es el diseño? (What is design?), Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2002.
2. Papanek, Victor. Design for the real world, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991.
3. Otl Aicher, Analógico y digital (Analogical and digital), Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2001.
(Originally published in German, Analog un digital, by Ernst & Sohn.)