Had I graduated in 1792, my portfolio might be full of creative work promoting the mass-produced wonders of that age – ironwork, ceramics or maybe industrial loom-woven textiles.
As it is I have been working slap-bang in the middle of a different kind of revolution, and this is none more evident than in my work for the telecommunications industry where the pace of change has been massive.
Right now, even as I type, I’m heavily involved in The Great Smart Phone War of 2012.
Crack troops are being trained and deployed and, though my role as propagandist precludes me from going into detail, I can at least reveal what side I am being paid to fight for.
My first job for the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer was in 2005, when I was called upon to design a business card.
And a not very interesting one at that.
But it at least meant I could chalk up another respected global brand for my CV.
The business card must have impressed them (well, that and Vital’s impressive retail design pedigree), as our next brief was a campaign for their brand new flagship store in Russia.
Tired of being sold through third parties and having no control over what sort of the brand experience a customer received at retail, they began an ambitious roll-out of 18 self-governed flagship stores worldwide. A team of the brightest and the best store designers from the likes of Apple and Nike Town were assembled and beautiful cathedrals to mobile technology duly created. The first of these flagships opened in Moscow, away from the world’s gaze and in the middle of a, then, booming economy.
The stores themselves were smartly hardwired with some clever technology that changed the colour of the interiors, controlled 360 screens that interacted with live devices and they were designed to connect with the other stores around the world. While lots of time and money were being spent advertising phones via TV, outdoor posters, and the press, the brand now found itself with a stunning blank canvas to bring the above-the-line campaigns to life in exactly the way they wanted.
And so it was we received our brief to promote a new high-end device being promoted under the headline ‘Hear New. See New. Feel New’.
After an initial seven man mission to Moscow and some time spent fumbling around outside my comfort zone, we managed to get our first flagship window designed and installed in a relatively short space of time.
With the windows flooded with an image from the main campaign, passing customers had to peer into a peep-hole to ‘see’ the phone and a motion operated whispering window (a speaker that turns the window pane into a speaker) allowed people to ‘hear’ the device in action in the street. Inside the store customers were invited to ‘feel’ the phones.
See what we did there?
I could fill up a whole blog just about the experience of that first trip and the process of creating workable ideas, getting stuff made, through customs and stuck up in a shop in a strange land, but it’s enough to say we learned a hell of a lot.
And we must have done something right, as this one-off project led to a steady series of campaigns as new stores were opened around the world.
Our next campaign, hot off the heels of the first, was a similarly prestigious bit of kit hailed as ‘The Next Story in Video’ (their words not mine). As part of the promotions Gary Oldman shot a movie on one, and it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here…
We had lots of ideas how to get over the idea of ‘professional quality movie-making’ but this clapperboard was the clear winner with the client, especially when I got a bit carried away in the presentation and told him we could make it light up, move, and flash messages on and off, all within the budget.
It was iconic, immediate and the flippy-top action reflected the way the phone opened up. Inside the store we made smaller clapperboards and mounted lenticular panels on the display podiums where customers were encouraged to play with the camera phones. Staff wearing ‘cast and crew’ shirts then helped them edit stuff on a laptop.
Next up was a music phone.
iPods were around at this time, but iPhones were still a way off, and carrying your music collection on the same device you made calls on was still a relatively new thing. However listening to music on your earphones was considered a bit of a solitary thing for a brand built around ‘humans interacting’ so the wider campaign for this phone was based around the idea of ‘Music Gets You Talking’. The TV ad our retail execution had to sit with featured people listening to a track, then being asked to make one call.
The solution for this one worked on the basic level of ‘You can get all this music on this small phone’, but when you looked closer, all the ‘album titles’ expressed people’s personal relationship with music. With pretend tracks like ‘The One I Borrowed And Never Gave Back’ and ‘Driving To My First Job Music’ they were supposed to evoke the memories that music sparked in the minds of anyone who bothered to get close enough to read them.
Photographer of some repute, Rankin, had taken a whole load of nice shots for the press campaign, so we employed them as our sleeve art, as well as giving then a pop art treatment and creating hanging canvases to suggest a domestic environment.
One of the recurring problems we had with these displays was selling a tiny thing in a massive window, and we’d use every trick in the book to lift the devices to eye lines and draw attention to the heroes of the piece. Not every phone we were asked to flog had as obvious a hook as ‘film’ or ‘music’ either, so when it came down to promoting this ‘Simply Beautiful, Beautifully Simple’ phone, we focused on the quality of the materials and the design.
And built a massive, eff-off phone.
We’d previously always avoided oversized phones. Small equaled good at a time when devices were getting smaller and smaller and the idea of a Trigger Happy TV giant brick of a mobile was to be avoided at all costs. That said, windows like this one proved very successful but they relied on getting the 3D model absolutely spot on.
This campaign ran successfully in Hong Kong and Helsinki, but while those stores were in mainstream shopping areas, the ones in New York and Chicago were in chichi neighbo(u)rhoods where our big, shiny phone would have come across a bit brash and shouty. For these we went back to one of my earlier ideas, where a collection of high-end stainless steel and chrome lamps were made to look like they had gathered round to admire the phone, well jel that they hadn’t been made into something that beautiful.
Each installation taught us something new and we were able to make running changes as we went. From quite distinct shifts in tone like this, to tweaking odd lines of copy and the strength of the vinyls.
With projects on such a grand scale as these, the odd compromise was inevitable. Logistics, budgets and deadlines obviously dictated how certain elements were realised, but the direction of the above-the-line campaigns would also sometimes change halfway through and the process would sometimes stop and start.
One of my favourite ideas that got away was for a phone that twisted one way to activate a speaker, then another way to activate a camera. The above-the-line featured air guitarists and I had planned a whole group of air musician puppets that shoppers could control from outside the window. The idea was signed off and we had meetings set up with marionette makers and commissioned an illustrator to develop these characters…
I’ve always loved these and it’s nice for them to see the light of day here.
In the end the solution was very graphic and this window perhaps over-sold the power of the tinny little speaker…
It looked great though. The vinyls were particularly effective and we had some nice twisted acrylic displays made, though one of the cutest touches were the ‘twisted’ red and white braces that we put together for the store staff to wear.
While I can say I dreamed up and directed all of these, so many other talented and tenacious folk were involved it would be impossible and very rude of me to try to take sole ownership of them. I worked alongside some great designers who developed the concepts, production people who made the ideas a reality and project managers who managed to keep all the plates spinning. I’ll attempt to name-check everyone best I can in the credits and if you’d like to see the full extend of this work it’s all collated here.
All told we did 9 different campaigns in 6 key global stores and I got to see a bit of the world. The clapperboard creative even came close to winning a Design Week Award in 2007 and got to rub shoulders with the iPod shuffle and other, much more worthy, medical products in the winners book.
It also appeared in the company’s official press photographs in various articles about the roll-out of the flagship stores…
I personally even had to pretend to be an expert on this stuff when I was interviewed by In-Store magazine for their Globalisation in Point of Purchase supplement.
Yeah? You heard me. The In-Store magazine Globalisation in Point of Purchase supplement.
The downturn has put pay to a few of the flagship stores now but these projects paved the way for us to work with the client on a much more strategic level. We still do the odd physical store campaign though, like this one featured in Mrs Spivey’s blog.
It’s always great to have clients that people have actually heard of, and back when Bob ‘Oskins was on the telly telling the nation it was ‘Good to Talk’, I also worked on the BT account at Parenthesis.
Well, I say ‘BT’ it was actually ‘BT Message Services’, a funny little atrophied arm of the proper phone company that acted as a kind of Bureau Du Message Exchange. In theory, if you phoned up and dictated a message they could deliver that message via telex to Botswana. Or convert your faxed message into a series of direct mailings, if that’s what floated your boat.
They were the people the Post Office Telegram service became and, while they sold consumer-facing Greetings Telegrams, their biggest business-to-business product was the official-looking, yellow-enveloped ‘Telemessage’ which was often used by utility companies to chase debts.
I created their wordmark from elements of the master identity, though I’m sure the brand guardians at BT proper never even knew or cared. The tinted block behind the type was made up of thesaurus-bothering words like ‘distribute’ and ‘dialogue’ and rather sweetly changed shape to echo whatever format piece of paper it was printed on.
We produced a lot of work for the WeddingGram and their BabyGram services, which I’ll save for another time, but one of the bigger production numbers was this super-glossy A4 8 page sales brochure.
The whole bright gels and drop focus style was very much the look that season, though this was clearly influenced by the Belly artwork by Vaughan Oliver’s mate Chris Bigg at v23.
A much cooler design touch point than it may have warranted.
Topped off with a font that included morse, semaphore and number code elements, design-wise this is really showing its age, but the print and finishing by Reynolds Press is still stunning, with a perfect little pocket designed just to hold a sample Telemessage envelope.
The photo shoot was no mean feat either. All done in camera without so much as a byte of Photoshop involved. Every element was painstakingly positioned around the type, which had been laid out beforehand, then each object was individually lit. To allow for the drop focus we needed, entire rig stretched back to fill the length of the studio.
A brilliant job by the photographer Graham Bullock and some nifty client tea-making by me.
But my involvement with the world of telecommunications didn’t stop there.
Mediacom Long Distance (not to be confused with the media-buying agency I later had dealings with) were in the business of buying telephone airtime and selling it cheap to companies operating worldwide.
To be honest, I never really knew how that worked and it always felt a bit like selling fresh air, still the bits of print and ridiculous 12 inch gatefold sales folder I created for them went some way to compensate for this lack of tangibility.
Does that thing look a bit like the Death Star? Yes. Was that intentional? Not really. Was it designed after we took delivery of our first PhotoDisc stock CD and Photoshop released a load of new filters? Um, as it happens, yes it was.
Oh come on, I defy any designer of my generation to deny they went through this phase too.
In the space of a couple of years we had gone from making mock-ups from photocopies and a colour tag iron, to a whole world of spherizing and lighting effects. Luckily I got over such shallow trickery relatively quickly, but for this particular company, who wanted to look bigger and slicker than they actually were, it actually fitted the bill perfectly.
As well as a whole raft of print, we got to do their exhibition at the annual TMA show in Brighton where, rather than have a stand in the main hall, they had their exhibition in a nightclub on the seafront and lured people in with free drinks.
Which is why the invites were created as (ahem) ‘south’coaster beer mats and stuck onto an ad in ‘Cheap Airtime Weekly’ or whatever their trade publication was called.
I did them a series of Mediacom pun-based exhibition panels (that ended up forming the basis for their show guide ad, complete with a bizarre blue drop shadow.) and, keen to see the job through to the end, I went down to Brighton with Tim the Account Director to help set up. The job of erecting the exhibition system fell to me and I’ve never been convinced that it was purely spilled beer that had made that club carpet so sticky.
Mediacom’s briefs always had a fairly decent budget attached to them, though for a client involved in the business of communication, I remember that particular aspect suffering a breakdown when it came time for them to pay their bill.
I think a Mediacompromise was reached.
I’m not sure if they still exist, though there’s certainly someone else out there with a similar name doing similar, though more diverse, things. They’ve got a swoosh logo though. At least I didn’t give my Mediacom one of those.
Some more extensive research (a quick Google) also indicates that BT Message Services is alive and well and operating under the name Telegrams Online and there’s even a familiar friendly client’s face on their website. (Hello Colin!) I’m quite chuffed about that. It’s nice to think I could dial a number from my iPhone* and still send a physical telegram in 2012.
*other smartphones are available