Author Archive for Jonathan Blanchard Smith


There is no such thing as Scandinavian design

If we take Scandinavia to include the mainland of the Nordic region (excluding Iceland and Åland), there is a persistent view through the media that Scandinavian design is a consistent and homogeneous design culture and ethos which leads to a consistent and homogeneous design product.

It isn’t true. It’s a construct of the need to find a convenient label, much like there is meant to be such a thing as ‘middle eastern cooking’ or an ‘English accent’.

Despite the laudable efforts of such firms as the new pan-Scandinavian design firm Muuto (from muutos, ‘new perspective’ in Finnish: which is intentionally bringing designers together from across the region, the concept of Scandinavian design itself needs to be deconstructed.

Here’s why. Historically, the four nations of Scandinavia have spent their time dominating, or being dominated by, each other. The Danes and the Swedes were on top (intermittently, of each other); the Norwegians and the Finns underneath, though the Finns as a Russian archduchy did have a degree of freedom the Norwegians did not. The historical picture is therefore informed by the desire of two nations to spread their culture – and of two others determined to build up theirs under the pressure of others.

The assimilation of foreign styles, and making something unique of them (Gustavian neo-classicism in Sweden, the National Romantic Style in Finland, the assimilation and use of Schleswig architecture in southern Denmark, for instance) provides a concrete backdrop to national difference. The way architectural and visual design styles were used, particularly in Finland and Norway, not to identify the nation with the wider world (as they are in Denmark and Sweden, for instance) but to identify them as something other, something different and unique, continues to inform the design ethos of the various countries in many ways.

If the view of the outside world of Scandinavian design is blond people making beech furniture, then it is equally easy to stereotype – though with a greater degree of accuracy – the various nations (spoiler alert – wild generalisations imminent).

Danish style is actually the one people in the outside world, the influence of IKEA notwithstanding, think of as being ‘Scandinavian’. Human proportions, clean lines, whites, greys and blacks with some silver and red as an accent colour. Precisely engineered, beautifully thought out, intensely practical. (

The design of Norway comes across much as its people do – thoughtful, ecological, distinctly different – and frequently quirky. In fact, this sense of humour, almost Italian in its approach, is one of the most striking features. (

As for the Finns, they design their products to fit their country – though they do have something truly unique in the rya rug. Finnish design is closer to Danish, though they won’t like me for saying so – its preoccupations are the same, but with more of a stress on the use of wood and glass, and a move in colours away from the greys of Denmark to whites, light colours and wood tones. (

Sweden is interesting. IKEA seems to have sent the product design industry into a bit of a spin – taking their cues more from their history than their present, Swedish design seems to be trying to find its feet as its ideas, and its talent, are increasingly plucked to make some kind of affordable mélange which whilst practical, lacks the intensity of workmanship and attention to usability that, ultimately, is the mark of design excellence. (

Four countries. Four histories, deeply intertwined – but four clear and distinct design cultures, informed by that history, by geography and personality. Paul Simpson, in his Summer 2009 piece for the British Design Council (, makes the argument clear, by making it more complex. His ‘Myths of Scandinavian Design’ include ‘Myth 1: There is such a thing as Scandinavian design’ – followed soon after by ‘Myth 5: There is no such thing as Scandinavian design’.

You can’t have it both ways. Spend enough time in the countries of Scandinavia and it becomes clear: there is design in Scandinavia, some of the best in the world. It’s just that there is no design of Scandinavia, but instead four unique and independent design worlds which cross over and cross fertilise – but which ultimately stand on their own.

scandinavian design


On believing things – and having the courage to say them (or, Why Design Manifestos are a Good Idea)

design manifesto

Something about design – graphic, typographic, product, architectural – brings out the evangelist in people. There are numerous excellent blogs on design; there are (still) innumerable dead tree press magazines; every college, let alone university, worth its salt has some courses which seek to identify and promote good practice.

All too often, though, the focus is on what design is; not what it could be. Evangelising good design is a whole other thing than thinking, deeply, about what it could be.

We like to think about what we do. That’s not just about the selection of the right typeface, or making sure that what our clients are saying to the world is what our clients want to say in a way that their customers want to receive it. But it’s about what we could be doing better, or different, or how radical we can be.

This is not true blue-sky work, of course – we still live in the real, concrete world and have to interact with it – but the determination to think, and hard, about what we do is important. We enforce that importance through our seminar working style; we enforce it too, by taking on bright people to think and study for us. (Lucy Young, who’s with us for a few months, will be doing exactly this for social media – thinking hard, examining deeply, and hopefully producing original and useful work. Look for her updates on this blog.)

So we like what we saw at the Danish Design Centre last month. A design manifesto. On a wall, like all good manifestos should be (or nailed to the door of a high street retail furniture store, perhaps).  The Preconditions for Good Design (on their website at lists ten attributes of good design, which,the Danes being practical, includes “Good Business”.

They’re following a noble path: John Emerson’s excellent post in Social Design Notes of last year lists 100 manifestos (including the DDC one), starting with William Morris’ The Ideal Book in 1883. (

We need more of these. We need more thinking, whether informed by practicality or not, not just about what we do – but what we could do. Look for a little of it here.


Stendhal Moments

Industrial DesignCreative businesses are naturally emotional environments. We deal every day with the science of marketing and media, of ROI and metrics, of rather dense and impenetrable models. But ultimately, we’re about offering people the option to think differently about a product, a service, a person – and that means getting into their heads, and that’s an emotional process.

Just sometimes, though, that emotion creeps up on you entirely unexpected. Two recent examples, of when the whole thing got really rather overwhelming and where, were I Henri-Marie Beyle, I would have had a Stendhal moment.

The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum are astonishing. Choir screens from Belgium; a house frontage from Bishopsgate in London, statues, stained glass, caskets and chalices ad what seems almost infinitum. When one visits a church in Italy, all of which seem like little museums in their own right, usually there is one piece of staggering beauty. Two if you’re lucky. But this is like someone’s backed up the European Renaissance and dumped it into the Museum, where it has been carefully, beautifully and lovingly arranged with the sole intention of overwhelming you.

There’s two floors of this. And a mezzanine. And just as you think you’re coping, you come round a corner and walk past an inconspicuous little brown thing in a case stood by the back wall of something utterly glorious. And you’re about to go past when you think, “I wonder what that is?”.

It’s the Codex Forster. The Codex-bloody-Forster. It’s one of Leonardo da Vinci’s own notebooks, in his own hand, with his own… you get the idea.

It was at this point that I went outside to calm down. Any gallery – and this is the permanent exhibition, not a special, only-open-for-a-month thing – that can hide the Forster Codex behind a wall as if it’s just another thing, creates Stendhal moments all the time.

And more prosaically, walking down a street in Copenhagen, I stumbled across the Danish Design Centre. And had another moment in front of, of all things, a set of tables. The “Little Friend, 2005” by Kaspar Salto, produced by Fritz Hansen, to be exact. It just works. It is beautiful, functional, the lines are perfect, every part of it thought out to within an inch of its life (but not so far that it has lost its essential delight).

This, I have to say, came on the back of design manifestos for Danish design on the walls, clear and thought through, video interviews of clarity and perspicacity, a standing exhibition of beautiful objects. I have a nasty feeling that the Danes are probably better at product design than anyone else, and the exhibitions – and the thinking underlying them – at the DDC just reinforces this. I mean, even their ‘you’ve paid, here’s your little badge to prove it’ is a lovely little clip, with their website address on it, not some little sticky thing that destroys clothing.

Anyhow. Two moments when design becomes beauty, and when that beauty becomes overwhelming. Is it any wonder that we get emotional when we create, when we stand – however slightly – in the same light that creates Stendhal moments?


Interaction in a digital world

There is nothing like the morning commute to make one think “What on earth are you all doing?”. Here we are, rush rush rushing down narrow tubes in the ground (in cities with subways, unless the drains are your preferred means of cross-city travel) or in cars, buses and trains if you travel overground. And there always seem to be too many people, not enough space and not enough time.

Day in, day out, the vast majority of working people prove that widespread teleworking is little more than a myth. We all spend hours upon hours daily going from one place to another, in expensive transport systems that turn tons of precious fuel into tons of nasty pollutants. And for what? The easy answer is because our work requires us to be somewhere other than where we live. The more thoughtful answer is that people need to be with people – and will go to ridiculous lengths to do so.

But do we need to be physically close? Is there something specific about the physical presence of other bodies that we need? Or are businesses so stultified that they drag us into the office because they feel we need to be there? Or because they don’t trust us to work if we’re not there?

And this is where social media comes in. We know, because of the success of the telephone, that the need for contact is so intense that people will spend hours on the phone simply to speak with others, despite the loss of quality, the inability to see the other person and so on. But a phone call, like a conversation, is synchronous. The true triumph of social media has been to develop – and make people enjoy using – both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

The situation is constantly changing. It’s only a few years ago that William Gibson could write in “Pattern Recognition” – ‘Right now there are three people in Chat… and the chat room she finds not so comforting. It’s strange even with friends, like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about fifteen feet. The hectic speed, and the brevity of the lines in the thread, plus the feeling that everyone is talking at once, at counter-purposes, deter her.’

Technology, unusually, is faster even than Gibson. With Facebook’s desire to become an email platform; Google’s launch of Google Buzz; GMail’s integration of video chat; and all of the innovations bubbling under in skunk works; social media’s agglomeration of multiple modes of communication, of the asynchronous and synchronous is beginning to develop the promise that we all hoped it would have years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Most importantly, we’re still nowhere near replacing the physical experience of being present. Which means, I’m afraid, that you’ll still be commuting for the near future. And you’ll need to use an agency that understands that communication does not happen in some kind of digital or physical nirvana – but instead, happens wherever people are, whether in person or online, whether synchronously or asynchronously.

We need to be close to people. The trick of the future is going to be working out what that closeness means – and how we work with it.


Typography is Porn

We’re always proud to call ourselves geeks at Vivid. We love what we do, we spend far too much time doing it at the expense of the usual eating/sleeping/normal social relationships things. And we get unreasonably excited by our particular specialisms.

The creative team, flushed from their success designing our new website, were meeting this afternoon at the development stage of a new project. The name of one particular font (more particularly, its name and whether it had a particular weight) eluded us. Out comes the trusty Font Book.

Which falls open at a particular page – our favourite font for a while last year. And then two pages fell out (fonts for an arts project). A horrified developer goes “It’s true – type is porn!”. The well thumbed pages, the book falling open at the sexiest bit, the fact that it’s impossible to leaf through the book without getting diverted for a while – the similarities are certainly there.

But it’s not quite that simple. Like so many of our areas of work, it’s simply that type is an obsession of our creatives. Typography matters to our design – the essential idea behind good typography, that the type should never intervene between the idea and the reader, and be so beautiful that it facilitates and enhances communication rather than obstructs it, resonates with our ideals of coherence and congruence. Signature Vivid type design is not about flashes and bangs – it’s about simple, elegant clarity. Anyone can do flash and bang. Clarity requires obsessive attention to the use and meaning of the type and of the word, of the design and the message.

And that requires a comprehensive knowledge of type itself, which is where the Font Book comes in. That, at least, is our excuse, and we’re sticking to it.


Why your brand strategy has to flow down through your organisation

Try this. The day a new advert comes out, ring the company that placed it and ask for the new product. More often than you want to think, the switchboard won’t know the product’s been released.

Or try this. Compare the brand guidelines that a marketing firm issued to a company’s marketing department with the materials produced by a local office – especially if that office has its own computer/printer set up. Count how many times you see a logo on the skew-wiff, the wrong fonts used, or some other kind of teeth-grinding solecism.

Or try this. Does the company’s advertising reflect your experience of it?

I’ve covered why getting the brand is right before (Why is getting the brand right so important?). There’s a different issue here, though, which links in to another of my earlier subjects, congruence.

Your brand has to be congruent with your offer. Your brand has to be consistently correct. But your brand also has to be shared, not just externally where your target clients are, but internally within your organisation so that your people actually behave as if your brand values were their values.

Getting this level of congruence is difficult (or there wouldn’t be so many how-to guides about it). You will read that you should be involving your staff in the brand story; consulting them when making brand changes; make it impossible for them to confuse the brand by ensuring they have all the collateral they need – and above all, you should enthuse them.

At which stage, if you have any sense, you’ll throw the guide across the room.

As any British manager will tell you, enthusing staff over something as peripheral – to them – as a brand is a lost cause. British workers don’t like to be enthused. What they want to do is understand, and once they understand they’ll go along.

And what you need them to understand is this: that your brand makes a promise on their behalf, and it is their job to ensure that they live up to that promise. (in its rawest terms, because keeping that promise keeps them in work).

This means, of course, that your brand promises must be achieveable. It’s no good pretending you employ angels and make ambrosia. You don’t, and you shouldn’t say you do, because how are you going to get your non-angelic staff to be angels?

Explain your brand to your staff. Explain why it matters to them, and what demands it makes of them. Ensure they live up to those demands. And you’ll find your organisation lives up to your brand promise; in reduced complaints, increased conversions from contact to sale – and a certain level of coherence throughout the whole firm.


Localisation, transcreation and tapping new markets – strategies for existing brands in new cultures

Two months ago, Work Directions (a UK company which specialises in returning the long-term unemployed back into work) rebranded itself. To Ingeus (‘the new name for Work Directions”). Why change a name that means something obvious to its client base to one that doesn’t (and, furthermore, which is difficult to spell, and has a counter-intuitive pronunciation in English)? Brand alignment.

Ingeus do good work, in the UK, Sweden, Australia, France and Germany. But their rebrand in the UK illustrates one of the many problems with transnational brands – to keep a common identity, or to localise for maximum appropriateness.

Vivid London has specific experience in this kind of cross-border, multi-language projects. A vital part of our process is identifying a brand that works in the target markets – that straddles the difficult elements of meaning, comprehensibility, and uniqueness. If we don’t think that the existing masterbrand works, we’ll recommend that that should be changed itself should that be the most intelligent solution.

And we’re happy that, if necessary, the masterbrand acts as a sub-brand to the locally appropriate brand. This becomes particularly important where the masterbrand cannot be changed – but where in a specific locale in does not work.

We do this because we believe in the integrity of a masterbrand. But we’re also driven by the need for the product or service to which the brand is attached to be successful wherever it works – and this means developing a brand that works as effectively as it can, in the place where it has to work.

Which means localisation and transcreation are concepts we like, we work with, and we want to share. There’s a subtle difference here – localisation means making a brand appropriate to the new market; transcreation is more complex, being a ‘creative translation’ of the brand, effectively not just making it fit, but making it live within the local ecosystem as a fully integral part.

Transcreation can be scary for the client who has heard all about the ‘global village’ and thinks that that means a single brand or brandmark will work all round the village. Brands are precious, and people don’t like the idea that the brand that works so well in their home territory that they want to expand will not, in fact, work in other countries. Unwelcome or not, though, it’s true – customers want to be spoken to in their own language; and not just their own language, but also their own idiom. Simply slapping on a different language and hoping it will fit – as is increasingly happening across Europe in television advertising – produces a piece of material which works badly for everyone and works excellently nowhere.

Localisation is not taking the same brand everywhere, just changing the language on the brochures. Transcreation is not simple translation. Making a common brand work across many cultural and language sets is sophisticated, and intensive – something that Vivid’s research-based approach excels in. And as for Igneus? We love what you do; but for your clients as well as for yourselves, we loved you better when you were Work Directions.

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