Awards designed to have impact

There's much more to corporate design than just looking good, Helen Jones writes

BUSINESS design is no longer just about beautifully packaged products looking good on supermarket shelves or the commissioning of a crisp new corporate identity. It now has to have a tangible impact on profits.

In a bid to justify the cost of using a design company, the design industry is holding its fifth annual Design Effectiveness Awards this week, which aim to prove that design is a sound commercial investment.

Laura Haines, chairman ofThe Design Business Association's design effectiveness group, says: "The award entries make it clear that the role of design is now recognised by major corporations and that it is a key part of the marketing mix. It is now being viewed as an investment rather than just a short-term cost."

Ms Haines and the industry are at pains to emphasise that the ceremony is not surrounded with the self-congratulatory smugness synonymous with so many awards evenings nor, it says, does it provide plaudits for beautiful but largely irrelevant and expensive design.

Its argument is based partly on the quality of the judging panel, which is made up of top-level executives from companies such as Coca-Cola and Midland Bank. The chairman of the judges is Nestle's assistant vice president, Lars Wallentin.

Not only are the entries subject to the scrutiny of hard-nosed business people, they also have to prove that the implementation of the design has a measurable impact on the bottom line. Hopeful entrants must submit details of increases in sales, profits or market share.

Ian Rowland-Hill, chief executive of the DBA, says: "Successful design is measured against two broad criteria - first the original goals set for the project and second whether those goals were significant in a larger context, like the survival of the business, the need to replace an outdated product or recapture market share."

The DBA admits that design is rarely the only factor influencing a project's commercial success - sales may rise through a combination of factors.

However, one design industry source and former winner says the criteria are essentially flawed: "Just because something is measurable, that doesn't necessarily make it good design, a deserving winner or mean it is more effective than the others." He argues that sometimes fairly small projects win because they are not backed by advertising or any other marketing support and therefore it is easy to say that design made all the difference and increased sales dramatically or achieved whatever objectives had been set for the project.

Another source agrees: "If it is a much bigger project, say a branded can of beans, no matter what the design is, it is harder to measure its effectiveness because increased sales could be due to TV advertising for the brand."

These may be extreme views, but Tuesday's results are eagerly awaited in the industry. Although a closely guarded secret, the overall Grand Prix winner is understood to be a project for the Royal Mail entered in the information design category. The work by identity specialists Siegel & Gale is claimed to have simplified the application form for the Royal Mail's redirection service, making customer service more effective, saving time and therefore money.

Among others considered a good bet as a category winner is Wickens Tutt Southgate's entry in the branded products, packaging design sector for the Gossard Ultra bra. According to the submitted evidence, this pack design helped rescue the Gossard brand when it lost its Wonderbra license - and potentially 40 per cent of its business - to rival Playtex.

But it is not just pack design and corporate communications that are competing for honours. In the industrial products category, one of the most interesting and worthwhile projects is that done by Random Product Design. It has transformed a cumbersome piece of military hardware - a thermal imaging camera - into a life-saving product that is light and cheap enough to be used by civilian firefighters.

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