Designers help Amex to make a statement

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AMERICAN EXPRESS card-holders in Britain and Europe may have noticed their monthly statements are more stylish than of old. What they may not have noticed is that they are also paying their bills sooner.

The designers who wrought this transformation were not the usual corporate consultants but an avant-garde duo who call themselves 8vo and were known mainly for some obscure record sleeves and posters for Manchester's notorious Hacienda club.

Barry Hill, senior vice-president of product development at American Express Europe, saw them on BBC2's The Late Show one evening in 1990. "They made the interesting statement that design should be transparent," he recalls. "It should allow communication to pass straight to the viewer. Other agencies feel the design is the star."

The redesign was launched in Britain in 1993 and subsequently in other big markets. Early next year, the remaining 75 per cent of Amex card holders in the US will begin to receive the new statements.

Mr Hill took 8vo at their word when they talked about transparency. "This job had degrees of practicality and complexity about it," explains Mark Holt of 8vo. "He didn't want to be having the wrong argument about the decorative side of design day after day."

Mr Hill's brief was to focus on what customers need to know: how much they owe, together with sufficient information to jog their memory of their transactions. There was also a softer objective to "reinforce why they became American Express card members".

The old billing documents were of odd sizes, making them hard to file. Layout was inconsistent from sheet to sheet, making it hard to see how the total had been arrived at. There was no easy way of telling the date of any transaction. The computer print-out was technocratic and hard to read. American Express reference codes cluttered up the layout. In short, says Mr Holt, the bills looked as if they had been designed for Amex's benefit rather than the customer's.

The 8vo bill is punched A4. Transactions run in date order on as few sheets as needed. The balance due is the most prominent feature, white- on-black near the top of the first page. Shading is used consistently and exclusively to emphasise credits - additional information important to the customer. Purchases are given short descriptions in place of the unhelpful "Goods". The service establishment is likewise described in a way you will remember, as "the name over the door", rather than as some distant parent company. Foreign currency transactions appear clearly in a separate column. The type is more legible and conforms with American Express house style.

All this is made possible by a series of technological advances. IBM's Advance Function Printing system enables documents to be produced showing only the data relevant to the particular customer. Laser-printing improves the computer lettering.

Every permutation of individual possibilities must be anticipated and allowed for in the final hierarchy of document designs. "You have to understand that a number of things impact your design, which means that each document can look different," says Mr Holt. Part of the problem is to design the typical page layout, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The situation is especially complex on the forthcoming American statements, which include not only card charges, but also charges under the Sign & Travel scheme which, unlike the parent card, includes a revolving credit facility, hole-in-the-wall cash withdrawals, and even itemised phone call records.

The technology also meant that American Express could target marketing messages to its customers far more effectively than blanket mailing of inserts: 8vo left the margin of the statement blank in order to display these messages alongside related items of expenditure. For example, if you ate in October at a restaurant which is offering a special Christmas dinner, details of that offer might appear on the your statement in November.

Future offers may make more tenuous connections, taking advantage of research that shows that people are more likely to dine at a Continental restaurant after returning from holiday, for example. American Express explores and tests the more creative possibilities among segments of its card-holders using mathematical models to ensure the greatest accuracy in targeting. "We are editing information," says Mr Hill. "What we are trying to do is eliminate junk mail. If it's a good offer that's relevant to you, you don't need a glossy brochure when you can print 25 words or less on the statement."

Clarity is prized by all who receive paperwork, but not always by those who hand it out. Some forms, such as car rental agreements, appear to use lack of clarity to bamboozle customers. Banks, building societies and insurance companies as well as the privatised utilities all have considerable potential to improve the clarity of their customer literature. Now 8vo is working on literature for an airline loyalty programme.

However, many companies pay lip service to the latest possibilities.

In addition, these are long-term projects that demand significant investment. It took two-and-a-half years to launch the American Express UK statement. And the job is not finished yet. Higher-resolution printing will provide further marketing opportunities, for example reproducing logos in the statement margins. Printing on both sides of the paper will make financial and environmental savings.

"There is a shift now that people are seeing this as a marketing opportunity. A bill or a statement is the one communication you get on a regular basis that is bound not to go straight in the bin," Mr Holt says.