Identity: Fitting an image that buries the past: Signet, the jewellery group formerly known as Ratners, has eight redesigned stores trading under experimental names

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THERE IS no doubt that design is big business. Even in the hard-headed 1990s.

Corporate identity changes, such as those that brought the piper to BT, the tilt to BP and the rationalisation of the wavy lines under the ICI emblem, have brought graphic designers out from behind the pages of brochures and made them pots of money to boot.

Although these developments are often sneered at, and the emphasis has changed a little since the 1980s, there is a growing perception among companies that they can help to improve performance.

When Ratners Group announced in September that it was changing its name to Signet, it was responding to the fact that the company's sales had dropped by more than a third in the wake of the infamous remarks made by the former chairman, Gerald Ratner.

But the process did not stop there. Noting that Ernest Jones and H Samuel - the two chains not directly associated with Mr Ratner's 'total crap' remarks - had registered their first rise in turnover since 1990 while the core Ratners shops were still falling, the company's new management said it was considering abandoning the Ratners name altogether.

Since July, eight stores have been refitted to trade under the experimental names Kudos and Saquis, with no stock marketed under the Ratners name. At the same time, two stores refitted in the same style but called Ratners have been offering certain items of fashion jewellery in the Saquis line. The idea, said a company spokesman, is to obtain an accurate picture of the effect of the changes. It will be evaluated in the new year.

More significant, though, is the establishment of a totally different concept known - for now at least - as Equa. Developed by Davies/Baron, the design consultants that specialise in retail, it is an attempt to put the group in the 'mass middle market' as opposed to the 'price-conscious' bottom end usually associated with Ratners.

At the same time the company and the consultancy are undertaking something much more ambitious - challenging the way that jewellery has been sold for centuries.

Three Equa shops have just been opened as part of the 'parallel experiments' that Signet is planning to run in the weeks leading up to Christmas, traditionally the group's busiest trading period. One, in Peterborough, is in a shopping mall and the other two - in Norwich and Swindon - are in high streets.

But all are, in the words of David Davies, creative director at Davies/Baron, much more like outlets of The Gap, the US casual clothing retailer, or Next, another of his firm's clients.

'Jewellery stores are the last bastions of early 18th-century retailing. Most look much like they did 200 years ago. The whole idea that you shop from the window and have to remember the number of the chain, or whatever you saw, when you go in, is quite quaint,' said Mr Davies, pointing out that most jewellery shops would be indistinguishable from one another were their names removed.

What his firm has done is to use its experience of a variety of retail operations - including Burton Group, for which it redesigned the Principles chain, Marks & Spencer, W H Smith and Lillywhites - to make jewellery outlets accessible in the same way that other shops are. Indeed, Mr Davies believes that access is one of the keys to successful retailing.

It has replaced the old arcade style with a flat, well-lit frontage. However, in a conscious effort not to make the change too dramatic, it is continuing to show a large percentage of the stock in the window rather than adopt the more abstract approach which is common in clothes shops.

The firm has also created what Mr Davies calls a 'floating effect' - by which he means that more thought is put into display. Instead of the traditional square cushions packed with rings or necklaces, there is variety. For example, four expensive rings might get the same display space as a dozen cheaper chains.

Although much of the impetus comes from previous experience, Mr Davies is keen to stress how much of a partnership the project has been.

Although he acknowledges that the work he and his colleagues have been doing recently is different from that carried out in the 1980s, he insists that it is 'a nonsense that people are not using design any more'.

Instead, design has become a small part of a much more complex strategic exercise, involving senior executives at both the client company and the design consultancy. 'We're being used in hard-headed commercial ways,' he said.

Justifying the name chosen brings the danger of pretentiousness. But Mr Davies feels that Equa - one of hundreds considered - 'suggests natural compositions'. One can see, he adds, the progression from water, through stone to gems: 'Subliminally, it suggests something real.' Market research suggests it is popular with potential customers.

Wally Olins, widely regarded as the guru of corporate identity, has said that the name is not vital for success. 'If you have a bad name, you can still have a successful company.'

But Mr Davies sees a closer link. 'The name is an increasingly important factor in a company's success. The products have got to be right. But if you don't have a naff name, you might be more successful.'

(Photograph omitted)