Media: This man is not talking a lot of hot air

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He's the radio-addicted, TV boardroom scruff who devised the only truly successful aspect of early Channel 4 - its logo - and strangled BBC2's boffin image with its own knitted tie. Now Martin Lambie-Nairn is flying high, says Rob Brown, with the launch of his new on-screen identity for BBC1.

Somebody was missing when the new BBC1 on-screen identity was unveiled at Television Centre last Friday morning - the man who devised it. Martin Lambie-Nairn was unwell. Still, at least he was spared the spectacle of tabloid newshounds interrogating BBC executives about why it took half a million quid of license payers' money to film a globe-shaped hot air balloon in 10 different UK locations.

Actually, Lambie-Nairn is accustomed to far more profound scepticism. On numerous occasions the chief executives of some of the top TV companies in the world have sized him up across their boardroom table and muttered inwardly: `Who's this little man in jeans, unshaven, with his collar all over the place?'. But they swiftly find themselves listening intently to what he has to say.

Lambie-Nairn is one of the leading graphic designers and art directors working in the fast- expanding field of television brand identity. It was his sharply-honed corporate identity design skills which brought us the original Channel 4 logo and gave BBC2 a zippy new on-screen logo. He also rebranded BBC News and has produced TV brand identities in a host of other countries, including France, Germany, Scandinavia, the US and New Zealand. He also conceived the original idea for the hit satirical TV series Spitting Image.

Martin Lambie-Nairn reveals some of the secrets of his success in a new book. Brand Identity for Television With Knobs On (Phaidon Press) takes us behind the scenes to show how certain identities, symbols and sequences were achieved.

A lavish coffee table number, it reminds us that Channel 4's first managing director Justin Dukes initially dismissed the flying colour blocks that comprised the original "4" logo as too childish for a serious television channel. Yet, within weeks of C4's launch, this logo was being hailed as the best thing about `Channel Bore'.

Many still lament last year's decision to ditch it for a new set of "idents" produced by the station's own in-house presentation graphics department.

But the BBC is sticking with the highly versatile "2" logo which completely transformed the image of the second network six years ago, making it sophisticated, witty and stylish in the eyes of viewers, according to audience research. "We felt the brand values BBC2 had to convey - witty, innovative, surprising - could not be communicated effectively by a single ident," reflects Lambie-Nairn. "I imagined, therefore, a whole family of idents which could be developed in a variety of ways to reflect the different programming moods of the channel."

John Aston, former head of graphic design with BBC Television, was thrilled by the results. "The BBC2 identity was mould-breaking," he says. "Everyone warmed to it. It was a six-lane highway that could take you anywhere you wanted to go. It offered no limit to what you wanted to achieve."

Reactions to the BBC1 revolving globe were far less ecstatic. The aim was to make the spinning planet more magical and mysterious, but the viewing public never really warmed to it. Consequently, Lambie-Nairn was asked to have another crack at it. Its new solution - the hot air balloon floating above a series of different UK landscapes - made its screen debut at 6am on Saturday.

It's too early to test audience reaction, but Pam Masters, the BBC's Director of Broadcasting and Presentation, is confident it will strike a chord with license-payers the length and breadth of Britain. "We are sure it will become the recognised and unforgettable image of BBC1 as we move into the next century."

TV branding is becoming an increasingly lucrative field to be in. Gone are the days when the BBC blithely regarded quality programme-making as far more important than promoting its image - its original fleet of outside broadacst vans were designed to keep a low profile at royal events rather than advertise the brand - and ITV stations adopted an equally amateurish approach, despite their almost total reliance upon commercial airtime sales.

As the multi-channel era unfolds and competition hots up for audiences and advertisers, the TV is starting to cotton on to something marketeers in other fiercely competitive sectors long ago grasped - the importance of a powerful brand identity.

Lambie-Nairn notes that the average UK TV company uses the equivalent of pounds 200m-worth of screen time promoting itself in the junctions between programmes - far more than even the wealthiest advertiser could afford.

"If you compare TV to the world of fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) the problem becomes stark," Lambie-Nairn has observed. "The small corner shop which offered you a loaf of BBC and a pint of ITV has become a supermarket which is also stocking a host of other `lines'. In the 200-plus channel market, viewers will be able to exercise real choice, often on a second by second basis... Awareness is suddenly the priority."

But TV execs don't need to break into a blind panic. As he expresses it: "Marketing is not some abstruse black art. It is simply about thinking smarter than the competition and creating a point of difference and a reason to view."

Yet, strangely for someone who has spent an entire career designing for television, Martin Lambie-Nairn doesn't watch much TV himself. He never watched the box much as a child either. Part of a post-war generation, growing up fast before commercial television came on air in 1955, he has vague memories of Muffin the Mule and Dixon of Dock Green and rooms darkened for the showing of royal events. For the most part, however, he listened to the radio.

"The fact that I was sent to a strict, Baptist boarding school in Kent at the age of six hardly encouraged my viewing habits. It was a confining environment in which television was frowned upon and Cliff Richard and 6.5 Special were banned as a bad influence by my housemaster."

After leaving Canterbury College of Art in 1965, Lambie-Nairn joined the BBC's graphic department. He went on to work at Rediffusion, ITN and LWT before setting up his own company in 1976. He is now chairman and creative director of Lambie-Nairn @ the Brand Union.