“Glorified Design Firms”

frankelThere was an interesting post recently on cityfile.com.

It wasn’t the post, about Peter Arnell losing a lawsuit with his publisher, which got my attention. It was the first comment posted by Rob Frankel, a man who is not afraid of noting on his site that he has been called “the best branding expert on the planet” by strikingitrich.com  .  .  .  yikes.

In the comment Frankel says “Peter Arnell and agencies like Landor are not branding agencies by any means. They’re glorified design firms”  .  .  .  ouch!

What exactly is a glorified design firm? I don’t know anything about Mr. Frankel, or how he views the role of design firms. But this set me thinking about the current state of the design craft, and its place in the world that has become known as branding.

We have all listened to experts telling us how we must change. How our products must evolve to a service, services to an experience, and experiences to a lifestyle  .  .  .  etc. And it doesn’t seem to matter what business we are talking about, stock brokers have become financial planners, carpenters have become developers, barbers now operate day spas, gas stations are convenience stores, kitchens are now great rooms, Las Vegas has become a family holiday destination, and yes, designers have become brand identity consultants.

My wife and I run a design firm, maybe glorified, maybe not. But in these days of increasing complexity, we try and keep it fairly simple, we do really great package design for some wonderful clients. They’re happy, we’re happy, simple. I guess what got me going about the Frankel comment was that he put Peter Arnell and us in the same boat.

So far I have been fairly gentle with the Arnell/Pepsi situation on this blog, its been way too easy to be critical, fish in a barrel. But let’s be clear. All designers I have spoken to are offended by what Arnell has perpetrated, on his client certainly, but also the stink he has brought to our craft. I suppose this is much the same way that competent financial services professionals feel about being associated with Bernie Madoff, its fraud.

In our industry’s defense, most of us know what we are doing. Yes we understand the basics of typography, color, use of illustration and photography. And if we do package design we have a sense of how the consumer reacts to these stimuli, over time, and in the context of a brand’s history, its specific retail channel, and most importantly of where our client wants to take a brand.

Arnell missed all those signs. To call him a “designer”, glorified or otherwise, would be like calling someone who couldn’t frame a house, a carpenter, or couldn’t cut hair, a barber, or couldn’t draft a will, an attorney. These are the kinds of things they simply know how to do. They are the basic tools of their craft, service, experience, lifestyle.

Grant McCracken, on his blog cultureby, has an interesting take on this issue as well. In a recent post he mentions how Arnell missed badly on his recent Tropicana work.

With all due respect to Mr. Frankel, “Glorified design firms” would never have made those mistakes. 


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to “Glorified Design Firms”

  1. Rich,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. However, I would argue that while Arnell clearly struck out with the recent debacles involving Tropicana and Pepsi, his long-term record of success is irrefutable.

    Despite the fact that the adverts go against every ad principle known to man, one has to appreciate the boldness of the vision.

    Thanks and see you on the twitterverse,


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