Authenticity in Design


I attended a conference today in London today called Point. The main focus was around authenticity in design, and the first speaker, Lucienne Roberts addressed this point very well.

Is there a point at which graphic design makes a project lose its authenticity and becomes clinical or false? This is a very interesting question. Lucienne cited an example of her favourite coffee shop in Europe which had a very rustic and personal feel. But one day she went there and they had manufactured some well designed coffee mugs with a stylish logo on them and had even produced a coffee table book about the venue. They had in essence had a brand identity designed. Lucienne’s immediate reaction was that this made the cafe lose some of its authenticity, some of its rawness.

Lucienne then moved on to explain how she was involved in the branding of David Miliband’s campaign for leadership of the Labour Party in the UK. They produced a very fresh, slick graphical identity to communicate the message that David Miliband wanted portrayed. When she showed their brand against the other contenders’ brands it looked by far the most professional. Some of the others looked quite amateurish in comparison. But the fact remains that David Miliband didn’t win. When they did a post mortem on the campaign the graphic design was actually one of the areas they looked at to see if that had had some kind of unexpected negative effect. Perhaps the professional nature of the design took away some of the authenticity of the campaign and made it less approachable, less down to earth. And in the world of politics that can be very important.

Does design always have this effect? By its very definition design is something that is done with a purpose and is therefore contrived. You can lose the heart or personality that would otherwise come with either natural spontaneity or organic growth. Perhaps the trick is to find the balance and make sure you keep the ‘soul’ of the topic that you are designing.

This ‘soul’ was something that the next speakers focussed on a lot. Sean Rees and Nathan Webb delivered an amazing presentation about the great work they and their company, Purpose, has done on the brand identity of The McGuire Programme which is the speech therapy course that I am a member of. They have created a really fantastic way to communicate the struggle of communication. And well done Sean for getting up on stage and communicating so effectively in control of his own stutter.

The main thing that I took away from the conference was that when designing something the priority isn’t just to make it look cool. If it looks cool that can sometimes be a bonus. But there are also times when something actually shouldn’t look cool, or by making something cool you are creating something new and therefore losing a part of the original. You always need to make sure you retain the heart, personality and truth of the original subject. The design should just communicate those areas more effectively where appropriate.

The process of design is such a balancing act between aesthetic beauty and practical function. That is what makes design so difficult and makes it so powerful when done well.