The words flew passionately as each alternately filibustered, blustered, quibbled and pontificated over the great issue of the day: The brandability of the color blue.
They weren't just designers. They were Pentagram designers.
Advertising folks don't often dwell upon design. The designers in their midst aren't even called designers; they're referred to, still, as "art directors," and expected to do little more than make things look pretty. While designers have been gradually empowered over the decades, the number of significant ad agencies actually ruled by them is small enough to be counted on two feet.
Yet if we are actually entering an "entertainment economy" (as this space posited one month ago), an era in which the emotional content of a brand, product or service is even more important than its functional content, then designers such as Pentagram are a bridge to marketing's future.
If you stumbled over the grammatical flaw in that last clause-the equation of the plural "designers" with the singular "Pentagram"-be assured that it was intentional. For I've worked with the prestigious Anglo-American partnership of graphic designers, product designers and architects (I helped write and edit the firm's newly released collection of case studies, "Pentagram V") and I'm still hard pressed to say where the collective ends and the individuals begin.
Take the scene in the first paragraph. The full-day debate between American graphic designer Michael Bierut and Argentinian product designer Daniel Weil, which I was privileged to attend in Pentagram's stylish office in the Notting Hill section of London, was nothing less than a graduate level seminar in marketing theory and practice.
The two partners and their assistants painstakingly analyzed the impact of shape and color on the client's image; they worried over the synergy between its advertising and the equipment they planned to craft for it; they pondered the effect of their creations on consumers as well on as the client's employees.
That intellectualism-rather than a reliance simply on artistic inspiration-is the essence of the Pentagram way. Like post-Revolution advertising, its design is founded on the primacy of the Idea. "The worst thing," London Partner John McConnell once told me, "is that fear of being found out by the other partners that you've done something frivolous."
The individual partners, though, are fiercely proud of the work each has created. And that work is everywhere.
A taxi ride around New York City will showcase Paula Scher's grand poster and pennant rebranding campaigns for the Public Theatre and the American Museum of Natural History. If you've ever salivated over the Williams-Sonoma catalogue, you've thumbed through Lowell Williams' work. Thought of Noel Coward during that last stay at London's Savoy Hotel? Thank John Rushworth for highlighting its art deco identity. Multiply those efforts times 16 (the number of partners now in New York, London, Austin and San Francisco) and Pentagram's world grows quite visible.
For most of its 27-year history, Pentagram's partners have negotiated the tensions between the group and the individual by working independently. Indeed, the organization is structured as a medley of separate businesses operating under the same roof. But in recent years a curious thing has happened: Pentagram partners are routinely crossing boundaries and disciplines to work together on projects whose scale and scope would normally require larger (and more bureaucratic) design assistance.
Pentagram's new book is replete with such case studies. The U.K.'s Boots pharmacies were refashioned by Pentagram graphic designers, industrial designers and architects. New York's Globe restaurant on lower Park Avenue brought together an architect and a designer. So did Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Children's Museum, the Granada roadway service areas in Britain, TSE cashmere stores-and many more.
"Pentagram V" (published by The Monacelli Press) carries a message every brand marketer needs to hear: Everything communicates-and communication is a collaborative process.