Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dunwoody Branded Signage - "When You're In a Hurry, Slow Down"

That was a piece of advice I got when working in a research lab in grad school.  The point being, if you don't have time to do something right the first time, you really don't have time to do it over if you screw up.

IMHO, the City did the right thing in suspending the signage plan in light of the public response.

When the branding initiative combined with the CVB and Chamber of Commerce was announced, I had some serious reservations about it for different reasons.  I made them known to TPTB (*The Powers That Be).  Then, because I like my job and want to keep it, I put my personal feelings aside and attended to the task at hand:  making the new branding standards function in the Chamber website and other online outreach.

I learned to be very objective, very detached, very quickly.

So with that background in mind, I'm going to be the Devil's Advocate here and go on record saying that I don't think the branding as it has been applied thus far, or the signage proposed, was as bad as some claim.  It's not perfect, it needs work, there were some clear missteps along the way, but in the grand scheme, it's not the Hindenberg.

I don't know any creative professional who has not experienced this scenario at least once:  you consult with your client or director, you come up with rough concepts, you flesh them out using every emotional technique in the book, your concept comes to life and the client loves it.  It does everything it's supposed to do, it applies to every contingency and situation.  The colleagues love it.  There's buy-in from everyone on the client's roster.  Then it goes for initial review to the general public, you're so happy with the accomplishment and proud to show it to the world.  And then... totally bombs.

Initial public review is a big, fat thumbs-down.  It's enough to make your question your profession and your life.  It's frustrating.  And no entity or enterprise or corporation is so high-and-mighty that it can't happen to them.  Even Coca-Cola got a galaxy-sized dose of humility with its meticulously-crafted, perfectly researched "New Coke" formula and campaign.

But it happens.  It's part of the creative industry.  I wanted to give the reps from both these organizations a big hug and expound on how much I understand.  I can think of some examples where I've been in the same situation with a client's website.  One took 8 different tries to get the appearance and delivery satisfactory to both the client and their audience. When it happens to me (oh, how it has happened.......:::sigh:::) I vent for a little while, then take a seat, a deep breath, maybe even a glass of wine, and evaluate the feedback.  When I clear my head I usually realize that the modifications necessary are a) not a personal criticism and b) not going to take much effort to incorporate.  Just settle down, review, rethink the box that you're thinking in, and you'll get on the right track.

First, establishing a visual representative identity ("branding") is necessary to building civic pride and community, especially when you have unexpected diversity.  If it wasn't important, the DHA wouldn't have invested in the first attempt in 2006.

Both Sky (which created the overall branding plan) and KMA (which designed the monument signage) did exactly as they were directed by City Hall and in practical terms, did everything right.  Sky put on an elaborate data-gathering plan to solicit input from citizens and the general public to frame their scope.  DunwoodyTalk linked to the survey results in his commentary on this issue.  Take some time to read some of the results written comments.  Not only is there a wide range of opinion, many of them are directly contradictory; some of the recommendations are even legally, financially, or physically impossible.  ("Close the college" is my favorite example.)  Rather than indulge in the luxury of focusing on one segment of this population to the exclusion of all others, Sky (under direction of City Hall) formulated a graphic that attempted to represent all of them, even as they contradicted each other.  You wonder why comprehensive branding plans are so expensive?  This is the reason why.  This is hard work that requires a lot of skill and expertise, as well as a thorough understanding of human psychology.

When your presentation attempts to encompass and represent as many viewpoints as possible, while marginalizing and excluding as few as possible, you get a presentation that becomes "generic" if you're going to keep it simple.

So the City has some options available at this juncture.

They can scratch the effort and start over.  Just absorb the loss and move on.  If you're the Gap, or Tropicana (which I mentioned on this subject in a previous post) you can move some finances around and go that route.  When you're a startup government entity spending tax money, it's a harder choice.  Besides, the survey results aren't going to change much, even if you issue new surveys.  That means the scope you're trying to encompass in your image isn't going to vary either.

They can modify what they have before using it on infrastructure investments.  Tweak a font, tweak a color combo, blend it with other graphics.  Basically, modify the official style guide based on current feedback.

They can hunker down and wait out the storm, then go ahead with their plans as written without modifying the style guide or other proposed implementations.  Doable and the cheapest option - but refer to the previous post and how long Dunwoody memories are.

"OK, wise-guy, what would YOU do?"  Stay tuned for Part 2 after I get some quality time with the kids.  Happy lunch break, everybody!

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