How to create a fully integrated 2D and 3D branded packaging offer.
I’ve spent 35 years striving to achieve one prime objective; to run a creative agency that successfully offers a truly integrated multi-disciplinary offer.
Why? Because most things we buy, and use, occupy a three dimensional space. The two dimensional brand mark, decoration, and copy all work well to initially attract us at point of sale but as soon as we pick that object up a host of multi-sensorial elements come into play. Good brand thinking needs to consider both the 2D and 3D aspects and ensure that they exist in harmony, supporting and enhancing each other, to deliver a holistic brand experience.
Despite increasing demand from brand owners for agencies that genuinely offer this joined-up approach they are surprisingly uncommon. A critical look through the work, misleading claims and hyperbole of many branding agencies, shows there are probably less than ten companies in the UK who can genuinely claim to have cracked the challenge. This is because running an integrated 2D and 3D design team (and more crucially a business offer) sounds easy in principle, but is extremely hard in practice.
Why is this?
The problem is, most agencies have a mono-culture based on the prime discipline on which they were founded. Graphics companies traditionally have talented leaders focussed on brand values, consumer desires and emotional connections at point of sale. They work for marketers who have clear business challenges, relatively quick lead times to launch huge volumes of product with low profit margins. Product designers are equally passionate but more focussed on user behaviour, ergonomics and functional delivery in use. They work with R&D departments on innovation pipelines and projects with long lead times. They may have smaller budgets but also deal with higher Capex investment for both tooling and manufacture, but for smaller volumes with higher profit margins.
Over the years I’ve witnessed both types of companies enviously eying up the other’s client list, skill set and work opportunities. But when it comes to selling the offer, graphic agencies have little engineering or production knowledge and over-promise non-existent expertise, relying on hired guns or small ‘bolt-on’ structural teams. Their client services and strategists don’t understand product design, nor how to project manage it, so the experience and end result frequently disappoints their clients. Product design companies would love the relationships and revenue they see from fmcg brand owners, and rightfully believe that their approach and skills would be beneficial and add value, but their culture and client services (if they even have any) don’t understand brands, fail to engage or communicate with the right people on a strategic level, and their lack of graphic ability usually means that, at best, they get involved in a supportive role to a controlling graphics agency and, at worst, present their clients with a (well-engineered) solution that is so ‘off-brand’ that it all needs redesigning to be fit for purpose.
This two-frontal assault to tap into eager and well-intentioned brand owners’ budgets continues to have a detrimental effect on the credibility of multi-disciplinary design undermining the agencies who are genuinely able to offer these services. Clients have become increasingly cynical to the point where we’ve seen a return to employing a multitude of specialist design services to focus on each aspect of the design challenge.
So how does one overcome these fundamental issues, and what practices need to be adopted to build a company with a creative service able to cater to a variety of brand challenges in a channel-agnostic way?
Well, you have to get the agency culture right, from the start. Or, starting from the top, reappraise the whole company structure. It’s no good trying to offer holistic design just because the MD sees it as a convenient way to generate additional revenue, and sound impressive in creds presentations. It certainly helps if the founding partners represent a spectrum of backgrounds, fundamentally believe in this approach and are tenacious in instilling a multi-disciplinary culture into all the creative processes, the staff and design teams. It’s also essential to prioritise the inevitable Mac/PC issues that product and graphics teams incessantly bicker about; there’s room for both, just get it sorted with a good IT policy.
You have to embrace a business model that accepts the different, and sometimes conflicting, aspects of 2D and 3D projects. From budgets, timescales and revenue streams, the two are often frustratingly incomparable. Graphic design, by its very nature, can be a high revenue generator with a large volume of on-going work that is relatively easy to forecast and plan for. In contrast, the product and structural branding life is fraught with alarming boom and bust periods; with long incubation periods to see projects come to fruition and infrequent ‘significant large projects’ commissioned. Miss one of those and you could be in big trouble. You need a Board that sees beyond this, which doesn’t continually compare and evaluate turnover by discipline, or encourage competitiveness between department heads. View the studio, client services and project management as one entity and you’ll be half way there.
To make 2D and 3D design central to your offer, it’s essential to sell brand strategy and multi-disciplinary design at every opportunity, educating your potential clients as to what the benefits are. This means using both your 2D and 3D teams in every creds meeting, every pitch and every live project, even when it’s not asked or payed for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, the structural or product design content in the pitch may not result in huge 3D revenue, but your philosophy and approach might well win you the job, and you can’t underestimate the value in that. You need to ensure that the leaders of your departments are senior enough to shape the company at board level to suit collaborative working throughout. Without a doubt, the majority of failures to get this right is solely down to a board who are unwilling to embrace a revolutionary culture themselves; and often that’s why ‘bolt-ons’ frequently don’t work.
Once you have the culture and infrastructure in place, you can look to building your creative teams. Implement a recruitment policy that actively seeks out people who show a propensity for multi-disciplinary skills and interests, and then indoctrinate them into a collaborative way of working. This isn’t easy, there’s a distinct lack of skilled hybrid 2D/3D designers out there, as there’s nowhere training them. The current education system needs to wake up and understand the value of integrating disciplines as it annually floods the market with graphic and product design graduates, with skills that require re-focussing.
So gradually you build your team, empower them and share in the undeniable pleasures of witnessing how powerful and lucrative their combined forces can be, whilst continually investing and offering support and guidance. Through the dry spells product designers need to become more versatile and indispensable, positively contributing, with their unique skillset, to exclusively graphics projects. Graphic designers need to stop limiting themselves to two dimensions and increase their confidence in 3D, hopefully spending less sole time at their Macs and more time in the collective ‘war room’ discussing strategy and building ideas together.
In my experience all designers and strategic thinkers are fundamentally the same inside, they love to apply their passions and skills to solve exciting challenges. Whether from a 2D or 3D background, they can quickly adapt to working in a broader more holistic way to create relevant solutions with exceptional results. A mutually respectful culture where all parties appreciate the complementary skills that the other bring to the table, is paramount. This goes beyond the creative studio and should permeate project management and client services who maybe need to relax their traditional control over who writes the briefs, manages the project and forms long standing relationships with the client.
Lastly, it is crucial to put strategic brand thinking foremost, in every challenge, to create a solid foundation on which all designers can create harmonious ideas and solutions. Great strategic direction, with clearly a defined conceptual landscape, creates opportunities for 2D and 3D to deliver different aspects of a brand story and reflect a multitude of benefits and attributes that are easy to sell back to the client. Discovering and embracing the fact that brand identity is better expressed in this way is a revelation to not only the teams that work collaboratively but also to the brand owners who are striving to express their brand values through every means possible. Solutions created like this create genuinely better products and experiences for the consumer and therefore usually work well in the market, and result in increased sales and brand loyalty, so you have every chance to win design awards as well; which only helps to spread the word and promote your business!
Still aspire to create a strategically led, integrated 2D and 3D team into a credible design agency offer? I hope so, both the design industry and numerous brand owners out there would benefit immeasurably. It’s not an easy or comfortable journey and it’s certainly not a ‘quick win’ and sure-way to make money. It requires a total belief in the philosophy and a committed approach but the rewards are unparalleled and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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