Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A4 Marketing

“Today I will be showing you all how to make your very own marketing communications. All that you will need to get started is one sheet of A4-sized paper (white, or coloured if you prefer), your very own laser-printer and one roll of sticky tape...”

After conducting a number of visual audit projects over the last two years, within a broad mix of retail, banking, and office environments, I have identified one of the most unsung, yet all-prevalent, marketing and communication channels in use today. Sure your Creative Agencies will try to talk you into investing in ambient media, viral marketing, corporate blogging, SMS advertising or building a virtual showroom within Second Life. Whatever. Put all of that high-end marketing to one side — the real ambient medium du-jour is the humble A4 laser-printed page.
I have encountered the same scenarios in every location that I have audited. Both in supposedly visually managed customer-facing environments, such as bank branches and High Street retailers, and in more visually cluttered environments, such as offices. Look around you, there are always lots of A4 pages taped up everywhere. The desktop publishing revolution is alive and well and is now part of our environment
Some of the most blatant examples are notice boards choked with a collage of current and outdated pages accreted since the last big clean-up. Any editing and prioritising of notices is usually non-existent. When everything is equally important then nothing is really communicated.
Why does this happen? Often it is a case of people being proactive and attempting to be helpful to their customers: trying to pre-empt and answer common questions. Not so helpful are the ‘go-away’ signs that only serve to make the customer feel like a nuisance.
Other scenarios involve staff on the ground having to address some larger design issues which fall outside of their immediate remit and are imposed from higher up the corporate hierarchy. I have seen self-service kiosks where the affordances of the chosen user interface and product design were so counter-intuitive that handmade instruction signs had been taped onto the terminals to somehow manage the barrage of queries about how to use them. Ad-hoc directional signs also fall into this category (particularly memorable are the delightful sort with multiple-angled or U-shaped arrows).
Microsoft Word is the default design tool for these A4 Marketers. The exquisite feature that produces such beautiful pseudo three-dimensional headlines is particularly beloved of the more creatively-inclined of these ad-hoc marketers.
Unfortunately, on the client side, too many corporate identity teams see this sort of tactical messaging as unworthy of their attention. This is a mistake. If you do not give staff appropriate and useful tools to address their needs they are going to find their own way. Then on the designer side the unpalatable truth is that, in my experience, most designers have little or no facility with Microsoft Word. (Mea culpa.) In their view, if a template file is not being constructed in Adobe InDesign or Quark XPress then it is not worth their time.
If you are happy with your client’s customers experiencing a lot of their contact with your client’s visual identity in the form of centred all-capitals instructions set in Times New Roman Bold (or even better, Comic Book Sans) then you are not doing your job. I believe there is an unmet requirement for identity management systems that include mechanisms addressing the ad-hoc communicative needs of staff. Facilitated via a suite of appropriate digital templates, useful examples and straightforward guidelines or frameworks. The availability and distribution of these ought to be centrally managed, but their use should be decentralised throughout the organisation.
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