Back in May, I wrote a piece about consistent government branding. Given the benefits in terms of cost savings and strengthened identity, I suggested: ‘it’s an idea whose time has come, and will not come again for some time.’ A couple of months later – after several web projects, a print item or two, and now even public events – it looks like we’ve got one.
I’ve already told the story of how I put together the Programme for Government website in under 24 hours. In the early evening before publication the next morning, I received a PDF of the proposed print output – and could really only mimic it. There wasn’t going to be time to get approval for anything else. A 2:1 wireframe, white ‘page’ hovering on a very light grey background, extra large Times Roman text in the top left, green highlight colour, Gill Sans body font (where available). Nothing too clever on either the technical or aesthetic fronts.
We then had the initial Spending Challenge site, which looked almost identical, not surprising given that it used my original CSS code… followed by the two discussion apps based on Delib’s platform, both coded from scratch but again using the same defining elements – 2:1 wireframe, white page on grey, big Times New Roman logotype, Gill Sans where available.
(It was particularly amusing to see the Delib guys sticking with the page shadow effect. Well past midnight, amid last-minute doubts about the design lacking a certain something, I added this using CSS3’s box-shadow. It took a few seconds to add to the CSS; it looked OK, and my creative juices had run dry – I wasn’t going to come up with anything better. Lo and behold, it’s one of the style’s defining characteristics! – although to Delib’s credit, they went back and did it ‘properly’ as a repeating background graphic.)
And now I note the same style has even been translated into event scenery: witnessed first at the Cabinet away-day in the North, then again last Friday in Cornwall.
The outside observer would have to conclude that this is HMG’s new across-the-board House Style… or certainly, the makings of one. There’s a lot to like about it, not least its easy online application; there’s something inherently ‘British’ about Gill Sans, and the colour combination blends sobriety and dynamism quite well. But some refinement is still required: I don’t think we’ve found quite the right green, for example.
Time for a consistent government brand
Point one: producing documents is hard work. Producing documents in government circles is even harder. Too hard.
I remember once hearing of another European government – Denmark, was it? – where they had a policy that documents and publications had to be closed down two days before publication. In the UK, we have allowed ourselves to get into a habit of last-minute, indeed last-second revisions.
We need to break that habit; but until we do, and it’s going to take a very long time, we should be taking other steps to make production simpler. Unless something has to be in the process, and that may have to include ministerial whim – it should be eliminated.
Point two: design is expensive – very expensive. Don’t get me wrong: it’s often money well spent. But it soon adds up. And the country just doesn’t have the spare cash to keep on changing government departments’ branding, or giving each individual document its own colour scheme.
Point three: the NHS, the BBC, London Transport. All British success stories, recognised internationally. All applying rigidly consistent branding. Could the two be connected?
All of which leads me to the conclusion that it’s time Britain – or more accurately, Whitehall – seriously considered the notion of a common government brand for all communication. And right now, we have both an opportunity, and an incentive.
Designer Paul Robert Lloyd summed the situation up beautifully last year in this blog post reviewing other countries’ common governmental branding. He could also have looked at numerous other countries too: in fact, if you look across the major industrialised nations, the UK’s design anarchy is the exception rather than the rule. (Almost as interesting as Paul’s post are the comments which follow – indicating a sense that the design community would actually welcome it on an aesthetic level too.)
We have a new government, and we’re (apparently) going to have it for another five years – maybe ten, maybe fifteen. We have a completely new set of faces at the Cabinet table, none of whom will have strong attachments to what has gone before (good point Jeremy). There is a desire in the population to start things afresh. And the new administration needs symbolic measures which say ‘look how we’re eliminating all that wasteful government spending of the past’.
It’s an idea whose time has come, and will not come again for some time.
Social Mobility for bloggers
A quick nod towards today’s New Opportunities (micro)site, in support of the white paper on Social Mobility. Most of it is fairly straightforward, ‘pages in a hierarchy’ stuff; well done, certainly, but nothing particularly special. There are a few points definitely worthy of note, though.
One is the root address: www.hmg.gov.uk – one of many domains pointing to the Cabinet Office’s webserver. It’s a very odd choice indeed; and somewhat ironic, given that the earliest government domains were hmg.gb. Presumably it’s because of the cross-departmental nature of the initiative itself; that would also explain the use of that lesser-spotted HM Government logo.
Another is the inclusion of Flash-based streaming video, direct from the host site itself – as opposed to the usual embedded-from-YouTube method. It’s quite a timely move, given COI new recruit Ross Ferguson’s reflections on that very subject this morning. Here’s one embedded example…
Streaming your own video can get expensive: at respectable quality, that’s a lot of data eating up your monthly bandwidth allocation. But I suppose the DIY approach means you can customise the appearance, see the usage stats, and (crucially in this case, I suspect) get around corporate IT networks’ blocking of YouTube et al.
Then there’s the ‘social media press release‘, which proclaims: ‘We want to encourage debate online and offline about the issues raised in this document, and have made the following resources available for bloggers and journalists to use within their own coverage of the White Paper.’ In practice that means a bullet-point summary, a dozen streamed videos for easy embedding, plus links to external resources and external coverage. It’s a nice package.
To be honest though, I’m not sure the fluffy ‘ordinary people’ video content is right for this sort of thing. I don’t see why anyone would want to include these case studies in their coverage. Surely you’d have a better chance with some pieces to camera from insiders / experts / Ministers? (Not that those are ideal, necessarily…)
As for ‘social mobility for bloggers’ – well, it’s always amused me how easy it is to get yourself some profile in this business. If you can crank out a half-decent blog, people will find you, and your name will become known. There aren’t that many people talking about the subjects I cover here. There’s no magic recipe: just demonstrate that you know your subject, and it’ll pay off. But that’s enough career advice from me… 🙂
Change 4 Life: govt's flexible brand
You’ll be seeing a lot of the Change 4 Life brand, and the associated bright Morph-esque characters whose aim in life is to tackle the growing problem of obesity. But whatever you do, don’t call it a government campaign, though – it’s a ‘society-wide movement’. Which essentially means, it’ll be everywhere: online and offline.
I’m almost becoming blasé about seeing government accounts on Flickr and YouTube. But they’ve done it particularly well, with the YouTube videos obviously kept short, and the Flickr photos being more than just ‘Minister shaking hands with‘ (although it’s a shame they’re ‘All rights reserved’).
The defining characteristic of this campaign – sorry, movement – will be ubiquity, through brand extension. DH is offering the full range of design assets for download from its website; and ‘services or products provided or commissioned by the NHS or local authorities’ are being encouraged to use the Change4Life name, logo and sub-brands. They’re also being encouraged to think up their own sub-brands; and whilst it isn’t permitted to just add ‘4 Life’ on the end of an organisation name, the design guidelines imply an open approach. A good few household names are signed up as members of the ‘business 4 Life coalition’ – although that in itself has attracted some criticism already.
Not for the first time, the campaign’s online call to action is to do a search; on the ads I’ve seen so far, no actual URL is quoted. It’s a risky strategy, but I guess there’s evidence to show that it worked OK on previous campaigns (?).
The website is a subdirectory of nhs.uk, but there’s no hint of NHS branding – in fact, no mention of government at all, other than a Crown copyright reference in the footer. There are reasonable attempts at interactivity. I like the postcode search listing all sorts of active activities near you, with a Microsoft Virtual Earth map, and a link into Transport Direct for directions. But the function to create your own character is a bit of a mess: choose a colour, height, and one of half a dozen poses… hardly much in the way of customisation… then, as far as I can tell, nothing. My customised Morph has yet to make his promised return to greet me.
The main objective of the site, at first glance, is to make me sign up for an information pack. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course… but it could have been so much more. A personal diet/weight tracker, maybe. Some kind of ‘introduce me to a local sports club’ function. Even some kind of blogging / discussion forum thing. But as it stands, I don’t see any reason for me ever to return for a second visit.
Mind you, if the objective is to get me to go outside and run around, maybe that’s deliberate.
What my Eee says about Mee
The Asus Eee mini-laptop is the new Wii: the ultra-cool white gadget that clearly surpassed its manufacturer’s best sales projections. I was lucky enough to find one on sale in Tottenham Court Road a few weeks back, at list price too, and it was the guy’s easiest sale of the day.
What makes the Eee special? Its portability: as you can see, it’s much smaller than a conventional laptop, and much lighter too. Its cost: just £219 for the most popular model, but it’s still fully-spec’ed. But most importantly for me… its boot-up time. You’re up and running in 15 seconds, online in about 30.
And interestingly, it’s a conversation starter. Total strangers on the train ask me about it. I whip it out in meetings to take notes, and the conversation inevitably deviates for a minute or two. As Hugh MacLeod might say, it’s a ‘social object‘.
When you’re living the freelance/consultancy life, things like this matter. The Eee allows me to quietly communicate a few things about my view of life and business, without having to say a word. It’s quick. It’s not unnecessarily expensive or extravagant. It’s adaptable. It challenges the norm. I’ve yet to say the words ‘very much like myself, actually’ – but I think the message gets through.
Meanwhile, my former Big Ugly Laptop is gathering dust in the corner. Vista is a distant memory. Result all round, I’d say.