6 Steps To Good Art Direction & Design

Last month, two of our designers – Lewis and Mihkel – attended the Art Directors’ masterclass at the Estonian Design Centre hosted by a celebrated British art director, Alexandra Taylor. Famed in the world of advertising for her work on award winning campaigns for the British Army, Silk Cut cigarettes and Parkinsons UK, Alexandra rose to be the joint head Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi and was later nominated into the D&AD executive board.

Amongst her influences, and in Alexandra’s own prodigious work, there is a clear sense of designing from the user’s point of view. Take the work of one of her greatest exemplars, Helmut Krone, on the Avis car rental campaigns of the early 1960s. Those adverts dare the readers (and potential Avis customers) to complain and encourage the rental company to provide a better service.


Or, take for example Taylor’s own work on Parkinson’s UK Everyday campaign. A series of billboard adverts, presenting a jumbled up distorted world, as if seen from the Parkinson’s sufferer’s point of view.


These works and influences, amongst others, treat design as something created for end users and customers. As service designers we feel a strong resonance with that idea.

So, without further ado, here is a service designers’ rendition of the lessons learned packaged into a six-step guide to good art direction and design practice.


1. Simplicity knows why

This is a quintessential part of our work – always asking “why?” Ask it five times. Boil it down until you have a simple answer to the problem. If you understand the answer and the reasons behind the answer, communicating to both your client and their customers will be simple and easy. Otherwise you might end with an answer like ‘42‘.


2. Don’t sacrifice functionality for art

Treat things like body copy as a part of the whole. Headlines and logos might the biggest thing on the page, but it’s the details like the body copy which the audience need. The most beautiful gig poster in the world is pointless if the design and band names cover up (or don’t make noticeable) the time and location of the gig. Treat your content as a whole to be digested one piece at a time. Lead the users eye through the information.



Get away from the computer. Digital software can do amazing things for production and post-production, but it is no substitute for ideas. Adobe Concepts™ is still in the works so use your head and your hands before touching a mouse or keyboard. Sketch it, scribble it, draw up the walls. Your wireframe scheme, customer journey map, logo (or whatever) will be twenty times quicker realised if you can draw it before digitalising it. Honestly, this can’t be said enough – humans don’t think in Bézier curves, rasterized layers and bitmaps. The highest quality resolution invented is ink. And the quickest most efficient connection between your thoughts and the real world is through a simple thing like a pencil.


4. Don’t over embellish

This wastes a lot of time and can lead you into creative dead-ends. And if the foundations of your idea aren’t clear don’t keep building on it! Hack dirty. Fail fast to see what works. For instance try  the Pareto Principle, more widely known as the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the work. Or, if you have 20 hours for a client, limit yourself to spending 4 hours each on developing 5 concepts. Maybe only 3 will be presentable but they will be fresh and much better than 1 or 2 laboured ideas. This does not only apply to the design process but the final deliverable as well.


5. Know where you’re from

Basically if you ain’t Dutch, don’t pretend to be. Celebrate your people, place and time. Beyond faddish localism and treacly nostalgia, being true to yourself as an Estonian (or English or Afrikaans or Ukrainian – whatever) designer will create more meaning for you and your clients. Good design, lead by good art direction, is emotional and touches people’s hearts. Keep it real and celebrate your difference.


6. Everything can be solved by looking back at the brief

This one speaks for itself, right? Problems with creative direction, intended meaning, who the audience is, what it is you are actually making – all these can be solved by going back to the original formula for the project. That being said, the formula needs to be a good one.

The first brief, more often than not, is an insight into the clients’ world. As designers you have to find the underlying need behind the wishes and wants. Only after reflecting the findings back to the client and having reached a deep understanding, can you get going. A good brief is a road map. There could be a lot of ways to reach your intended destination, but by going off road and ignoring the map, you’ll get stuck in a muddy field surrounded by angry cows.

Simplify and ask whyAlexandra Taylor Art of Art Direction brand manualAlexandra Taylor Workshop Winners brand manual

The changing world

This year Clinton Agency is merging with Brand Manual in Stockholm. This brings heavy-weight competence in brand building, brand and marketing strategy, design management, communication, graphic design, copywriting and digital strategy skills to Brand Manual. Throughout its history, Clinton Agency has focused on ensuring that the core of the service meets the promise of the communication created to support it. With increasing fragmentation in media combined with the rise of the social web, putting the customer in centre of the picture has been key to the success of Clinton Agency’s campaigns. The fit with Brand Manual was hand-in-glove.


The world has changed. Again.

In 2009 Brand Manual was created in the midst of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression. Until the ***t hit the fan in 2008, everything sold and companies were reluctant to change their formula for success, even though it was obviously based on the idea of an ever expanding market. Launching Brand Manual, we moved from the advertising and design business, where we made products and services look better, to service design and branding, where we help to improve the service or product to be better. With the exponential growth of the importance of social media and consumer websites, it is what customers say about brands, that matters the most. Therefore, although how they look is important, it is what they do that determines their success.

Look what I bought

Bigger and better

With two offices and over 20 staff members, more than ever before, we make them talk about you.


For more information, please contact:

Stockholm office
Göran Crafoord
+46 705 98 92 32

Tallinn office
Kaarel Mikkin
+372 511 65 55

Slight excitement tingled me when I rang the Brand Manual door bell at 9:00.

I had been standing at the same door the previous evening for an internship interview and now, less than 16 hours later, I was back to start my first day. I was wondering how everything will go and who are my new colleagues. I knew I will figure out some answers immediately and some during the work process. But one thing I felt right away – I am at the right place! Everyone welcomed me and made me feel part of the team immediately. My workspace had already been arranged, which was very thoughtful and brought a smile to my face. Let’s get started!

I had a little tour around the office and explored the space, learning its features and details. Have you ever worked in an office, where candies are held in the most unexpected places? Where there’s more windows than people in the office? Where you can find a fresh issue of Creative Review or Harvard Business Review in the toilet? Or fill up Jägermeister shots straight from the cooling machine?

Needless to say, I was amused. Brand Manual is a service design agency and everything made sense here – ease of use and logic seemed to be the two key elements that kept the company going – making sense and making things better, simple as that.

Nevertheless, finding chocolate candies in the drawer where I would usually expect to find cutlery shaped my first impression about the company. Although I found the spoon I was looking for in the next drawer, the first finding stayed in my mind. I guess they do things differently on purpose.

The most exciting and relaxing moment of the day came when all team set off to lunch together. I can only imagine how much team spirit it creates when everyone spends half an hour outside the office eating and chatting about anything but work.

My first job was to interview all my colleagues and get to know them – one by one. There was no format set for the conversations, so I was free to explore. All conversations were different, yet exciting and mind opening. One thing I asked everyone was: “How did you first come across Brand Manual?” and the answers included most interesting stories which were eventually connected by one keyword – good chance. The matter of coincidences in life and taking action on these chances reminded me of the quote I had found on BM’s own website:

“Don’t get stuck on a merry-go-round of life. Take a roller coaster instead – both scary and exciting at the same time, you’ll laugh and scream all the way through. But when it’s over you’ll be wishing you could do it all all over again.” 

Later on, connecting the dots in my head, I came to a conclusion that everyone at Brand Manual possess the courage and willingness to create something new, everyone has a desire to develop their skills further and not to get stuck at one thing. Brand Manual is not a merry-go-round, that goes around hundreds of times in the same circle, but a roller coaster of highs and lows of exciting projects and clients with a sparkle in their eyes.

I think the sense of understanding and empathy are serendipitously coded into everyone’s DNA here. It was more than i expected from day one. 44 more to go!


Companies in the process of creating their web presence often get confused about the cost involved in creating quality content for their homepage. Custom made is expensive. And of course there are more affordable substitutes around. Some of them are even free. But cutting the corners of content creation eventually shows. Here is an example that we came across on the website of a very respectful company.

The embarrassing story of a smiling lady from Markko Karu

Företag som vill synas och skapa närvaro på webben blir ofta förvånade över priset. Ett ärligt och skräddarsytt innehåll kostar. Självklart finns det billigare alternativ, och vissa av dem är till och med gratis. Men att spara in på sin egen hemsida kan visa sig vara ganska dumt. Här är ett exempel som vi råkade ramla över hos ett stort och respekterat företag…

This article was originally published in Estonian, August 2013 in the annual salary review by Palgainfo Agentuur.

The customer is king, they say. As a rule, however, the customer only interacts with the lowest paid employee of the company. Rarely is it the company’s president or chairman of the board – the only worthy representative to greet the king.

“Where’s the ketchup?” is a common question to the guy stalking the store aisles, dressed in the company uniform. The multiple choice answers are, “I don’t know, all you see is all there is!” or “I just work here!” or “Can’t you see that I have a customer!?”. None of the above helps solve the customer’s problem.

The Cleveland Clinic in the United States researched how satisfied patients were with its service. As it became apparent, not at all. Although their professionalism and health care service are the best rated in the US, it isn’t only the doctor that the patient meets. In fact, the patient interacts with up to 100 people in some cases, all of whom wear similar clothes and each one represents the hospital in the eyes of the patient. When the patient asks, “How am I doing?” she would be very happy to receive a comprehensible answer. Often, however, hospital staff responds with medical jargon or simply don’t know the answer, or in some cases, don’t even know the name of the attending physician, while doctor’s treat the disease rather than the patient. All of this led to patients not knowing how they were doing, leading to mistrust and misunderstandings. Dissatisfaction.

Who builds the image of the company in the eyes of the customer? The marketing department or the actual service representative? Clearly the image is built in interactions between the customer and the product or service at every point of contact. This is true also for partners and suppliers. What the boss does affects the attitude of employees towards the company. What does it say about the product, if the boss doesn’t use it? How should the employee sell it convincingly, if he doesn’t believe it himself?


We’ve entered the information age. The social information age. 90% of transactions are motivated by word-of-mouth recommendations. WOM is trustworthy. It’s based on somebody’s experience. Somebody’s actually tried a product and came away satisfied. The companies that sell their products at full price, that don’t have image problems, that have loyal employees are as a rule, also the companies where it’s fun to work, where you grow professionally and where employees have the authority to make decisions, not just responsibilities.

Imagine the company as a pyramid with the boss on top and employees on the bottom. If decision making is delegated, then the bottom of the pyramid can make decisions and solve problems quickly, at the point-of-contact with the customer. If the right to make decisions is only at the top of the pyramid then a bottle-neck is guaranteed. Management will quickly become disillusioned with employees (because they don’t take responsibility). On the other hand, employees will be completely dissatisfied with management, because nothing happens, nobody makes any decisions and its impossible to serve customers. Only responsibility and process are communicated from above, to ensure service quality, which can’t be delivered because every little decision requires process, which guarantees customer dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, employees are stupid, churn is high, salaries stay low since no one sticks around and even more procedures are required, to make anything at all happen.

To visit the bike shop, where you are served by an enthusiastic biker, is fun. He knows what he’s talking about, knows what he’s selling and is morally responsible, not just legally. In the sport’s store in the big huge mall it’s often not possible to buy, for example, running shoes because the staff doesn’t know anything about it. Why is that? Same job. Same product, basically. The difference is in the organization. And in the attitude and values of the management towards staff, customers and people in general. This attitude is what creates the image of the store, how the staff acts and behaves and in the end, how satisfied customers are.

What should you do, so that your staff loves working in your company? (Yes, loves.) The Harvard Business Review just researched this question and found out the following:

No stupid rules
Illogical rules are incomprehensible. We don’t imagine that the world is really safer because the drink that we buy before the safety check at the airport is confiscated while the drink we buy after being x-rayd is allowed on board. Nobody has explained it. If you ask the security guard, he’ll say that its the rule.

Everyone in the company must understand the rules and why they are necessary. There should be as few rules as possible. The rest is regulated by culture.

Information about the company reaches everyone
Everyone should know how it is really going. Managers want to know what is not going well. Nobody should be punished for delivering bad news. People must feel confident to sign off on their opinions. It’s a lot more fun to work when management appreciates what you do instead of being treated as a resource to be used or discarded.

People are themselves
At work you should be able to be the same person you are at home. No one should be forced to think and act alike. Political correctness and the need to be similar takes away the motivation to be extraordinary. The grey mass does what the grey mass does – becomes unnoticable. Personality is what sticks out and draws attention to oneself. To do that, the people in the company, while sticking to the rules, can still be themselves. Personalities. Team’s work efficiently when everyone has a defined role and understand the goal.

In this context work must be meaningful and tasks justified. 
Working towards a common goal. 
Being proud of where they work.

Inside out

Brands are built from the inside out. The first step is moulding a business plan into a company. From there on in, if every person joining the company is indoctrinated into what the idea is, how it is expressed then every staff member can translate this idea into actions through the product or service. Presuming that the business idea is also important to customers, then the company grows. Often, however, people forget the initial business idea. Compromises are made to be faster or cheaper or bigger. Decisions are made in board meetings and delegated through orders to be brought to life. Why decisions were made isn’t communicated in-house. Instead an ad campaign proclaims it to the world, where also staff finds out.

Research clearly demonstrates, that while 80% of companies believe that they have a unique product or service, only 8% of customers agree. Similar research shows that although 90% of managers understand the company’s strategy, then according to Robert Kaplan and David Norton only 5% of employees do. But if the customer asks, “why are you doing this”, then he’ll ask the front line employee! Instead of having effective and consistent internal communication, which ensures that staff understands and believes in the company’s product or service, massmedia ads are published, which promise qualities which the employee may have a hard time believing.

The company brand is in reality created by the company’s culture. With what logo is of little importance. People appreciate authenticity. This doesn’t mean expensive or cheap or fast or slow. Just authentic. That the offer isn’t made just to earn greater profit, but that the company has a sincere desire to do something better than the competition. If this is true and it works, then profit will come anyway. If the product or service is memorable, either virtual or real, and the price and quality is in balance then a real brand will grow out of it.

This isn’t rocket science. Building a company is like raising children. The basics need to be repeated every day not just on the first day and nevermore. A newborn won’t remember everything.
Neither will a new employee.