Thursday, 23 February 2017

A guest lecture by James Somerville, Vice President of Global Design, Coca-Cola. Monday 20th February 2017.

James opened the lecture with the explanation that he was a local boy! He was taught at the Batley school of art, in Dewsbury. He is particularly interested in connecting with young and emerging artists and designers and the area of Huddersfield has a rich history in developing creative skills.

My first observations were that the slide set that he used all had subtle Coca-Cola brand images hidden somewhere within them, either the bottle logo, or the Coca-Cola text, or even just the ribbon that is often seen in their advertising devices.

James talked about the "7X". That is, the seven secret ingredients which are the constituents of the Coca-Cola product. I have heard this suggestion that there are just seven ingredients before, and also that there are only two people in the world at any one time who know the precise details of what those ingredients are and their respective quantities. They are therefore rarely together, and even less so, do they ever travel together.

James tailored the presentation to reflect his own influences, and the continuing stream through the presentation was that of the Liverpool band "the Beatles". There was in fact a profound quotation from John Lennon, about happiness.

James started his own career with his business partner Simon Attik, through initiating a freelance agency in one of their bedrooms during the 1980s. Indeed he also mentioned to women that inspired him during his early years in the business. They were his grandmother, and Margaret Thatcher. He also referred to the Conservative advertise meant of the time which helped Margaret Thatcher to win the election, in which there was a large banner with the quotation on it "Labour isn't working". The simplicity of that tagline spurred the two on to create their own agency which was actually called "the attik".

Coming forward now some 30+ years, in his role as global vice president, he stated that Coca-Cola, as a corporation, in all its massive identity, is scared the most of "two dudes" working somewhere in an attic, coming up with ideas. It is almost always from these embryo sites that new killer competition starts to develop.

The underlying message throughout James's presentation was "make yourself different from the competition". In his own case, working with Simon, they did this by going to the United States and attempting to engage the music channel "MTV" with a photo shop design that they had created in response to a promotion that MTV were doing. The MTV folk wanted to know if it was part of a motion graphic. It wasn't. But they said "yes"! As a result of this willingness to take a risk, they won the business and neither of them have looked back since then.

Eventually in 2006 they got a call from Coca-Cola in Atlanta who had been looking at some of their designs. After meeting the Coca-Cola team and working with them for a number of years they eventually sold the agency "Attik" to the Japanese firm Dentsu. Knowing that James had recently sold the agency, Coca-Cola offered him a job!

The key to the Coca-Cola brand is that it has never changed its language, that is its visual language. The brand heritage that makes up all the design work for the company is drawn from 130 years of archives.

Originally a designer called William d'Arcy provided the logos and publicity for the Coca-Cola company through his design and advertising agency. William was the owner, and his brother Archie Lee d'Arcy was the graphic designer who came up with the red disc Coca-Cola brand sign which became a very easily recognisable logo, that was placed over the entrance of various vendor's and sellers of the product. Archie Lee also created a "brand identity" called the Visual Identity System, for the Coca-Cola advertising brand. This "Visual Identity System" remains the backbone and reference manual for all of Coca-Cola's future designs. By treating the product almost like an art form in the gallery, new interactions with the logo, and how it is presented have been able to be created.

When James took over his role, just over 10 years ago, he recognised that by this time, the corporation was a huge, complex and amorphous collection of image posters that were scattered all over the world. There needed to be a significant rationalisation, and yet James recognised that each nation has its own cultural heritage and individual identity, which interplays with how Coca-Cola advertises within that society.

James commissioned the designer Jonathan Mac to start creating new logos, based on the original brand identity and visual language which conformed to Coca-Cola's Visual Identity System. Very cleverly, he selected the ribbon logo, which is actually formed by placing two bottles (that is Coca-Cola bottles) head to tail, and then drawing the negative space between the bottles to create the ribbon. Taking the ribbon logo further, Jonathan created a "handshake" out of the ribbon. So he used the original brand devised by Lippincott so many years before, to create something completely new, and yet instantly recognisable.

Somerville has also used the designer "Mr Brainwash". By taking a 1940s poster of a Cuban woman holding a Coca-Cola bottle, (known as The Lady in Red), he modernised and redesigned the image into a new creation and a series that still held the same language brand. That is he created a cartoon, focused down on the red lips of the woman, and within the lips the glint of light is the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle!

Whilst all these designs are really clever use of the visual identity system, there is one thing for certain, there will always be a need for graphic designers and artists to supply innovative ideas in order for consumers to be sold to!

Somerville's best advice is to make sure that as a graphic designer, you make yourself into a jack of all trades when it comes to the business and industry of the future. "Design Thinking" in Somerville's own words "is the hottest topic in the United States right now". Develop the skills of being "a creative problem solver". Make sure that you have the skills or you know somewhere to to get them, to work in this new digital age. Develop a proprietary language, something that can be recognised as your specific work. But equally turn ideas onto their heads in order to get new ideas.

E.g. see Norma Barr, an Israeli designer who lives in London. He has a uncanny knack of being able to create graphic designs where we are able to recognise the familiar but the artwork delivers a surprise! Another in this genre, is Neville Brody, a font designer. He has looked every letter in the Coca-Cola archives that go back 130 years and has come up with a uniform series of fonts for the new millennia. Another artist, Lance Wyman, is a master of wayfinding. Now in his 70s, James Somerville has paired him with Margaret Calvert OBE, who originally designed the United Kingdom road signage system, which is now replicated virtually throughout the world. Between them they have been tasked to create a new "Way Finder" system with the Coca-Cola brand.

Storytelling through your own work will get you much further than the work itself. At this point the film "Evolution" with the Beatles members John Lennon and Paul McCartney, was briefly shown where they were discussing their own music business and the development of what I think must have been the Abbey Road studios, and their desire to create a music making space for other musicians and creatives. They clearly appeared to have an no idea of what they were doing, but the point was being made, that they were prepared to make risks. Furthermore, the message here also is "just start" you never know where your work will lead you to.

Going back to the history of Coca-Cola, it was a meek and mild-mannered chemist called John Pemberton who initially came up with the tonic that we now know today as Coca-Cola. Allegedly there were some 49 failed attempts to get the ingredients just right, with the 50th being successful.

The original Coca-Cola logo was designed by an accountant, who appeared to be bored whilst doing the chemists bookkeeping, and very skilfully wrote the words Coca-Cola in the margin of the accounts book. So the design arguably, was accidental. It gets better. The original bottle design was based on the outcome of a competition. The brief which was textual, was to design a suitable bottle for the Coca-Cola brand. The winning design was wrongly based on a Cacoa pod, that is the raw and unrefined fruit body that cocoa beans and eventually chocolate is refined from. This unusual fruit I have seen for myself, being approximately 20 to 30 cm long and elliptical. There are longitudinal ribs from the top to the bottom of the fruit, and these ribs, plus the elliptical shape of the fruit were incorporated into the design of the bottle, in the misguided belief that Coca-Cola contained either cocoa or chocolate. Apparently it contains neither, but this bottle logo has remained ever since.

The lesson here is that through evolution, and experimentation with somethings heritage, you can take products past and then reinvent it.

Somerville also uses Stockholm designs Ltd for much of their work together with local agencies and designers for other products in the Coca-Cola product range. For example take a look at the Fanta drink and its designs for Halloween which is aimed at 10, 11 and 12-year-olds as their specific consumer base. Compare this with the new "vintage" musical range which includes themes such as Phantom of the Opera, for consumers of the age group 15 to 16 years of age. This was highlighted by James as it is necessary to create a partnership through people's strengths.

Coca-Cola itself is for simple brands 1) the traditional Coke 2) Coca-Cola-zero 3) Coca-Cola-red 4) and diet Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola recognise that all of these variants need to have an immediate recognition and individual identity they have decided upon a strategy of using the "Rising Red Disc" as their new brand image based on Archie Lee's original disc design. This unwavering colour use of red, together with the original design script of 1886 is still valid. This idea of continued strategic visual images has been taken forward with the idea of using the Coca-Cola brand as part of the World Cup. The response to this massive event is to have kept a systemised and recognisable brand by mashing together both the logos and the World Cup football itself.

It should also not be forgotten that graphic design has been in constant revolution. We now have to think of graphic design in motion, which in turn we have to think of as digital design, which again in turn must now include audio.

Consider also some of the symbols of Coca-Cola that they are regularly attached to. For example the Santa Claus that has been used for so many years by the company has arguably become an old gentleman dressed in a red suit. Allegedly it was Coca-Cola who made Santa red.

Combining the old with the new, consider some of the incredible designs of Norman Rockwell and think of him being collided with technology such as Instagram. This is a direct example of where design meets advertising. [See Norman Rockwell's huge ideas in drawings and paintings, and in particular the way that he asked so many questions through his paintings!]

It was here that James Somerville exposed the reasons why the Beatles had been so fundamental to influencing his development. It transpires that Brian Somerville was James's uncle, the same Brian Somerville who was the Beatles publicity manager and regularly appeared in a number of photographs of the famous four.


The guest lecture by James Somerville was closed with some words of advice;

  •  "think like a big company, then when you are as big as Coca-Cola, start thinking like a small company". Like the dog and the cat, they are both enemies but they both complement each other. 
  • Be strategic in your decisions. 
  • It is not just about the design, it is about why is this design important?
  •  And how will my work make a difference?
  •  Why will this design make a sale for my customer or client?

 Keep asking yourself these questions and it's unlikely that you will go wrong.


Notes recorded by the author at a Lecture by James Somerville, Vice President of Global Design, Coca-Cola. Monday 20th February 2017 at The University of Hudderfield.

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