As the UK government announces a cull of ‘quangos’ – government agencies and NGOs – we reflect on some agency logos we won’t be mourning.
We were busy tweeting from an agricultural law seminar recently. Not a naturally brand-rich event you might think, but that was kind of the point of being there – trying to instil an appreciation of brand values into what lawyers and accountants call ‘agri-businesses’ but everyone else calls ‘farms’. There were some good talks on a range of issues affecting today’s food producers. A chap from the National Farmers Union brought us up to date on reforms to the like-it-or-loathe-it-you-can’t-avoid-it EU Common Agricultural Policy and his slides carried a couple of logos which were very different but both very good in their own way.
There was the NFU’s own cheery, ‘green rainbow’ logo with all its connotations of bright futures, ploughed fields, and green & pleasant lands:
And there was the rather more old-fashioned NFU Mutual, with its stylised golden wheatsheaf, redolent of rich harvests, storing away surplus for the future, well-earned rewards of honest toil and so forth.
This is what good logos do; they serve to identify their parent enterprise, and they also try to convey a sense of its values and objectives – in other words, its brand. The NFU and NFU Mutual are private organisations and are perfectly entitled to spend their [members’] money as they see fit. They seem to have done a good job in commissioning these designs, but it’s a different matter with the public sector.
The next talk covered some of the various NGOs which regulate farming life in the UK. A lot of the derision these ‘non-departmental public bodies’ attract is probably unfair. They can’t all be the domains of unimaginative jobsworths and myopic meddlers… can they? But they certainly deserve a kicking on at least one score: they have TERRIBLE logos. Yes, Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we’re looking at you. And the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency. And Health & Safety Executive. In fact, of the ones we considered in the talk, only one – the Food Standards Agency – seemed anywhere near half-decent.
Some brand-design insiders have described this kind of thing as nothing more than ‘very expensive clip-art’. At a cost of tens (and occasionally hundreds) of thousands of pounds, a few colours, shapes and letters are flung together to no apparent purpose and with no apparent forethought, but usually with an awful lot of self-justifying over-analysis. And that’s even before you begin to question whether NGOs need logos anyway, especially when they’re so sophomoric.
Given that they don’t have to attract customers (we’re ‘taxpayers’, no matter what they try to tell us) why do they feel the need to bother? What kind of distinctive brand values are these logos supposed to be communicating? What kind of recognition do they bring? And how much public money gets spent on these aberrations and then again on their all-too-regular replacements?
Not all public sector logos are bad by any means. And not all are pointless: British Rail and the MOT car roadworthiness test spring to mind as timeless classics. The National Health Service’s recent offering also looks promising – crisp, clean, recognisable. But most are nowhere near as long-lived nor as well thought out as these, and often seem to be a vainglorious waste of time and money.
Well, the good news is that UK Central Government now seems to agree. As of 2012, as part of a drive to reduce cost and present an impression of ‘single government’, all government departments have been sharing a minimalist common identity. It may be simple, it may even be boring, but it was designed cheaply in-house and should put a stop to all those ‘non-logo’ excrescences we’ve had foisted on us in recent years. Here’s a quick sample of the old and the new so you can judge for yourselves:
We like them (especially if they mean no more Home Office ‘nail-clippings’) – they’re simple, straightforward, dignified and should need only minimal maintenance. We think all public bodies should take a leaf out of Whitehall’s book. The much-heralded ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ may never have happened, but let’s hope we can look forward instead to a Bonfire of the Quango Logos.