LCC’s BA (Hons) Graphic Branding and Identity course began in 2015 and is led by Dr Alison Barnes, a graphic designer, researcher and educator who came to LCC from the role of Director of Academic Programme in Design at Western Sydney University in Australia.
We caught up with Alison Barnes to hear more about her vision for the course, from storytelling and local collaboration to the interaction of design and technology and knowing what makes a company tick.
Can you give us an overview of the course – what is it about and what can students expect?
What is interesting about the course is that currently it’s the only undergraduate programme to deliver branding via graphic design studio practice. Other undergraduate degrees in the country that deal with branding tend to deal with it in terms of theoretical marketing or business contexts. So, on the course at LCC you work on graphic design projects that are set within the context of branding. This means students will work on projects across print, motion design, interactive design, experience design, packaging design and advertising to name a few.
We look at branding in a much more rounded way than simply focusing on a logo, and teach students to understand the principle that branding is about telling a story. It’s much more than just a logo—it’s what makes a company ‘tick’—their personality, values and ethos, and the designer’s job is to convey this through all the materials they design.
What is the basic structure of the course?
At the beginning of the course students take a unit in the studio called ‘Introduction to Graphic Branding and Identity’ – it’s partly an introduction into higher education, helping students transition into a university context. This involves a range of workshops that are around things like creative typography or culture jamming, but also inductions to all the amazing facilities within the College —letterpress, screen print, the digital space and 3D workshop, for example.
In the first year students are not only given an introduction to branding and identity, they are taught basic graphic design principles that underpin their design work for the next three years. But these are all delivered in the context of branding projects. So, for example, we might look at typography, layout, proportion and 3D design in terms of packaging. In term three of year one we move into an in-depth branding unit called ‘Branding Narratives’. This begins to look at the power of storytelling in branding. Students also take ‘Contextual and Theoretical Studies’ (CTS) units that run across all terms and throughout the three years. I think CTS is really important for students to be able to communicate ideas with clients whilst understanding the bigger social, cultural, political and economic world that they are operating in as designers.
A key thing about the structure of the course for me is to engage students in a whole range of different media. For example, students might do a print-based piece of work in their branding project, but for the second project we might get students to develop a digital piece of work on app design and branding. In this sense the course offers students a whole range of experiences and development opportunities, so by the time they get through to the third year they have this ability to be quite agile.
The second year of the course carries on offering a broad range of experience as well as the opportunity to be more speculative. The unit called ‘Brand Futures’ challenges students to think beyond what is happening now and think of ways to engage people in an imaginative way involving emerging technology. Other units involve understanding ways of engaging with people and developing ideas through co-design and participatory design.
For example, students will shortly be taking on a project with Lambeth Council on ‘place making’. Rather than ‘place branding’, which is a top down approach where you make a nice logo and strapline and apply it to a place, we are encouraging students to think about working with a place in a much more collaborative way with the people that live there. This will involve talking to them and thinking about how they could together develop ideas that help create a place from the ground up and then do the branding bit. In the last term we also look at how branding operates in both local and global contexts, thinking specifically about how branding often needs to communicate across cultures.
The third year of the course provides an opportunity to specialise more – so for example if you have become really interested in the 3D aspect of packaging or digital experience design, you can push that more specifically.
Can you tell us more about the industry connections students can benefit from?
There is a huge number of agencies in London that either specialise in branding or do branding as part of a general graphic design practice, so we do have a lot of industry contacts and are planning more for our students’ third year of study. Although the course has only been going for a year now, in that time we’ve had some great industry people in to do both lectures and deliver tutorials and crits.
We had Design Studio in, which is an interesting contemporary agency that has been gaining big clients. They recently did the Premier League rebrand as well as Treatwell. They spoke to the students about the process of both of those projects. They sent an experienced and a more junior designer to speak about their studio and spoke about the lack of hierarchy within Design Studio, meaning that everyone is equal when it comes to ideas, which I think is really interesting – the students were really inspired by them.
We’ve been doing a digital experience design project with second-year students who are really interested in this area. We had Maran Coates come in from Field – an amazing agency who work at the intersection of art, design and technology. They are often working within the context of branding and with brands that want to offer a different way of viewing them, using immersive and interactive technology.
Patrick Stevenson-Keating also came in from Studio PSK—they also work in a similar field, and are a really interesting studio because they have a whole range of people from different backgrounds working on projects together—graphic designers, coders, woodworkers and 3D designers.
As a Course Leader I try to get in a diverse range of people as I understand students have a variety of interests and ambitions. So, for example, we’ve had big in-house agencies like Sony Europe and Topshop/Topman come in, and more general communication design agencies like Human After All. Michael Johnson, who has a huge wealth of experience, has also visited, but I am equally interested in a freelancer who may only have graduated two years ago as I feel students will identify with that career path.
When industry people come in it’s also not just about a one-off thing, it’s about forging a longer-term relationship. We are in talks with a few of these agencies about setting live projects in the third year. I’ve found that setting up projects like that actually ends up creating quite a lot of positions for students to go into an agency as a junior designer, so that’s definitely something we’re looking to develop.
What is the response from students on these guest speakers and industry involvement?
Students absolutely love hearing the stories about how a brand or project was developed. It is a great opportunity for students to learn about the bigger process of branding and seeing agencies at the pinnacle of the industry.
I think hearing the perspective of young designers particularly and their story of how they got from university to an internship and their current role is reassuring for students. They are able to draw upon those experiences of what their portfolio was like, how the industry responded and how they made their first contact. We also encourage students to keep in touch with their industry contacts over the rest of their degree so that they build a network of people in the industry they can connect with when they graduate.
Where might this course lead students after graduating?
It is important to me that my students graduate and go into the design industry as both thinkers and doers. Technology will always be changing, so first and foremost the important thing will be the idea or brand story, but it needs to be backed up with the technological skills that enable you to articulate the idea in a way that is appropriate to the audience and context.
This means there is actually a really wide variety of jobs students might go into after the course. For example, students could go into either a branding agency or general graphic design agency as a junior designer, eventually working their way up to a creative director or art director role, or they might choose to work in house as a graphic designer. They might have chosen to specialise in a particular area, so could take a job as a packaging designer, or a digital experience designer. They might be interested in retail and look to pursue a career as a visual merchandiser. Or, they could be really interested in motion graphics work and end up somewhere like Sky or the BBC.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your own experience and background in teaching?
I have been teaching for 20 years on a range of broad graphic design courses in both the UK and Australia before I became course leader of BA (Hons) Graphic Branding & Identity at LCC. I completed my PhD in 2011, which was about identity and how people develop an understanding of their everyday life in the context of place. As an academic I am involved in research as well as teaching.
I’m currently writing an article about food packaging and authenticity. This is interesting as there is an expectation that brands behave in ways that are truthful and consistent, however, in the design and branding of much packaging, language and images are used in ways that are creative to the point of being misleading. I’m also interested in how football clubs, particularly in the Premier League, are operating as global brands which inevitably causes a tension for the fans who see them as a different entity.
In relation to how I work as a teacher, primarily I believe it’s important for students to have fun whilst learning. I like to set briefs that will engage the students in topics that are relevant to their lives here in London. I try to deliver the curriculum in a way that evokes passion and enthusiasm, and gets them invested in their work. This is about more than just chasing good marks, but thinking about how they can meet their potential as designers and demonstrate that within their portfolio.