“Everything you could have nicked from that hotel, we designed,” Thomas Manss explains with a grin. The hotel is in Barcelona, with architecture by Bruce Graham and Frank Gehry, now managed by the Ritz Carlton Group. “The American developer sold the hotel to the Ritz ready to roll, with two years supply of everything – sewing kits, placeholders, menus, and so on – and we designed them all.” But then Manss is no stranger to large-scale projects. When he qualified from design school in Berlin, he went to work for the Berlin office of Sedley Place: “My first client was the German Post Office, the largest employer in Europe, which was after a new identity. The second was Volkswagen. And my friends were starting out with fun stuff – posters for art galleries, letterheads for their chums.”
In 1989 Manss moved to London, to work with Alan Fletcher at Pentagram (“I told Alan that I’d do anything – absolutely anything – except design in Neue Helvetica again”) and four years later opened his own office. An invitation back to Berlin as a visiting professor led to comissions in Germany, and the opening of a Berlin office in 1996. “We have had a lot of foreigners working here, designers from Spain and Holland, even an Zimbabwean with an Italian passport, once. I like the changes of perspective we get from contact with these different cultures – I see myself as a European, not as either British or German – no Perpetua small caps, but not everything at right angles, either.”
As well as travelling between London and Berlin, as Manss puts it, the company oscillates between corporate work and fun projects. Manss designed the catalogue for the Stirling Wilford exhibition at the RIBA in 1996, and again for Michael Wilford exhibition in Bilbao this year. He has also worked for Michael Hopkins and Partners, and for Nicholas Grimshaw. As well as designing several books for Phaidon, including Hugh Pearman’s recent “Contemporary European Architecture”, Manss has done a number of promotional pieces for Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers, and is currently redesigning the National Art Collection Fund magazine and Annual Report. “But we also do a lot of work for the Institut of Directors,” he points out, “and you can’t get more serious than that.”
Often one corporate project leads to another: “Because of our core expertise in creating corporate identities,” he explains, “we are often seen as having a broader understanding of the company than the company itself, so we get asked to take on further tasks, such as trade fair stands and sponsored exhibitions. We recently did an identity for the Oberhavel Verkehrsgesellschaft bus company, which in turn led to stationery, then merchandising and sevice cards, and even uniforms.” With B&W, Britain’s most important loudspeaker manufacturer, it was a case of working from the bottom up. Manss was asked to create the branding for Solid, an affordable lifestyle system. His most recent work for them is the brochure for the new Nautilus 800 range: “They said it was the Aston Martin in loudspeaker design, so I modelled the brochure on a car.” Seductive photographs of details (headlamp or horn?) and expanded technical drawings, are presented on heavy A3 paper.
“As I see it, the designer has two tasks,” Manss explains, “the first is to resolve the problem the client has brought to you, and the second ist to make this solution desirable. Call the second part the X-factor or whatever: the way it works is that when you see the design, you want it.” How this operates can be seen in a recent project for Business Link Herefordshire and Worcestershire, a body which offers management advice and services to small and medium-sized businesses. Originally a nationwide Government agency, the service has now been passed to the private sector, in smaller local units. Herefordshire and Worcestershire came to Manss for a new brochure, to replace the previously shiny twentyfour pages of A4. According to Manss, “Business Link had a problem: despite its considerable local experience it was seen as a Government agency. And it had a problem selling it services. I pointed out that what its previous brochure did was to describe the product, not address the problem of Business Links customers. So what we set out to do was to define the real problems its clients had, and the relevant areas of expertise that Business Link had, and so device something to nice to throw away (the X-factor). It rapidly became a collaborative process, in which everyone contributed.” Manss hired a copywriter, Simon Hollingworth, to interview Business Link managers and existing customers, and commissioned a photographer, Nic Gaunt, to take portraits of clients and staff. The resulting material was repackaged, not a single brochure, but as a boxed set of ten twelve page booklets, ten by fifteen centimetres in size. Each booklet deals with a specific topic (such as Workplace, Export, or Manufacturing) and carries a question on the cover: “What do you need to do to maximise the impact of your product or service in the marketplace?” for example on the Marketing booklet. Inside, on the opening page, a broad brush description of the problems and opportunities involved, followed by a spread describing the various services Business Link can offer, then a spread of testimonials. The centre spread discusses the key issues in more detail, before a further spread of testimonials, a spread (reversed out) of comments from experts or specialised magazines on the topic, and a final page of contact details.
This is standard brochure fare, but the way it is organised – questions first, than answers, a way of saying “you” to the reader from the start, not “me” – make it quite different. The visual elements, especially the photography, are als key: the portraits of clients, full page facing the two testimonials pages, show them up to their necks in their work: the sport shoe manager in suit jacket and no trousers, the kitchen maker inside his own cupboard, not to mention the worm farmer. These introduce a lighter note, just as the extracts from magazine articles build in information and not just flannel. But the photographs also carry the message that if existing clients are happy to be portrayed in a fun way, then Business Link is, in a sense, worth taking seriously. The strong colours of the jackets, the punning logos for each booklet cover and the use of dark blue ink on the insides invite the reader in.
The booklets have already had an important influence in changing approaches to customers within Business Link, and are now much in demand by clients. They make the services offered relevant and accessible, through an elegant and economic graphic solution. A Design Effectiveness Award candidate, no doubt. And a fine example of Manss’ serious fun approach to design.
Conway Lloyd Morgan,
Graphics International, London, UK