This morning, on my walk across Waterloo bridge, I was listening to one of my favourite Black Sabbath albums: Vol 4 (a classic created when my favourite song was probably ‘Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear’ and before the record companies assumed the mantle of Siobhan Sharpe, demanding “Do another. Do another. Do another…”). It’s not easy listening.

They created a template for heavy metal music that has influenced countless bands. Listen to that album and yes, you’ll hear the now trademark funereal growl of Tony Iommi’s doomy riffs. But you’ll also hear experiments with piano (yes, really), the Mellotron, Afro-Cuban percussion and avant-garde fiddlings with tape echo. Bill Ward was actually a fine jazz drummer…

I digress. My thoughts turned to David Bowie (no links required, surely?) lurking in the back of my mind for obvious, sad reasons. Again, there was that restless invention – the fearless juxtaposition of things that seemed incompatible, and – ultimately – the willingness to innovate or fail in the attempt.

What united these two musical forces was true creativity. Music, like design is also a business. Experimentation leads to groundbreaking innovation (we don’t hear about the thousands of failed attempts). Start thinking of the record companies of that era as the client, their role in the process, and you begin to see my point.

Design is a creative process – and true innovation requires fearlessness both on the part of the creative mind, and the client. When studying for my MA at St Martin’s, the course head was of the opinion that we have been living through an age of homogeny – where consistency is King. I have to agree – agencies often ask clients for clues as to what kind of treatments they prefer; briefings often include phrases such as, “…We love that ad/app/website where…”.

Witness also the homogenised, pitch-corrected pap that is slowly killing the traditional music industry; true invention is now to be found without the record companies on sites such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp etc. and marketed using aggregators such as CD Baby, all of which allow tech-friendly musicians and composers (such as your faithful author) to market their own music (see what I did there?).

Design can’t be sold in the same way – it becomes fine art (albeit even many of the greats were commissioned by clients). Yet we’re not manufacturing tins of baked beans; true innovation is strange, challenging even scary for both client and creator. It’s also a process of research and development (or imagine – try – fail – improve). If design is to be truly creative – even innovative – designers must be able to experiment, try new and surprising things and even, during the process, make mistakes.

This requires a new approach from both client and designer. Consider whether you really mean ‘innovative’ in that brief, or just ‘better’, ‘differentiated’ or ‘different’. Developmental stages must not be a show-and-tell, a beauty-parade of the almost complete, but a true shaping of the clay. Creative pitches become a nonsense, because we’re talking about creative collaboration not party-tricks. We don’t design for clients, we design with them.

Oh – and if you would like to hear some witty, sensitive drumming and percussion in contemporary metal, have a listen to Mastodon.

Ian Allison
Strategy & Creative Director