[5 June 2002]
Thomas Manss is a graphic designer specialising in corporate identity, and this book exemplifies his philosophy and practice. It’s sumptuously, satisfyingly designed, a small but hefty tome, in suede-cloth bound hardcover wraps, deep blue in colour with silver embossed lettering and logo on front and spine. Inside is a richly illustrated survey of Manss’s work, punctuated by brief article-style essays and interviews mapping out his career, some of the major projects and one or two of the minor ones, and offering insights into the process of design construction and implementation.
The book’s title signals its ideological intentions immediately. Thomas Manss is a German graphic designer who trained in Würzburg and worked with Erik Spiekermann in Berlin. He moved to London in 1989 to work with Alan Fletcher at Pentagram. Within a few years, he opened his own office in London, returned to Berlin as a visiting professor at the Fachhochschule Potsdam, and opened a new office there.
Situated in two cities, Thomas Manss & Company ostensibly combines the German qualities of ordnung—order, neatness, tidiness—with the English qualities associated with eccentricity. Mark Adams of Vitsoe offers some explanation in his article: “We need a teutonic sense of ordnung whilst longing for a splash of English eccentricity. And naturally we want to deal with only the most professional suppliers but we want to have some fun in the process.” Manss himself sustains this stereotypical division: “First I will support the prejudice that Germans don’t have a sense of humour,” he tells Jim Davies. Funny, that. When I was getting chaotically, disorderedly drunk with hilarious Germans during the Euro 96 football tournament, it must have just been my English eccentricity.
Manss has worked on some serious contracts, many of which are lavishly illustrated here. The project for Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers (a product close to my heart), for example, seems to have been inspired by a remark to the effect that B&W would like to be seen as “the Aston Martin of loudspeaker design.” Manss’s designs for this project involved photographing the speakers as if they were classic cars, using the style of automobile photography to represent the technological and ‘masculine’ hardware side of the product. The technique worked, and has doubtless been imitated by every other hi-fi manufacturer since.
We get some insight here into the methods by which ideas emerge and are then put into practice, and how the designer tries to both respond to the client’s needs and come up with something that, in effect, transforms the client’s position in relation to perceived markets (which are shadowy, abstract things in this book). The discussion of the corporate identity of Laserbureau, who themselves service the design industry, offers a nice illustration of some of the circularities involved. Laserbureau’s projects change “every four weeks,” we are told, “so a static logo would have been a problem.” Manss comes up with what is surely the most striking image in the book, a dazzling polychromatic poster made up of words describing the company’s portfolio, a technicolour dream-poster—an advertisement for an advertiser.
This illustrates the flexibility that Manss’s German and English contexts provide him with. The images in this book vary between the formally pure icons, reminiscent of Bauhaus style and familiar from Ikea and other furniture designers, to the almost psychedelic, Day-Glo iconography of designs like Laserbureau and the Hotel Arts Barcelona. The most visually striking work centres on logo design, and we are given numerous examples, in the middle of the book, of logos printed in plain monochrome, for companies such as Axentum, First Source and Tim Wood Furniture. Consequently, the book (and presumably the full range of portfolios produced by Thomas Manss & Company) oscillates rather wildly between the austere and the excessive, the black and white and the multicoloured, the simple and the complex.
While there is some attention here to how designs are produced, there’s little comment on how they work. What is evident throughout is the extent to which the world we inhabit is a product of design, and carries the fingerprints of the designers everywhere, were we (the market) capable of seeing them. Corporate identity, as represented here, constructs a bizarre society of disembodied signifiers, in which the logo is burdened with a heavy weight of responsibility. It needs to convey an image and a substance beyond the image, a sense of how the image and the identity combine. Think of record sleeves—Peter Saville’s designs for Factory, or Bau-Da Design Lab’s work for Marilyn Manson, or Hipgnosis’s work for Pink Floyd and others. The image is intrinsically linked to the product in complex and subtle ways, constructing not just a corporate identity but an identity for a corpus of work as well, and there’s no real discussion here of how these links and constructions are established and exploited.
Likewise, the ways in which corporate identities work to influence or even construct markets. There’s no analysis here of how a change in corporate image constitutes a change in corporate identity (in fact the slippage between image and identity grows more noticeable as the book progresses) and then a change in market perception. Given the evidently crucial importance of graphic design in the manufacture of business identity in the logo-centric world, and the ways in which the values of the business world have colonised those areas of social life once wholly separate from the business world (perhaps in politics, education, health?), some analysis of these effects is called for. This book doesn’t offer that. Instead, it’s a beautifully produced advertisement for the product it is marketing—the company that produced it.