THE CHANGING TECHNOLOGICAL AND COMMERCIAL
CONTEXT FOR BBC GRAPHIC DESIGN
By Iain Macdonald, Edinburgh Napier University
Over the last twenty years television graphic design has seen an unprecedented
upheaval and transformation.
s have been ideological as well as technological’ (Holland 2000: 4).
There has been a digital revolution in design (Myerson & Vickers
especially in television graphic design (Woolman 2005).
Perhaps the most significant change has happened at
the BBC where political and
commercial influences have had a uniquely dramatic affect on the shape of television
How have graphic designers learnt new technical and business skills?
How has that helped to deliver graphics to broadcaste
rs and programme makers?
How has it changed the relationship between service provider and programme
Coming up, we’ll investigate the clash between the culture of public service and that
of commercial business. People can be trained to operate new
technology but can
they adapt as easily to a new business culture? Raymond Williams writes of the
friction and asymmetrical power structures within industries that are undergoing
change in processes and culture. We’ll see how these transitional periods ca
be the most creative and innovative too. But first let’s look at…
The primary research for this paper was based on recorded and email interviews with
leading senior creatives and management from BBC Graphic Design and RedBee.
viewee is still working at RedBee after over twenty years service at the
BBC, the others have recently left and now look back in with a different perspective.
These were all at one time my colleagues. I have also contributed something of my
from when I was a BBC graphic designer from 1987 to 1996.
FRACTION AND OPPOSITION
What comes first: political or technological change? There is in fact a continual
process of change, an overlap of both technical and political. Nigel Wheale would
hat in a broader industrial context this has been the case since the 18
century (Murphie & Potts 2003). In television this was intensified in the early 1990s
when production processes changed from film analogue to digital and the BBC
introduced an intern
al market called Producer Choice. It was the cultural context of
the technological change that brought about particular fractions and dissent.
There are asymmetries of practice and culture which Williams explains in ‘Culture’
(1981). These become manifes
t in social relations between the differing groups. In
Graphic Design it appeared that the work was drifting towards the designers who
embraced the new technology. This created a simmering resentment between those
who became overworked and those who were u
employed. One group resented
the other for not pulling their weight, the other for marginalizing their undervalued
heritage skills and years of experience.
As Williams suggests, there was a choice. Those that resisted technological change
became a s
ite of opposition, others became an alternative group offering analogue
skills that didn’t necessarily fit within the new business plan, but could perhaps
survive as independent freelancers working on the remains of the traditional
business of designing ti
shadowing all this technological and cultural/business change is the awareness
of the contrast between what Williams calls the ‘minority culture’ and ‘mass
communications’ which are made and developed at each stage of new ‘cultural
chnologies’. Those attached to the older order became part of the ‘minority culture’,
one that stood for higher values, not the ‘grubby’ commercial mass consumer.
Williams’ ‘cultural pessimism’ ran deep in the corridors of the BBC in the 1990s
brought on b
y the overlapping threats of commerce and new technology.
Alternatively, Benjamin argued that something positive could emerge from the
‘shattering of a tradition’. Later we’ll examine how practice changed from within, but
now let’s look at the changing pol
itical context of BBC Graphic Design.
POLITICAL CHANGE: evolution rather than revolution?
Graphic design is one of the few elements of television production that is involved in
every single programme that is made. Back in the late 1960s graphic designer
content to just place captions in front of cameras, began to design and direct mini
productions involving cameramen, editors and props with their own budgets. They
had a lot of fun, some won awards, but they also started to catch the attention of th
accountants. The McKinsey Report in the early 1970s, called for greater
accountability and financial responsibility through ‘product divisions’ (Burns 2005:
71). Future governments would now keep a close eye on how the Licence Fee was
in the Eighties there was a transformation of the business structure of the
communications and design industries: commercial artists became design
consultants. Suits in cabs.
The launch of Channel Four in 1982 stimulated the growth of the independent
vision production industry. New independent design companies outside the BBC
were now leading the way. The cosy old ways at the Beeb couldn’t go on. Too many
cabs according to Greg Dyke.
BBC management under Director General Michael Checkland, an accounta
grappled with bringing the BBC into line with the Conservative Government’s
programme of industrial reform. In 1991 ‘with Producer Choice, not only did the BBC
empt possible government action, but it showed itself to be zealous for
Burn 2005: 60).
The free market was something Graphic Design had already enjoyed for some time
with its mini
productions but now Graphic Design, like every production service from
up to the music library, was exposed to true commercial competition.
BBC graphic designers competed with us for title sequences, and
our own channel presentation, now known as ‘branding’.
Stricter accounting was introduced with an expansion of administrative and
accounting staff. Senior Designers now had mor
e focused line management
responsibilities such as appraisals and work allocation. In 1994 I was promoted not
on the merit of many years service or an impressive award cabinet, but for writing a
report on the future management of the graphic design departm
ent, mostly informed
by useful Design Council publications that illustrated the lessons of the 1980s.
I had my first experience of redundancies and industrial action. Many senior staff left
through early retirement on packages that future generations co
uld only dream of.
There was friction, much disillusionment and poor morale.
One result of Producer Choice was that Graphic Design was severed from Design
Group (set, costume, make
up) and aligned with Post Production (editing and
playout), this was seen
as a cultural divorce by many older employees.
Life under New Labour was even more turbulent. Director General Greg Dyke, a
programme maker from ITV, released BBC Graphic Design from the corporation
when BBC Resources Ltd was created with ‘the aim to fin
d more money to put into
programmes and services’ (Dyke BBC News 6.7.2000). In reality those changes
meant ‘streamlining the structure and reducing headcount’. Within the first eight
months of ‘trading’ BBC Resources Ltd lost £5.7m, 300 staff were made red
and its Managing Director Rod Lynch resigned (BBC News 23.6.1999).
Early forays outside the BBC into the commercial world, with the tacit approval from
the directorate, had proved that there was a high enough calibre of expertise to
compete. So Me
dia Arc was set up at the end of 2000 as a brand name under which
BBC Resources would sell graphic design and new media expertise to programme
makers inside and outside the BBC.
In this new digital interactive age the oppositional and alternative groups w
deleted and all vestiges of the old culture and its associated skills were lost, but for a
few exceptional designers. A few of those made redundant set themselves up as
freelancers offering ‘traditional tv graphic design’ but many left the industry.
But after the dotcom crash, in 2002 after less than a year as an independent
company, Presentation Graphics and the rest of the department were incorporated
back into BBC Broadcast Ltd. For Conrad, as Head of Design,
investment generating huge
results, overnight jumped back into dark ages’ (Conrad
Finally in 2005, under the current Director General Mark Thompson, BBC Broadcast
was sold for £166m to the Australian investment bank Macquarie. This time there
was a one
rium on any job losses (BBC News 27.6.2005).
In October 2005 BBC Graphic Design and BBC Broadcast became RedBee (see
figure 5) offering a raft of services from channel branding, high definition playout,
advertiser funded programming, tv commercials, tv o
n demand, electronic
programme guides and subtitling.
Red Bee was launched with a commission for the rebranding of ITV already in
production. It began a run of award winning work which saw it become a member of
‘the design companies super league’ ranked
in Design Week’s Top 100 Design
Groups survey in 2007 (Design Week May 2007). Turnover in 1996 was £2m, by
2008 it was £14m, all non
The few established BBC designers remaining had reinvented themselves,
developed new business practices, had surv
ived painful restructuring and were now
beating the independent design companies at their own game. Prestige had returned
within graphic design, but at a cost to the alternative and oppositional groups. Their
reach became global, to the point where in 2010
RedBee was disqualified from the
Design Week survey as it was viewed as a global rather than a UK company.
TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE: pencil to pixel…
Technical changes were the easiest of the two driving forces to embrace. It made
production processes qui
cker and easier.’
Following the changing appearance of the BBC ident and brand you can trace the
advancement of technology in television production until you reach the late 1990’s
when the aesthetic finally becomes detached from its means of production.
We think of the technical change as being one from analogue to digital. But it is only
one in a series of changes that have affected graphic design in television. Even in
the 1960s there was friction between differing technologies, true to Williams’ cultu
With the start of colour broadcasting in 1969 the Letraset designers embraced
improved quality and increased aesthetic range (see figure 8). In the early 1980s
television faced another fundamental upheaval with the introduction of computers in
rostrum cameras and mainframe computer generated imagery (see figure 9): ‘many
were baffled, shocked but could see its immediate benefits with increased production
Nairn 1997: 43).
The pace of technological change has been fast, and in the
90s it propelled graphic
design into the television limelight. Graphics departments gained a new prestige, to
Hybrid and digital processes intermingled. New young digital designers and older
analogue experienced ones learnt from each other
The best of the older generation: Alan Jeapes, Graham McCullum, Liz Friedman and
Bernard Lodge all readily embraced new technology and exploited it to push their
ideas and designs further than would have been possible before. They saw beyond
and easy solutions.
New digital media groups like onedotzero, tomato and why not associates produced
everything from pop promos, commercials, title sequences and published books
celebrating their post modernist credentials.
In the late Nineties and dawn
of the new Millennium there was suddenly a greater
democracy of creation. Now everyone could be a moviemaker without having to find
the finance to shoot professional movie footage. The genie was out of the bottle.
Now the producer and consumer are blurred
together in what the futurist Alvin Toffler
describes as the ‘prosumer’. With the multiplicity of delivery platforms online,
YouTube has produced and educated millions of prosumers. But on the internet
there are ‘no barriers to entry’ (Helfand 2001: 93) an
d poor design abounds.
Title sequences that once cost £30k could now be delivered by a solo designer in an
attic with a Mac for a tenth of the budget. A business focused on tv titles alone was
But a business cannot compete with only the
newest technology; it must have the
creative talent to harness it. ‘The technology itself does not matter. What is important
is the design idea; technology is simply a tool to help express it, a means to an end’
Nairn 1997:61). While most professio
nals place conceptual skills and ideas
above the mastery of machines (Lambie
Nairn 1997; Cooper in Woolman 2005),
business skills and client relationships are also critical.
CHANGING PRACTICE FROM WITHIN
Rarely can a change of culture be driven through
by an insider, someone who has
grown up with and has been trained by their colleagues. Jeff Conrad, Head of Design
at RedBee, joined the Graphic Design department from BBC Post Production where
he had a marketing role. As an outsider with a recent post
aduate qualification in
marketing he was able to view the business from a different perspective and
detached enough to drive through unpopular restructuring.
As we have seen change was driven by the BBC corporate policy to be commercial
and to prepare for
the business to be sold off. A profitable business could no longer
depend on lots of small £3k jobs, it needed to be a serious contender for the £500k
jobs which were more profitable but highly contested.
Branding was the new game, and after the BBC Gra
phic Design presentation group
had won the ultimate D&AD Gold pencil in 1994 for the second tranch of BBC2
idents, Conrad knew that there was already the creative talent within the company to
compete with the likes of Lambie
Nairn, but he needed new talent
professional strategic planning that could win the work.
As ‘traditional tv graphic designers’ were being edged out through the corporate
doors, in came the suits. ‘We introduced a strategic planning division with
media planners, a client
engagement team who wrote the creative brief for the
designers, which pushed design further. A £500k project required a lot more
research and substance than a storyboard’ (Conrad interview 2010).
Nairn is widely regarded to be the first graphic d
esigner to ‘transplant the
creative research and planning techniques of advertising agencies to television
presentation departments’ (Myerson in Lambie
Nairn 1997: 14).
Designers learned on the job
was transferred from the advertising people
at joined the department.
The handfull of established and long serving graphic designers that remained found
themselves in new and ‘exciting’ times.
THE NEW DESIGNER
When recruiting new designers it is important to make the correct assessment
as Williams warns there are also phases of ‘settlement’, a normalized
working practice, ‘in which formerly innovating technologies have been absorbed and
only the currently new forms are a threat’ (Williams 1983: 133). Today’s innovators
could be tomorrow
What are their skills today? Traditional skills of drawing, skill and knowledge of
typography are just as relevant today as in 1954. Technical expertise is no longer
situated with film opticals and preparing artwork for camera, but with digit
software such as Adobe Creative Suite. Despite the heavy reliance on digital
production techniques there is still value in the dexterity of drawing skills.
What will they need for tomorrow? Attitude is key, as they will need an ability to adap
and change to new technical innovations and processes, while nurturing and
practicing their craft skills.
‘Older designers are always catching up with technology but are great with ideas.
New guys go straight to production before crafting an idea. So
the best way is to mix
them together in teams where they cross
fertilise and learn from one another.’
(Walker interview 2010)
A hybrid of digital and analogue skills are therefore essential to the future of design.
We look for qualities that are more re
al, individual and unique that can be delivered
across all media platforms.
Within the profession and some academics there has been a call to return to the
basics. The leading designers of the 60s to the 90s, like Lambie
Nairn all had a
Nairn 1997). Lupton (2008) argues that the modernist
Bauhaus approach has still a role to play in academic design teaching. The Bauhaus
saw that art and design were being transformed by technology, yet their ideas
remained humanistic. Design could
not be reduced to its function or to a technical
Today we embrace a pluralist approach that accommodates the sleek and perfected
solutions but also the sublime accidents, the contaminated and the hybrid. As the
purpose of televisions and co
mputer screens overlap and merge a new term of
‘motion graphic design’ is perhaps a better description of television graphic design,
which must now embrace online platforms.
When the BBC Graphic Design department was set up in 1954 it was at
the dawn of
an exciting new media that followed a very British approach to production. Today
RedBee’s website refers to a similar ‘uncharted media landscape’ where its core
business is connecting with viewers, but now on multiple platforms. Technology and
its development have undoubtedly had a hand in the form and content of motion
graphics, but as Benjamin argues, the modern experience also shapes the
organisation of the makers and the users.
In design it is possible that future technical developments ar
e unlikely to have the
same impact, because computing power is already democratized. It is the quality of
people’s creative thinking that will bring success to design businesses. This is
recognized in China, the world’s computer manufacturer where 1200 new
colleges and universities are currently being developed or built to expand its creative
industries. If we are looking for new directions perhaps our gaze should be directed
Change can be a
learning continuum, where older experie
nce and newer
skills can combine.
The Chinese have a useful proverb: ‘when the direction of the
wind changes, some build walls, some make windmills’.