Comment: It’s OK To ‘Sell Out’

It’s Ok To ‘Sell Out’ – In Fact, That’s Often The Point

by Simon Forster, Founder & Executive Creative Director at brand design firm Robot Food based in Leeds UK 

Questioning the relevance of ‘selling out’ is nothing new. In fact back in 2000, esteemed design writer Rick Poyner suggested that the phenomenon “is not one that’s discussed much anymore,” summing up the historical 1960s idea of the term as “a deep divide. On one side were purity, authenticity, and self-determination. On the other side was money.”

Today, most of us realize that it makes little sense to peddle the idea that ‘authentic’ design doesn’t make money. If it’s authentic to the client and the brand, the work’s authentic too. if it isn’t, then it’s done a shoddy job of responding to the brief.

And if you get into design for a sense of self-determination, you’re probably in the wrong job. A good designer puts their ego aside, listens to their client, and gets the job done.

So why is there still a certain snobbishness about ‘commercial work’, and a squeamishness about the business side of the industry?

There’s no doubt that graphic design is about experimentation and self-expression. But designing navel-gazing zines or record sleeves for your vaporwave mini disc-only record label won’t keep an agency’s lights on.

Ultimately design agencies are brought in to help a company make more money – so why do so many of them still pussyfoot around the business side of things?

At Robot Food, commercial awareness and creative thinking go hand in hand and together they lay the foundations for everything we do. Our approach is about looking at a business holistically, not just putting a sticking plaster of nice design work over a brand that isn’t resonating because of a deeper, more fundamental flaw.

It’s almost always the commercial projects that take the most skill to tackle well. They have the toughest briefs, need to appeal to the broadest range of people and please the trickiest stakeholders, and any agency founder worth their salt wants to take on projects that keep their creatives feeling creative.

It’s easy to work for your ego or appeal to a niche: it’s a far greater challenge to attract mass markets while making work that you as a design team know is smart, authentic and looks good.

Smart brands understand that ‘cool’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s about understanding your brand and its consumers inside out, and realizing that ‘cool’ means different things to different people – and it doesn’t negate commercial viability.

Take craft beer: once it was ‘cool’ for bearded middle-aged men, then a new wave of brands came in to cater for bearded, hipster-ish slightly younger men, now it’s – quite rightly – branded for everyone to enjoy.

Part of the problem is when people confuse ‘commercial’ design with homogenous or boring design. The last thing any of us need is another cannabis brand with a huge leaf logo like a subpar Snoop Dogg who’s a bit late to the party. Or more eco-friendly cleaning products in muted green and white bottles.

Cliches are boring. ‘Commercial’ design isn’t. Good design doesn’t follow trends: remember when ‘millennial’ pink and a calm, neutral all-caps sans serif was cool? Then everyone else came along and slapped it on their vegan cupcake shops and ruined it.

It’s also worth considering that ‘corporate design’, created squarely for megacorp goliaths, is now revered by many creative types. Any design agency worth working with surely has at least one Lance Wyman book on its color-coded bookshelf.

Creating a business-minded brand doesn’t have to mean bland. If anything, it has to work even harder to stand out – be even smarter, bolder and more daring within its category. After all, the best design in the world makes an impact because people like it. It looks different. It’s cool.

And cool work sells out.