Sharpen up your Image

Barry Semark gives advice on how to make your corporate literature aesthetically appealing

Lawyers, like most professionals, probably do not consider themselves dull, boring and grey, but take a look at their corporate literature and that is the image that many are presenting to their clients, peers and potential employees. Few brochures project the profession in an accurate and up-to-date fashion.

Most law firms' brochures have a dark coloured cover – grey, navy and burgundy are the most popular. This is intended to convey seriousness and professionalism. Turn the cover and the pages feature men in grey suits awkwardly pretending to answer the phone or be in a top-level meeting. Unfortunately, it often looks more like a parish meeting than a hard edged, professional business.

The alternative is a colourful abstract illustration which says little about the individual legal practice.

The biggest problem is that it is not only difficult to differentiate between firms but also to define the profession in which they are engaged. Literature from lawyers looks just like that of accountants, surveyors or management consultants. Good corporate literature should be a basic component in how a company promotes itself and most importantly, it should be read.

Some of the difficulties that can occur are because of the initial brief given to the design company. Sometimes it is ill-thought through. Or it hasn't been fully discussed internally so when a senior partner comes to approve the finished product he or she is horrified: it is too avant garde or doesn't send out the right signals.

As a designer who has spent 22 years creating literature for clients operating in many industries, I've seen many casualties. Quite often this is the result of a badly written design brief. Still to this day, I receive briefs from potential clients, including international law firms, in which the key specifications can barely be identified.

To get the best out of a design consultancy in terms of product literature, law firms should first decide who they are talking to. Is it clients, other law firms, the media, graduate trainees or all of these? I was once involved in a pitch for a reputable law firm, in which we were asked to question their trainees on their views of the firm's literature. How many rivals could claim to think the same way about the contribution their trainees can make to their image?

But do not involve too many people. Many design companies are brought in to do repair jobs on corporate literature casualties usually the result of too many decision makers.

The brief needs to clarify what the firm wants to achieve. It should not be a list of wants and not wants. If the organisation has a strong international presence, how clearly must this be communicated? If it provides areas of specialism should this be projected in several documents or one major brochure.

The past 10 years has seen a big change in the way corporate literature is designed and used. The vogue for black and white literature, or a corporate image where recycled paper prevails, to increased colour with expensively produced photography – all have been tried.

Law firms also have to be realistic about the amount of time it will take to get the product right. We often get the "we'd like it by next Thursday" approach. Because of advances in computer technology people wrongly assume that 50,000 brochures can be printed instantly. This is not the case. Possibly the slowest part of the whole process is when the designer is waiting for the client to approve the document. It is no use them musing that perhaps different issues should be addressed if the document should have been at the printers yesterday. A time frame of two to three months is realistic from initial concept to printing.

But there are things firms can do to save time. Technological developments in design consultancies and client companies is radically changing the way that corporate literature is produced. Clients may not be aware that there is an ISDN link or modem in their building which could smooth the process. The person responsible for marketing has to feel confident about what technology can do for them. It is dangerous to assume that this is the sole responsibility of the design team.

In recent years it appears that law firms have begun to think more clearly about how they produce their corporate literature. They are putting more time, more effort and more money into getting the right sort of product in order to compete more effectively. Choosing a team to take them through the process is the first step. Learning to trust them is the second.