Less is more…more or less

HMG coat of arms

I’m still buzzing from the D&AD Awards Ceremony at The Roundhouse in June. It was extra brilliant this year because Neville Brody (D&AD President and founder of the Anti-Design Festival) masterminded a parody of awards ceremonies. We got the 1970s light show, street-cred beatboxer, fetishistic nouvelle cuisine, fledgling artists and actors waiting tables, and sexy brochures riddled with references to ‘creativity’. The whole experience was designed to make us question the empty-headedness of awards ceremonies and our slavish addiction to them. The content of these events has become so secondary to the razzmatazz it’s hard to distinguish between the Turner Prize, Eurovision, and a Miss World Contest. Looking sartorially satirical in a spoof business suit, Neville acted out a dazzling Master of Ceremonies piss-take, supported by an ironic dumb blonde handing out the gongs. It stimulated fevered debate on my table as to whether in this crash, bang and wallop digital age, style has finally triumphed over substance.

We glugged our warm white wine and applauded the ‘inventive imagination’ and ‘ground-breaking brilliance’ of ‘creative genius’. The D&AD Yellow Pencils basked the glory of London 2012, empathised with paralympians, raised awareness about health and safety and Parkinson’s disease, and celebrated the usual procession of fast moving consumer goods. But the most significant accolade of the evening was the award of the Black Pencil to Sarah Richards and her team at GOV.UK for an astonishing body of work.

For decades UK government departments have been powerful oligopolies, repelling all boarders with impenetrable content structure and incomprehensible language. DirectGov and BusinessLink were the first digital services to centralise information, and GOV.UK is the child of a report prepared by the marvellous Martha Lane Fox who advocated ‘revolution not evolution’. 400 websites are in the process of being reconfigured within GOV.UK where each department will have a dedicated space for information, announcements, publications and policies. The super-user-friendly beta site is already showing us how to do what we need to do – when someone dies, to claim unemployment benefit, to pass a driving test – all in one place.

One of the mysteries of our industry is why most of the work is witless. There is no shortage of brilliant minds. But many clients struggle to understand how brand, design, images and writing integrate and cling to generic. So it’s all the more astonishing that government – notorious for labyrinthine approval procedures – has trusted GOV.UK editors to control the content and structure of a critical national asset.

The GOV.UK proposition is to ‘hide complexity’ – not just the tools, widgets and calculators – but also the plethora of detail. The user must come first – even over departmental need. Sarah and her team carried out a massive content audit of DirectGov and BusinessLink and interrogated the function of every page. Inclusion was driven by need-to-know and informed by user behaviour and language. They dispensed with the advice and only convey what government actually does. Expect howls of frustration from individuals and agencies struggling with the new formats and teething problems, but dashboards will be linked into every stage of navigation, so failing pages can be amended and re-tested in successive versions.

The GOV.UK mantra is find, read, understand, leave. The tone is informative, succinct, reassuring, brisk. GOV.UK will not tell you how to tell your children you are getting divorced, but will provide a step-by-step journey through the process. Doing less better helps us understand our rights and obligations, and reduces costly or illegal mistakes when dealing with the state.

Neville’s manifesto for the Anti-Design Festival called for work that is scary, dangerous, anti-establishment…that unlocks creative fires and ideas…and welcomes anarchy. So it’s heartening to see the traditionally risk-averse Civil Service producing radical thinking that puts many so called ‘creative agencies’ to shame. But GOV.UK would never have happened without a progressive client. Francis Maude – Minister for the Cabinet Office – has pushed this through by trumpeting simplicity, agility and accessibility, and using open source technology to avoid software licensing costs.

Maybe we should kick all the students out of the art schools (which let’s face it have become finishing schools for middle class kids with rich mummies and daddies), and wheel in the brand managers and marketing directors for crash courses in The Power and the Glory of Creativity. Maybe next year D&AD will announce a new category. A purple pencil perhaps, for the Most Enlightened Client of the Year.


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