• 10 January 2024
  • 8 min read

Saffron reports: Into The Bright

  • 10 January 2024
  • 8 min read

Five brand and design experts walk into an art gallery.

People start to listen. Conversations begin, provocation arises, creative thinking is inspired.

On December 7th 2023, on the 6th floor of London’s Tate Modern, Saffron launched a platform for dialogue on how brand and design can make a positive difference: Into The Bright. The inaugural session welcomed speakers from the world of charity, design, marketing and tech to shine their particular kind of optimism on the times we find ourselves in.

With a programme and set designed entirely by Saffron teams, it felt fitting for our very own Jacob Benbunan to open proceedings, alongside former client Chris Bettig, Creative Director at ‘the largest archive of human culture ever’ – YouTube. With close collaboration from Saffron, YouTube has gone from a place of chaotic content to a global staple in our digital diet. A platform where news, entertainment and business now make sense side-by-side, in an app beloved by commuters and influencers alike.

‘We’re a lot of things to a lot of people,’ Chris says before listing the brand verticals that service YouTube’s multiple different communities. Jacob calls this attractive. Chris calls it a double-edged sword.

Because when your platform needs to be ‘everything to everyone at all times,’ how can you design for anyone, when you need to design for everyone? For Chris, the answer is still unwritten.

An ex-design leader at Urban Outfitters, he still looks to youth culture for inspiration (‘they drive the market’), speaking with optimism about reinvention and curiosity about the cyclical nature of trends.

When – inevitably – the topic of AI arises, Chris advises creative caution. ‘Just relax. Draw some shapes,’ he says with a wry smile, wary of the temptation some programmes have for ambitious designers.

At a time where consumption and waste are a major concern for tech companies, Chris heralds his employer’s green values; sustainable action is a mainstay of Google’s internal comms.

It’s a positive note to end on, because – as an audience member points out – sometimes the world can feel like it’s burning, and proactivity from brands like YouTube make the difference.

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The centrepiece of the evening’s triptych of talks belonged to Mike Abbink, Executive Creative Director at IBM, and Katherine Whitton, Global Chief Marketing Officer at IG Group.

Mike begins, opening with an image of a landfill marauded by birds. ‘We are these birds,’ – aligning the audience with consumers, looking for meaning in a time of over-saturation.

He finds truth in Eliot Noyes’s statement, ‘A corporation should be like a painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement.’ It’s inspired the entire design ethos Mike’s created for IBM.

From typeface to illustration, each part of the IBM experience system that Mike helped create unifies the brand, while working ‘fluidly across any kind of experience-making effort’, be it from engineers to designers.

We’re treated to vignettes of its hardworking components, voiced over by the people who use it every day. It’s a small part of a mammoth output, made possible by leveraging value over visual appeal and prioritising serving, not selling.

When explaining how to contextualise brand and design for decision makers that aren’t regularly exposed to them, Mike said, ‘I do not talk aesthetics. I talk value.’

Showing how this unified design ethos ultimately saves thousands of hours, he lands the ‘correct total statement’ of IBM’s design system – and ultimately the impact it has on the business and those it serves.

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‘Brand that helps people see you better’ was the theme of Katherine Whitton’s talk, who as former marketing chief at Specsavers, certainly knows the difference design can make to a business.

‘There is nothing more potent in anyone's brand armoury…than actual people,’ she opens, impressing us with stories of confronting former CEOs and uncovering brand truths hidden in plain sight to compel an even wider audience.

‘Why do we have an expectation that anybody would love your company if your colleagues don't?’ she posits, proving that through every single touchpoint, the role of people can be used to bring out the brand behind.

In her present role at IG Group, Katherine credits the company as successful, ambitious and carrying a strong internal culture. A key piece of her work there has been engaging its thousands strong team about brand.

By bringing along IG’s collaborators (Saffron included), she met with colleagues, turning them into in-house champions, uniting the whole company on the power and possibility of the IG Group to come. 

Leaving us with food for thought, she asks the audience of fellow marketing leaders and CEOs: ‘How much time are you spending on your internal audiences?’

Taking her turn to take on our final topic ‘Creativity at work for future generations’, former Saffronite, and now current Chief of Brand Mila Linares reminds us of her learnings under the late Wally Olins: ‘Brand makes strategy visible.’ Which, for her employer UNICEF, is ‘to be the most trusted organisation for children globally’.

There are three things that stand out from other brands she’s led. The first is audience. ‘We’re for world leaders and 13 year-old girls,’ she quotes, meaning approachability is key.

However, in places where a brand compliant logo is less useful than a clearly signposted water tent, adaptability is crucial. There’s a clear tension in being both the world’s most trusted brand, and a brand that’s not needed at all.

Above all, the UNICEF brand needs to be ‘additive’: ‘It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s not about ego. We really have to do work that makes so much sense,’ Mila stresses.

It rings the loudest in places where charity work like UNICEF’s is totally outlawed, where brand can not only be redundant, but life threatening.

It’s not an easy job, but the reward and hope Mila speaks with fills the room. She closes with the humbling thought, that instead of bombastic activations, how about a brand that’s ‘100 gestures done well over time?’

It’s the perfect handover for our final speaker, Meta’s Head of Design, Zach Stubenvoll, who opens on a similarly optimistic note: a personal photo from childhood. ‘This represents my mom, the first person who gave me permission to be creative.’

It’s permission that Zach now grants his team at Meta, a ‘small and mighty’ group of multidisciplinary designers who service the brand, and its creativity, with a focus on making big impact and solving big problems.

Discourse plays a huge part in internal culture – from making sure representation is felt across teams, to encouraging the healthy challenges that rise between product and brand.

It’s a fast-paced business where change is part of the fun. For Zach, what’s important are the values that hold Meta’s designers true to their cause.

Whether that’s making business lifelines with WhatsApp, or enabling boundless exploration with Meta Quest, what they’re building with the help of a powerful brand are accessible products that impact billions of people.

Wrapping up under the stewardship of Saffron’s CSO Morgan Holt, speakers and audience take in the now glittering London skyline. It’s crept up on us, appropriately ending an afternoon and evening that have felt like no time at all.

The night ends, and everyone cascades down to Tate’s ‘Materials and Objects’ collection. The museum is ours alone to enjoy. We’re united by the creativity we’ve heard about, seen and that lies ahead.

Tamara Roper
Associate Copy Director

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