With another design job for an Irish national institution created by a non-Irish studio, is it time to look at the tender process and how Irish design approaches and engages with it?
When it comes to design on an international stage, Irish designers and studios punch above their weight. We’re a small nation that is well represented both in individual designers that have worked on huge branding and design projects, as well as studios with clients on a local and international level.
Our need to look abroad for work — whether on an individual basis as an emigrant, or as a business looking to expand — has always been about seeking more opportunities than are available at home. Opportunities with bigger clients, a wider audience, the desire to learn from different cultures and exposure to new ways of working.
Unfortunately, this desire to look abroad is also true of Irish businesses and organisations¹, with the vast majority of that work directed to the United Kingdom. Historically, large design projects for key Irish clients such as AIB, BoI, Irish Life, Aer Lingus and Guinness have routinely been shipped over the Irish Sea to UK agencies. More recently, London-based agency Moving Brands worked on the eircom / eir rebrand, and the most recent example of large cultural or semi-state institutions being branded by a non-Irish studio is the rebrand of the National Gallery of Ireland by Manchester-based studio True North.
Let’s be clear from the outset that the focus of this article is not a blow-by-blow critique of the work created by any of these studios. In the case of the National Gallery of Ireland in particular there has been enough of a response to the work online. Of greater interest are potential reasons why tendered jobs like this aren’t won by Irish studios, or why Irish studios don’t apply for these tendered jobs. Is this an issue with the tender process, or is it something to do with Irish companies, both as the issuers and respondents to tenders? Nevertheless this article will take a position on the rebrand, as the apparent quality of the work (as showcased online) cannot be separated out from the core argument that Irish design could have produced something better, or at least more uniquely Irish.
It seems like a good place to start by looking at what the tendering process is designed for and why it is in place, as from some discussions I’ve had with other designers there does not seem to be a well-grounded understanding for this process.
Tenders are generally issued by clients as a formal offer or notice of available work, a Request For Tender (RFT). Sometimes this is done as a way to gauge interest, sometimes as a self-reflective measure by the client if they realise that they need to widen the scope of their professional connections. Most often though it is a business requirement, or in the case of the National Gallery project, it is because there is a base euro-value threshold that requires the work be tendered out, as part of EU Directives on public procurement. These official tenders are published through e-tenders.ie, and design studios can add themselves to the official supplier register, from where you can be notified of applicable tenders.
Since April 2014 any RFT awarded over €25,000 needs to be published by the Office of Public Procurement. However, this does though make the research into which contracts have been awarded to whom over the last 3 years difficult, an educated guess being that most design tenders fall below the publishing value threshold. The National Gallery of Ireland tender did include a note that ‘the current budget allocation for this requirement is approximately €40,000.’
That is a fairly decent budget by any national design standards for a brand identity, guidelines and a bit of marketing strategy and roll-out. While it dwarfs in comparison to the architectural and construction costs for the gallery’s refurbishment, both the fee and the working experience would be welcomed by any studio in Ireland. Interestingly, the wayfinding and digital aspects of the rebrand seem to have been separated out as individual jobs, with the wayfinding consultants having already been engaged before the branding tender was issued, with the tender stipulating that ‘[t]he New Brand Identity needs to complement this design’.
This highlights part of the issue with tenders in that they engender this type of compartmentalised jobbing (which often happens for a number of reasons, including financial and managerial). In the case of the National Gallery this resulted in breaking apart what would seem like naturally interdependent design requirements of space, building material, wayfinding and brand. Would a more cohesive design strategy at the outset or some form of guidance from one of the official design bodies in Ireland have produced a more holistic set of requirements or brought about a better way to align the form, material, content and context of the gallery?
The Experience Paradox
So, if as previously noted the general threshold for design tenders falls below the €25,000 mark, then surely there should be dozens of jobs being tendered each year. There seems to be little evidence of UK or other foreign firms coming in and snapping up those lower cost contracts. Some other examples of foreign studios working on Irish tenders include ‘Research and Brand Development’ for Bord Bia, carried out by German studio Point-Blank. Interestingly this is actually a consumer research project, promoting Irish Lamb as an export product to Germany, so it makes sense that this was won by an autochthonous German company.
The issue then is that larger, higher-fee projects with more prestige or visibility are shipped out to foreign studios. These are the projects that come around maybe every four or five years, and can mark the landscape of Irish culture and society for decades (the previous National Gallery of Ireland brand created by Conor Clarke and Design Factory lasted for 25 years). Why then are Irish studios missing out on these types of projects?
Part of the answer is that there are usually more restrictive clauses for eligibility as a supplier on these tenders. Studios are required to have a certain level of turnover, sometimes with stipulations on staffing levels and particular skillsets. The perverse reality is that often these tenders seem to be treated as second-class jobs in non-Irish studios, with lower fees (by comparison), remote clients and a lesser understanding of the quirks of Irish culture producing work that is often sub-par (both on a Irish or international standard).
Speaking to a member of a studio that tendered for the project one piece of feedback given was that the National Gallery chose ‘a company that has specific and extensive expertise in creating brand identities for art galleries.’ Typically, as designers in Ireland, we tend to be more generalist. This is not by design, but rather the reality of working in a small country, with smaller pool of potential clients. The fact that a design practice can focus more closely on a certain type of work or a more specialised sector or market isn’t something that is unknown here, but the majority of studios tend to have to balance a mix of different types of work. A single studio will usually only have one or two of a certain type of client such as a gallery, museum or theatre in their portfolio. This is part of the paradox of these larger tendered contracts, where the tender calls for a certain level of experience, but gives the job to a foreign studio, which means Irish studios with highly relevant local experience miss out because they cannot meet this requirement for more ‘specific and extensive expertise’.
There is a converse argument that hiring a studio with extensive experience in a niche area will mean they will have ‘been there and done that’ before. Designers thrive on new challenges, and there’s only so many ‘gallery logo on a tote-bag’ mockups you can do before you start to lose the will to live. To me, that is what is infuriating to so many Irish designers about the National Gallery work that was unveiled in the past month — it has a paint-by-numbers cultural/gallery brand feel that you can easily run down the checklist for –
- logo or symbol you can use as a pattern or ‘frame’ the gallery artwork or other content? Check…
- stencil typeface that’s based on a piece of lettering or architectural typography found at the gallery? Check…
- contrasting colours that are eye-dropped from colours in key gallery artworks? Check…
Without having been a fly on the wall during the design process we can’t know how much the studio pushed these solutions, or how proscriptive the client was. Perhaps an Irish studio would have been better equipped, either to work past the on-trend design cliches and produce something that is culturally and socially more relevant, or to deal with the client in a more hands-on way and help them move past standard visual expression.³
Love me tender?
So, what’s to be done if Irish studios and Irish clients are to make better use of the tender process?
Firstly, actually try applying for tenders! In an online poll carried out by the 100 Archive 55% of respondents had never engaged in an e-tender. There may be many reasons to not apply for tenders — the officiousness of them, how badly written and proscriptive they can be, not thinking that you meet the minimum requirements, the sheer amount of work that goes into collating case studies and company info — but with a little diligence a studio can be equipped to put together a tender proposal quite readily. In a previous studio I spent about a week putting together a large tender proposal, and at the same time templating and collating this into a reusable case-study template for print and digital export. The week’s work meant that the next tender was done in a couple of days.
‘A couple of days’ is still a long time for some design practices to dedicate to something that they are not guaranteed to actually win. While that is true, tenders are a good way to ‘practice’ and review how a studio is projecting itself and talking about its work, and any assets, visuals or copy can be reused in other case-studies.
Is there scope to reform the e-tender process, and make it more transparent and actually worthwhile for Irish studios, and clients? The IDI as a representative body are engaged with the Office of Government Procurement on a national design framework. If you are interested in what is happening in regards to this proposed framework then contacting the IDI and OGP would be a good thing to do, but some initial suggestions would include –
- a design consultant requirement for prospective tenderers to direct and assist in the creation of well defined tender documents, with clear parameters and requirements, and less jargon
- lowering the threshold for publication of tender winners from €25,000 to give better transparency to the process
- a better designed tender process itself, where clearer categories, notifications and resources are put in place
- a standardised response format that has specific content limits so that tenders are better evaluated on the work and not swayed by presentation.
While tenders — particularly official e-tenders — may not seem fair or actually geared towards being applicable to Irish design studios they are a legitimate means of getting work that is basically just sitting there, looking for someone to apply for it. Yes, they take time and effort to apply for, but nothing worth doing ever comes easy. The spectre of foreign studios swooping in to cherry-pick prime Irish projects is just a reality we have to face. Although it will be interesting to see if the Irish clients are as transfixed with with non-UK designers as they seem to be with those on the UK ‘mainland’ once Brexit kicks in. In the meantime, maybe we as designers can learn something from our architectural colleagues and turn the tables to increase our reach into UK e-tenders. As has always been true of the Irish mentality we are more than happy to go where the work will take us.
1. From this point I will use the term ‘client’ as a shorthand for the non-design party in the working relationship.
2. It should be noted that the ‘redesign of the gallery’s website was by True North and Reading Room’.
3. For an interesting take on why corporate branding for cultural institutions is a bad idea I recommend reading Other Means' recent article for The Walker Art Centre.
Marcus Swan is Design Director for LetsGetChecked, the Personal Health Testing service. He is an advocate and practitioner of design that can make a difference to business, culture and society – making things simpler, clearer and easier – while making work that is beautiful and delightful too.