Lessons in design from the Post Office

10th May 2018
Author: Etienne Clergue
Posted in: Design, Marketing, Thought leadership

Even in the age of email and instant messaging, the General Post Office commands a love and trust in the UK unreachable for most brands.

That sentiment wasn’t always tangible. The Post Office was created in England by Charles II in 1660, in an effort to democratise communications. At the time, royalty and the rich lived in a ‘first-class world’, sending letters as far as Italy, Germany and France to run their estates. Most ordinary people couldn’t afford to send a letter.

When the postal service got up and running it didn’t just allow people to write letters, it connected Britain. By the 1930s, the postal service had become a formidable organisation. It had embraced new technologies and continued to expand, even during the First World War.

Visually though, the postal service was dull and functional. It required an injection of vision, colour and imagination.

In 1933 Sir Stephen Tallents, argued by some to be the first ‘PR guru’, joined the Post Office to manage ‘public relations’ – a term some believe Tallents was the first to use. The changes he made revolutionised perceptions of the Post Office, from trust in its products to a national pride in its services.

Tallents manufactured this transformation with a fresh focus on design; new stamps and posters, a newly launched film unit and a staff magazine, aimed at improving in-house communication at the Post Office.

The magazine published employees’ photographs and stories of delivering the mail from the busiest cities to the remotest countryside. Consumers could pick up the magazine for a penny while postal workers received it for free. By 1935, The Post Office Magazine had a circulation of 172,000 copies.

Today we’re used to seeing logos on every product we pick up or browse. In the 1930s however, such a wholesale approach to branding was new. Sir Stephen Tallents wanted a logo to increase recognition of, and respect for, the postal service.

The brand, launched in 1935, incorporated the letters GPO for General Post Office and a crown to show the service’s royal origins. The designer was a man called MacDonald Gill who used the Gill typeface, created by his brother Eric, thought at the time to combine traditional and modern influences.

Tallents’ eye for design as a channel to inspire devotion and action was welcomed within an organisation that had, already on occasion, successfully used design thinking to solve problems.

Roadside post boxes had first been installed in the Channel Islands in 1852 and soon appeared all over the country. However, the original cast iron boxes were initially painted green and in the countryside people felt they were dreary and hard to see. In 1874, red became the preferred colour of pillar boxes in the UK.

Later, when London delivered its successful 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Royal Mail activated a PR stunt Sir Stephen Tallents would have been proud of, celebrating every British gold medal win by painting a post box in the winning athlete’s home town gold.

Make design critical to every project

Creators of any content should understand design is not merely an ‘add-on’ once the content is finished. Without the right level of attention paid to design from the start, your content stands to be ignored and even resented.

Tallents arrived at the Post Office knowing that the ‘substance’ of the organisation – its purpose, mission and service delivery – were all sound. What was missing was love, advocacy and pride in the service felt by users. Design was key to transforming the perception of the Post Office.

As the volume of content we are relied upon to create grows, specialist resource is going to stretch ever thinner. Content marketers have to be skilled in a number of disciplines and if you’re not already, the likelihood is that you’ll soon bear some responsibility for the design of your content. As a non-designer that may seem daunting.

However, just as you don’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car, you don’t have to be a trained designer to be able to create accomplished and beautifully-designed content. You just need to be aware of some basic principles of design thinking.

If design is at the heart of everything you produce; if you let it inform how you want it to be used and what it needs to achieve, you’ll be increasing your possibility of success.

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Click to read Design Thinking Is Now ‘Content Critical’