The new patrons of design

Artists from Michelangelo to Shakespeare relied on support from wealthy individuals. Today patrons are more likely to be companies funding competitions, awards and sponsorship. Graeme Aymer explores how corporate contributors and designers benefit from the deal.

Not long ago, Red Bull took out an ad page in Computer Arts calling on creative people to write in, or doodle, their ideas for a Red Bull commercial. This normally cues one of two responses. The cynical one wonders if the company is looking to capitalise on the work of some young, creative genius and create an ad without the agency and studio fees.

But to some young sketchers, and even established pros, this kind of ad spells opportunity. However you look at it, winning a contest like this looks good in the portfolio.

Companies like Red Bull are coolly playing the role of patrons in modern art and design. They're investing in the discipline outside of the usual brand-pushing briefs, from getting the beers in at events, to sponsoring prizes and awards. It may also be that they collaborate with creatives. In exchange for promotion, they ask the designer to create something collectable - some 'art' perhaps - that promotes the creator as well as the company.

Red Bull's competition closed on New Year's Eve but there are many examples each year. Beck's Futures awards £20,000 to a new artist annually; while this is more 'art' than 'design', it has led to collectable Beck's labels from the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George, and Jeff Koons. Similarly snowboard and ski-equipment maker Salomon runs an annual artwork contest; Jarin Nemecek's snowboard design made him one of the winners for 2007.

In terms of design, there's the A-in-the-box Adobe trademark that festoons many an event and awards show. Coca-Cola recently changed its branding from 'Always Coca-Cola' to 'The Coke Side of Life', and used an outdoor exhibition of design work that included creations by New York-based duo Vault49 and Sir Peter Blake, the designer of the cover to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Similarly, Nike has collaborated with countless creatives to add zip to its line launches and shop openings.

Profit motives
Organisations get involved for a number of reasons. For some, it's an issue of corporate social responsibility. Charity the Wellcome Trust has recently collaborated with design champions By Designers For Designers (BD4D) on a design competition.

Similarly, the Audi Design Foundation, though very product-based, promotes designs that take the 'big ideal' into account. "We want to work with people who have a social context. We want to work with people who want to use their design skills to help the community around them, or individuals," says Rebecca Myrie, new projects manager at the Audi Design Foundation.

Others do it to win themselves publicity and prestige. "The UK has the most incredible talent base in terms of the creative industries," says Andrea Siodmok, head of design knowledge at the Design Council. "If corporate sponsors can align themselves with that, it shows that they are fresh-thinking, that they have new ideas and that they are innovative. That's all good press."

And then, of course, if you're a company trying to sell to designers, supporting them is a great way to get them to support you. Moreover, if you can collaborate with the right names and commission highly expressive material, it lifts your brand, connects directly with the right demographic and generates interest outside of your normal advertising.

However, designers get plenty in return. "Collaborations are calling cards for the future of our company," says Vault49's Jonathan Kenyon. The duo have collaborated with a number of companies in the past, including Coca- Cola. "Whenever we do an exhibition or showcase where our name is going to be on display, we always make sure it's not a repetition of something we've done."

He continues: "It's like going back to the drawing board every now and then; we never treat exhibitions and collaborations as a client project. If our name is going to be promoted next to it, we want it to be progressive."

Kai Clements of London-based design team Kai and Sunny adds, "I think collaboration just opens you up - it keeps things fresh. It keeps it fun and creative."

The approach can be random, by an agency, or more personal. For example, Russell Maurice, the designer behind Gasius and the House of Gasface, worked with Nike on its Co-[Lab] clothing line to celebrate the firm's 35th anniversary.

"Nike had already been running the Co-[Lab] collection for a season or two and I have a very good friend who works at Nike that asked me to be involved," Maurice says. "It was left to me to create something different for them. The only brief was the theme that was a celebration of Nike's 35 years and history of starting as a running company; I didn't have to stick to this, but I really like the retro running side of Nike, so I used that."

It's not necessarily all smooth sailing, however. One design team was less than happy about the behaviour of a multinational when their work was included in a major exhibition. "We saw that the work was exhibited but we never got an invite to the show. We didn't get much in terms of involvement in what was going on," says one team member. "Beware of the contracts that you enter into. If it's got a promotional aspect to it, you don't want to end up signing away the rights to a future piece of work."

He adds that the company in question basically 'road-tests' designs: "Some of them have appeared on the back of buses and things like that; I'm not sure that they pay what they should have if it had been commissioned as a one-off piece."

A question of integrity
What of that ever-vexing accusation that artists who sign up for such events are selling out? "We make no bones about it. We are commercial graphic designers for most of our day," says Kenyon. "We work for clients, we get paid a wage."

Siodmok agrees: "The role of art is to challenge the status quo and to kind of be countercultural, whereas designers have always worked with industry."

Love it or hate it, private companies are going to look to design more in the future to advance their brand. Not only is it more difficult to reach prospective buyers through traditional channels, it can even be illegal. For instance, tobacco companies are increasingly becoming design patrons as the noose tightens around cigarette advertising. "Cigarette brands are, for better or worse, creating some of the most exciting graphic briefs around," argues Kenyon.

You can expect drinks companies to adopt visual tricks as the pressure on alcohol advertising increases. Ditto brands that make junk food. And as the line between 'art' and 'design' blurs more and more, firms will find more designers to turn into collectable names.

If this worries you, just think how many advertising messages you're exposed to every day. Would it be so bad if some of them could be considered art?

Shrewd self-promotion and a good reputation are the way to attract sponsorship

The trick to landing a sponsored design brief is to get out there! You need to show off your work, and make something of a reputation for yourself. The names that are chosen for collaborations tend to have some buzz attached to them from a track record of exhibitions high and low.

"We have done things," Kai Clements of design team Kai and Sunny says. "We did a show at Liberty in London, and one at Jaguar Shoes in London, so we do get approached. They are all art/promotion really."

It doesn't hurt to work across disciplines, either. Kai and Sunny runs a label, for example, while House of Gasface's Russell Maurice has fingers in many pies. Do it, promote it, and collaborate with your peers.

However, it's important that you don't overdo it. "If you spread yourself too thin and you make yourself one of many, many contributors, your name is really quite lost along the way," warns Vault49's Jonathan Kenyon. "We prefer very focused collaboration where our name is going to stand out as being a notable contributor."

And while companies in these post-credit crunch times are feeling the heat, if you can promise them a roomful of young, creative folk, how could they resist footing the bill?