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RITUAL –  Relevance

It seems obvious that a company’s visual identity must maintain relevance to its core purpose – its raison d’être, if you will.

24 November 2014
Josh Davidson

But how do you make sure that a design is relevant? Well, you must learn what makes a company different, what is important to them, what the company is and what it isn’t. This “discovery phase,” as it is often called in the industry, is about doing your research. It often comes in the form of looking at what the competition does, but good research takes an honest look into the inner world of the company for which the design is being developed. Research is about learning – understanding what is important for the company to communicate and share with its customers. Design is about communication after all, how can you do so if you don’t take the time to know what it is you’re communicating? You must take the time to learn all you can about the company. Strictly speaking it’s not a linear process either – it’s not just a one-off Google search or a solitary board meeting.

A high level of attentiveness is what gives the necessary information to create a relevant visual identity. Rather than just asking what ‘key words’ would best describe your business (and let’s be honest - they are always the same: ‘professional,’ ‘affordable,’ ‘customer-focused’) it is better to know the company for what they really are, and also what they’re not. See, whilst there are a lot of companies that do something similar to yours, what you need to remember is that you’re not the exact same thing. You have differences to celebrate - such as your attitudes and relations with customers. Knowing what makes you different allows you to develop a visual identity that is relevant to your own company and not just your industry.

We say we offer “Bespoke Branding” on our website, but the fact is we shouldn’t have to; all design should be bespoke. This is the line of discussion that starts us talking about being unique; More in another article. For now, let’s look at some example of where, in terms of relevance, branding goes all to Hell.

And yea, Hell hath arrived, in the form of Barometa’s corporate identity. It’s got a swishy 3D circle thing with a bevelled typeface and looks all software-y and it’s got… wait, it’s for a recruitment company specializing in hospitality? The tagline suggests this, but it could also be for an online recruitment site too. Nothing about this logo tells me what to expect from the organization. Relevance is about making design mean something to the company, this is a sure-fire example of it meaning zero – Irrelevant to itself and the industry. Not to mention that is looks horrible.

Irrelevance Example: ‘we-don’t-even-care-enough-to-give-our-company-a-real-name’ edition.

In the vast majority of corporate branding, the designs are produced for a company that is often considered bland, like accountants or solicitors. Bob Gill says that “There are no boring problems, only boring solutions,” and I wish more designers thought like that.

The designer of this poor excuse for a brand, who calls himself “Dan,” has effectively spent no time or effort to understand this company. However, given the name of this company I’d imagine they didn’t care anyway. Sometimes businesses just want something there to put on a business card. Companies using this mentality feel that design is a commodity, something they just need to have to qualify as a modern business. Due to the lack of care surrounding it, this “identity” could be used on just about any property lawyer firm; they have not understood the point of branding at all, hence the irrelevant outcome.

I’ve put these two together because the point will stand out more. Essentially these companies are sector relevant and not relevant to themselves. They’re not as terrible-looking as the previous two, but the unfortunate trap of this kind of design is “it looks nice, so it works” – not true. There has been little research into the company’s world, just the sectors to which they belong. There is nothing that establishes these companies as different from each other; why would I use one and not the other? Is it just whichever one appears higher up on a Google search? Sadly that’s what a lot of marketing has become. Even the supporting typeface is basically the same in both examples, just with different kerning. Lazy.

I’m going to admit, speaking out against this example is brave of me. The company behind this rebrand, Pentagram, is considered the best in the world – I disagree. To give context, Codecademy is an online code tuition platform. Free courses in HTML, Python and JavaScript to name a few and are totally ranged in terms of skill; I learnt how to code from this website. The original branding isn’t perfect, but it has a beautifully accessible look to it, subtly suggesting that anyone can learn to code. It even has this whole chalkboard aesthetic, as well as the joined-up lettering, drawing parallels between code and language (which is what it is).

But Pentagram’s efforts here totally lose that feeling. All of a sudden it looks so exclusive to existing coders. It’s simply following technology trends to make it look ‘serious’, but it isn’t supposed to be a serious learning process. I don’t want to go on too long about this example, but I can honestly say that my heart sinks every time I see it; I’ve not used the site since. The reason for it being here is that, like the others, it just looks typical of its industry. Codecademy isn’t about just technology or coding, it’s about the learning process; this is where Pentagram’s mistake lies. If they were to simply ask questions instead of going with what looks good, or to learn how users felt about the site, it would be more relevant. Not to mention the new rebrand is a terrible example of the power and ability of code; it’s all just flat and white, nothing aspirational.

Following on from that, I’ll make the point that irrelevant design does not only come in the form of branding, it is a design-wide thing. It is better to ask relevancy questions in a more “element-specific” fashion as opposed to the whole outcome, simply because it makes it more objective and particular rather than just overall opinion.

"What makes you different allows you to develop a visual identity that is relevant to your own company and not just your industry."

If the question is “Why do you want this blue?” and the answer goes something like, “Because that’s what my industry does.” then the notion of relevance allows us to point out that just because an entire industry has decided to follow in each other’s footsteps, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to your company. Perhaps blue is a bad example, because colour is annoyingly subjective, but hopefully you catch my drift anyway: asking questions (research) reveal what is important, what is relevant to the company. Besides, copying what everyone else does is hardly unique is it?

However, you MUST ask the questions beforehand, otherwise you post-rationalize the design outcome. This means you suggest all of the things the visual identity signifies without prior thought. If the designer of our previous example preceded to use blue simply because that’s what he was told to do, then when discussing the design he would suggest that “The blue makes is clear and calm whilst remaining modern and…” I’ll stop writing this nonsense now. All he said was clearly wrong because none of what was mentioned had any real relevance to the actual company. Don’t take signifiers lightly, without any relevance they could mean anything.

Good God, what’s that?

There! There it is again!

… Can you come up with a single good reason for an ethereal, titanic orang-utan to be on these Southern Electric ads? I have been sat for weeks trying to understand the thinking behind this. Now you might say, “Well, it signifies environmental awareness” but there is nothing to support that notion; in fact, the opposite is true – they are encouraging higher energy consumption by fixing their prices; surely you’d use less if it was more expensive? I did some research and it turns out there is a TV/YouTube ad too. I don’t sit at home drooling and watching mainstream programming enough to have actually seen it. Here’s a link to the video on Southern Electric’s website: southern-electric.co.uk/Maya/.

Unbelievably, the video only bewilders me even further: the ape just “monkeys” around a city, looking at all the instances we use technology. The voiceover implies such things amaze the beast, but it stares vacantly and just looks lost. That’s it. They clearly spent a lot of money on a special effects team; they clearly just wanted people to go “look, huh-huh, a monkey!”, because four-year-old boys are often the decision-makers when it comes to household energy provision. Note also that they are so proud of this ad as to provide a making-of video, as if anyone asked for one.

"Relevance is about making design mean something to the company."

We need to meticulously question why we do things in design; the monkey ad is a perfect example of a company lost for ideas that just decided to make something that they thought people would recognize, “that monkey company”.

Remember that asking questions don’t provide the right answer when they are phrased like “What do you think of this?” One of the reasons for RITUAL’s existence is to protect a designer’s integrity. If we have a genuine gripe with a client’s suggestion we should have the authority to turn it down, but with decent reasons. This is the area I currently have most issue with and why RITUAL is also about protecting clients too. Those paying for our work don’t have a trained eye for the craft (if they did then why aren’t they a designer?) and thus can’t visualize potential issue with an idea, hence why we need to clearly communicate what those issues are in an objective manner. If the answer is “Because it’s not relevant.” The follow-up should be “As this doesn’t mean anything to your company.” Both sides need to be able to communicate like this; RITUAL is a guideline for discussion and not the answer(s) in itself.

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