"A Graphic Design Agency That Takes The Status-Quo and Eats It."

Suffering From Simplicity

When is focusing on being simple a bad idea? More often than you'd think.

09 July 2014
Josh Davidson

“I actually run a dinosaur park just off the M5, really family friendly.”

The reason you actually state what your company does, and what need it fulfils, is so that people know that you are the company that does ‘X’ and for reason ‘Y’. When something is too simple it doesn't visually inform what those are. People don’t know where they stand with you if your branding looks stark. If they don’t know you, they won’t know how they feel about your company and what sort of tone to strike with it, you communicate differently to your bank than you would, lets say, your dentist.

If you brand is too simple and let’s say has a very vague name like, I don’t know, Clarendon, Then what on earth are people going to think you do? Clarendon is a company that does ‘??’ and for reason ‘??’ you can’t just assume people will understand what the company does just because you know.

This is exact kind of mistake is see on a daily basis.

Simple therefore really means vague and not what it should mean: clear. As you’ve seen from our portfolio here at SSS, none of the work we produce is overwhelmingly chaotic, in fact a lot of our work is simple to a degree, but it certainly isn’t depthless.

The reason so many brands and designers opt for a vague approach is because they can’t really home-down on what makes the company different, possibly from a lack insight or even passion. One of the first things people used to ask is “What’s your USP?” what makes you special? If you have a logo that doesn’t look any different from competitors then you look like there is nothing special about you at all! And you don’t want that, do you?

Some companies also can’t nail down their target audience, it’s a big struggle which is certainly not a rare thing for newer businesses, and so they leave it open to interpretation in the hope of not turning anyone away, like a piece of modern art. Another reason for it happens when people have too many ideas for what the brand could be, too many influences and directions to home down something specific in which it ends up being none of them. Think of it this way; spin a colour wheel fast enough and it becomes white.

And in reverse, something specific trying to be everything...

Your brand needs to state what it is, and not rely on what people think it is.

What you don’t want to happen is to have people treat your brand like a mystic ball, as the contents will mean different things to different people, causing brand miscommunication (which is a total nightmare to fix), eye of the beholder and all that. Roland Bartes wrote a book called “The Author Is Dead” Which talks over how the author’s message becomes irrelevant when audiences read into, and interpret the subject matter in their own way. It’s a good reference point to mention because we don’t want to be leaving things open to interpretation after all, but sometimes people assume we can’t do anything about it.

This one makes me think of oven cleaning products.

This doesn’t happen with Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is just Coke, that’s all it is, all it will ever be, there is no debating that it could be anything different. Well done them. Same with Nike, Apple and BBC, no brand confusion what so ever. This is because they have built up their brand’s offering over many, many years. So much so that these brands have entered social convention, they’re not just trainers, they are “Nikes”. Each brand is hugely specific to their sector with the story to back it up.

Apple’s original branding featured Newton sat under the tree. The apple was the device that triggered that spark of genius that led to our understanding of forces and gravity, as defined by Newton’s laws. This is the signifier that Apple used to offer, a device that provides that spark. But now it has become somewhat more of a fashion accessory, but that’s working out nicely for them because they knew that’s what today’s people wanted, glamorous nerdism.

I’m not so sure Newton would approve, given it’s a reminder of the traumatic event.

Now I’m struggling to come up with an example of the opposite, but it’s hard when they drop out of existence because they failed to get it right and they weren't big enough for you to notice. Sony may be a useful case study here, they produce everything from gaming consoles to laptops, and no, awkwardly those two don’t cross over. They are currently trying to sell off assets and divisions of their company so that they can concentrate squarely on being an entertainment provider, not just a tech giant with no focus. They are selling off their Sony Vaio brand, which is causing them more grief than they expected, possibly because of the sheer volume of computer manufacturers out there. Sony at least realized that they needed to become something specific, instead of waiting until it was too late. Sony’s branding is very simple and sleek, representing the ease of modern technology, which is a massive area in itself! When they completely switch focus to entertainment, do you think they should change it?

At the very least they could sort out the kerning.

Now you may argue that there are plenty of companies that are huge and provide a massive diversity of products and are doing extremely well by it, we’ll take Walmart as an example. Walmart has a higher net worth than around 70% of the countries on earth, they are titans of modern day capitalism. The difference here is that Walmart’s offering is everything! If you went to a store and couldn’t find what you were after, how angry would you be? You'd certainly be searching around for sometime, in the same way that you expect Amazon to stock what you are looking for.

These retailers have brands that don’t apply to the products they sell, more applicable to themselves. Amazon at least has a very lovely logo, designed by Turner-Duckworth, which demonstrates the A-Z shopping experience that also looks like a smile. Walmart’s is very generic with the star, a very American thing for a very American company, it wouldn’t work over here in England, but that’s why we have Asda.

Now that’s an example where saying “it's simple” doesn’t do it any justice. Try “Clear”.

What you need to bear in mind is that these companies are the ones that define modern day capitalism. They are such large companies that are almost too big to fail, however you only need to cast your mind back to Woolworth’s to remember that stretching yourself too thin can break you. As a child I always remember Woolworths to be fun, not because of the sugar rush from the pic ‘n’ mix, but because there was so much stuff to explore! There were too many things that Woolworth’s was trying to be without the brand language to back it up.

The branding never really said anything, it was more Christmassy than anything and that doesn’t support a company of its size for long.

Most large companies have a brand that they have built up over many years and have a huge user base but still clearly belongs to or defines their sector, it is very unlikely that your brand has that sort of reputation, or lets be honest here, ever will.

But this isn’t a bad thing, it means you have room to emerge with your own rules, play your own game. After all, playing to the generic American stereotype of being “dumb”; how much do you think Walmart adds fire to this idea? The preposterous thinking that big businesses control the minds of the American people by making there lives simple and effortless?

"People use brands as way of identifying themselves, as a way of belonging."

I have always said that I dislike the phrase “keep it simple, keep it stupid”. It, in itself, is pretty stupid. If people are constantly thought of as stupid, how do you think the trajectory will go? If you tell someone something enough they begin to believe it. There is a fear I have that, not just in design but any form of communication, it will get increasingly simpler until there is basically nothing but social convention to tell things apart. People need more intellectual credit – remember there are companies out there marketing to you with the same assumption that you are a simpleton, how does that make you feel?

What we need is a world of more intelligent brand exclusivity, your product or service will not apply to everyone, so instead concentrate on the one’s that it does. These limitations will provide creative opportunity, as Bob Gill says, “Limits are possibilities”.

He added in the hand to the microchip company’s brand because it needed to be printed onto a skyscraper, else it would have been a 2pt weight font. This is when a logo steps out of its shell and into branding.

Lynx does a great job of audience targeting, marketing to young adults the idea of sexual attraction by scent. Of course Lynx is not something your accomplished golfer would wear is it? It works so strongly at marketing to young men that even nans know to buy it at Christmas for their grandson’s. Hopefully it’s not a piece of encouragement from the older generation for their descendants to regularly copulate with the opposite sex, hopefully, but at the very least they know it’s used when flirting with girls. Lynx’s branding is therefore quite specific to their audience, with the sharp edges and strong masculine indicators. Their individual products have exciting variations and flashy new packaging that differentiates itself from other aerosol canned brands. Effectively Lynx offends people, especially women I believe, which creates a brand that testosterone fuelled adolescents want to align with, let them be a little bad.

She won’t, unfortunately. The sheer notion that women would come crashing down around young guys, gulping on their energy drinks, because they smell good is just insane, but their market doesn’t think so.

Now how does this all apply to you? Well most business advisors will start off by saying, “Know your market”. Let’s assume you do, what do you know about them? What do they like to do, what do they like to wear, go, play, see, eat, drink, etc. Find a little nuance that really sticks with your target audience and exploit it. Don’t just make yourself look like you belong in a particular market sector, look like you define it! People crave to be different, to question themselves and what matters to them. Do you think people really drink coke because of its myriad health benefits? (top-tip, there are none) No, they do it because it’s a social convention; it’s the people’s social drink. You’ve surely seen all those sixteen year olds walking around in crowds drinking energy drinks right? Why? Because it looks like they are drinking beer! They want appear older, more developed and sort of naughty that they’re doing it in public. Nobody likes the taste of energy drinks! It’s a big projection thing, people use brands as way of identifying themselves, as a way of belonging. And that is usually in-tune with what that particular brand stands for, what does your brand stand for?

Monster Energy promotes the high-octane life-style via sponsorship, because this is what their market is passionate about, so therefore they are too.

The most common branding exercise for companies exists in colour, they align themselves with a certain colour for its particular social meaning and to identify with a certain ethos. Green is eco to a lot of people, but it is also a colour that makes you more creative, so why let the colour be the thing that defines your brand when it could mean so many other things?

How much of this surprised you? This is what I refer to as “washing-out a meaning”.

Your brand will have things that make it unique outside of its features or offerings. All businesses have a starting point, and that is usually you. Why did you start the company, what need is it addressing? Your reasons for it existing may be because you wanted something to exist that didn’t, like Gummee Glove, and decided to create it. Usually if you want something, so do other people, they may not know it yet though.

Gummee Glove’s success comes from solving a problem that so many young families have, that had no real solution, until now.

Effectively you should have a story, and if Disney is anything to go by, everyone loves a good story. You should use branding to tell that story, which is where branding becomes so much more than just a logo. It’s the feeling that your company inspires in others, even if your company isn’t consumer facing, you can still invoke loyalty in those who buy from you, even if your ethos is about making things straight-forward for busy people, it still matters to them that you understand that need and deliver on it.

To me, those who do well, those that you remember, are always the one’s that are brave enough to do something different. Those who act like leaders, not those who stumble along to social convention and changing trends, they fade into the noise of everyone else doing the same. Companies can invoke passion in people, and operating in Cornwall, where everything is about communal growth and development, where is the harm in sharing that passion? We are at liberty to make a difference here, to not play by the rules the rest of the country has settled into so comfortably. We can be the one’s that bring about the change everyone has been asking for. So why just be simple when you can be so much more?

Design makes people believe in your brand.

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Change alone is perpetual, eternal, immortal.