Considering this isn’t a particularly common word, it might be easier to start off with its dictionary definition:
1. Easily managed or controlled; docile; yielding: “a tractable disposition.”
2. Easily worked, shaped, or otherwise handled; malleable.
This word was going to be ‘tangible’ for a short while, but we didn’t feel it hit the mark the way tractable does, considering tangibility concerns things that are easily conceivable. Had we used ‘tangible,’ this section would have encouraged design to be less abstract to explain, but that is the whole point of RITUAL, after all; Thus the T became more about adaptability and malleability, allowing for change in design without having to totally rework an existing identity. Strategies need to be in place during the early stages of design to ensure this happens properly. At the moment, not enough thought is going into this area.
A generic example.
Let’s say down the line you add a new product to your company, you have an established brand and successful line of produce with blue, laser-cut packaging – The kind that lets you see the product. They look good with the small range of colours you have in play, as per your brand. One day, however, you get in a new line of products that are vivid green in colour; these would sell tremendously well but look horrid against the blue label, perhaps enough to hurt your eyes. You consider changing the label colour to white, the other colour in your brand’s palette, but you’re worried the white and green combo would send out an eco-friendly message, possibly making it look as if you were selling soap, and thus totally misalign with your audience. Not to mention that your logo is white on blue; such a simple logo could easily be mistaken for another if the colours were changed.
This is the sort of thing that could have been solved by testing the limits of the design before launching it. If you were shown what would have happened in various eventualities – such as how different colours would have reacted - then the decision could have been made to make the design more tractable, instead of only relying on one affordance of change. When you add in more products or services to your line, they want to naturally fit in. If it feels difficult to work with, then your branding isn’t tractable.
Often, this happens because designers put together a concept that they want to make sure ‘looks nice,’ usually accommodating one style or colour over another because it looks best to them. They do it with signifiers too, just so their concept looks a particular way for a certain audience. If just one thing about it changes, the whole visual identity falls on its face. Under these circumstances, tractability is sometimes not even considered. Designers, as well as those who come up with their own branding who aren’t creative professionals, are far too precious about their ideas. We’ve met several before who start with great enthusiasm for a project, the kind you see when you first talk with one. After they show off some concepts, their ego is quickly crushed by new suggestions or criticism. They don’t defend their ideas and their integrity is washed away, they slump into misery instead. Seriously, any small change is taken as an attack on their design ability or way of thinking. Most designers can’t handle criticism, and depression hits creatives very hard and very easily. While their work is often emotive or even soulful, they require praise to make it all feel worthwhile. This is why you see a lot of creative work generated as a hobby; all they want is for people to like it so they can feel good about themselves.
When it comes to design, the creator incorrectly treats work as ‘art’ in the Damien Hirst sense. Art is a subjective minefield of rule-less interpretation. This is not good enough when it comes to design for business, which ultimately is about making money to improve the livelihood of every working soul in the organization. Businesses don’t have the time to work around someone’s personal inflictions; nor should they, especially when that person is being paid to work in a professional capacity.
"All they want is for people to like it so they can feel good about themselves."
So when developing a brand, bear in mind change; if the creative outcome can’t hold up to modification and the designer is throwing a wobbly that doesn’t come close to saving the idea, then start again.
Everything becomes nothing.
When does something become so changeable that it stops being Tractable? As an example, we see a lot of white, bare websites that are merely online pieces of would-be print material. The reason such a simplistic approach is not worthy of the Tractable title is because a white website could accommodate any change. The thing is, if you can do anything with it, it has no real visual identity, nothing that makes it a brand. Brands have limitations in order to address what they are not, so that they can control the signifiers the visual identity has. An accountant (of all people) referred to this kind of approach as “inoffensive;” the designers create something everyone will like so nobody has anything negative to say – which we know they couldn’t handle.
What’s also important to remember is that visual identity’s affordances and signifiers are not dictated by colour alone. There are multiple devices that make up a brand, such as typefaces and shapes. If, for example you had a series of alcoholic spirits that all used the same typeface and colour but each had different bottle shapes, you could have a unified but clearly different range of products. One doesn’t have to be blue, and the other red, and then a yellow one too, because you might find yourself dabbling in connotations that way, it stops being about the brand and becomes about the colours themselves.
Iron Man is an example of a brand; a damn good example of one, actually. The man in metal doesn’t depend on one colour scheme for his brand to be recognizable. He has a go-to gold and red, just out of preference, but if a situation permitted changing this out it wouldn’t stop him being identified as Iron Man. Even the shape on the chest, where the arc-rector that powers his suit is located, changes from time to time, but still the glowing white core maintains its presence. Most commonly, the facial shape remains largely the same. This is interesting because Iron Man is a character as opposed to a product. Human faces, always being different, are what distinguish us from each other; Iron Man’s face is what makes him recognizable. In the example with “Mark 40” having the most combined differences from the rest of the armours, it isn’t as easy to associate with him, especially if I had shown that one on its own. But most notably in this example the face is different, designed for high-velocity flying and thus utilizing an aerodynamic form. Iron Man has several devices in play that keep to his brand. Having all of these devices in play at once: the red and gold; the arc reactor; the iconic face, is when the brand recognition is at its strongest.
What is useful to take away from this, is remembering to have a number of affordances. You can change several of them out and keep the others the same to establish some variety, but make too many changes and it loses the association with the original form and thus, the brand. You will need variations when (like Tony’s suits) your company performs different functions. Design needs to fit around the different parts of your brand, rather than a blanketed approach that merely shows a slight change.
Buy ‘em all!
Whilst being a tractable brand feels like quite an undertaking, it’s actually quite a liberating experience. It means that you can adapt to things without having to worry about people confusing your brand. If you fancied temporarily adopting a pop-culture phenomenon or adding a new offering that would normally sit outside what your company currently does, it wouldn’t destroy the image you’ve built up. One example that I’m too much of a child not to use is the Pokémon games. There now thousands of creatures in those games with so many different consoles to play them on. They have a clear consistency between them, which could be considered difficult to manage, but they’ve had a formula that’s worked for years now.
They clearly belong to the same franchise but each game is clearly different. They don’t always use the same colours or supporting typeface or even character but they’re still recognizable as a series. Interestingly enough, the top row of games are different from the core RPGs; i.e. pinball. The designs here clearly show the games as part of the same franchise, but are different gaming experiences in themselves. A lot of the visual devices are similar, but use a few different methods to suggest a different tone of game.
Whilst it seems somewhat immature to include this as an example, you can’t deny that they are one of the strongest selling franchises in the gaming world. Everyone has been in contact with Pokémon (it’s even in Word’s dictionary) at one point or another and if you were to go out and buy a game, you would have no trouble finding it. But, if you insist on being a snob about it, lets take a more mature example.
How do you design variation into such an expansive range of products without making it look generic and bland? Believe it or not, Tesco Everyday Value presented a fantastically spot-on answer to this. Normally (blame designers for this) the more products in a range, the more colours. But when you have hundreds of different items, colour variation becomes a problem. Instead, by using a limited palette that either fits with the colour of the product or contrasts it, they didn’t have to over-do the amount of colour. The real difference comes in from the decoration, which shows what type of produce it is: fruit, baked goods, cleaning products … the list goes on. They have little icons in each piece that change between the ranges of products. If you cast your mind back to the original Tesco Value range, oppressive blue and clinical white, the items had such disgusting look that nobody felt comfortable having to buy them. With this new line of packaging, the items clearly belong to the same price range; they aren’t embarrassing to buy anymore. I must say – the chocolate digestives are pretty good.
With this new tractable branding, Tesco has created a range that doesn’t rely on the affordance of colour as an exclusive. It has a set of rules that work to establish products as different without having to stretch itself thinly. As a business, relying on one affordance shows that you are either piggy backing off of convention, or you haven’t thought about the connotations of that affordance, or perhaps both instances. You’ll get more on that in the following post: Unique.Disqus