You know those people who say, “Nothing is ever new”? I’d like to hear them explain, with that sorry attempt to excuse their lack of inspiration, how we went from cave paintings to camera phones. Most humans are too comfortable with what they already have to embrace any concept of change. The U.K. is currently run by the Conservative party, for crying out loud. They want things to remain as parallel to “glory days” as possible – blurry years the older generations love to celebrate. But things have changed; we now have the newest generations who are exposed to a world that changes every minute. They are becoming hardwired to accept change rather than resist it. In a world so unpredictable, and yet so easily manipulated, how are we still maintaining traditions and sticking to what has worked in the design and marketing world? Why can’t the people accept that change is inevitable, necessary and to be embraced?
Who’s steering the wheel
The world is being steered by a few key players. I’m not talking about an illuminati conspiracy or anything; it’s far more transparent than that. Right now, aspects of our world (even how we communicate) are being changed by large companies working on an international scale, while governments for the most part are too interested in maintaining their own relatively local power base to effect global change. It’s these companies that take steps to our future, and it isn’t always down to what people think they want. I love the story about Henry Ford of Ford Motors; how, back then, if he’d asked what would make people’s transport solutions better, they would have asked for “faster horses”. Although it disappoints me that most people telling this tale don’t seem to grasp the fundamentally important fact about it: he didn’t ask. If you are not pushing forward with change in your own industry, you are taking a back seat and letting other companies dictate where yours is going. Advances in the world directly impact your brand’s footing within it.
Advancements in visual language are always trend-based. One company starts doing something their own way and all of a sudden the entire industry starts adopting the approach to everything they get their hands on. One particular quote paints this as acceptable behavior: “talent borrows, genius steals.” Really, I think this is another misinterpretation. People love to do that; mankind has been going to war over misinterpretation for centuries. Essentially people read into a text to back up their own understanding of things, projecting meaning onto it that its creator didn’t intend (A great example of this can be found in Rodney Ascher’s fantastic documentary, Room 237). In this particular instance, people believe that they can steal other people’s ideas, call themselves clever for doing it and take credit. Sure, when it comes to solving problems, if there is already a solution that works then it’s pretty dumb to try to work against the grain. But when it comes to visual identity, it isn’t anything close to the same. There are laws in place in England to prevent the deliberate copying of such things. Even in the product world, you wouldn’t copy someone’s line of work as it is protected under IP laws. Yet people who brand companies are still doing it; there’s no imagination or insight coming from the designer. They’re merely copying what has worked for someone else, re-appropriating it and applauding themselves whilst doing so.
"A company has to be new in some way; otherwise what’s the point of it existing?"
Herein lies a problem, though; the vast majority of stakeholders don’t have the vision or imagination to challenge them. To them, these approaches seem like an efficient way of marketing a company. Creativity is too intangible and abstract to even consider bringing in efficiency measures, the two different parties involved are speaking different languages, and they each have different priorities. This is not to blame the stakeholders (the ones “receiving” the design) - they aren’t the creatives, after all; they don’t have the scope to do anything different. And why should they – it’s not their job, after all. To them, the design industry and what it produces are just the way they are. Much in the same way a creative might look at a circuit board for a digital clock and just accept it is the way alarms clocks are, with no inclination to change it because it is what already exists and works. Those who did that new thing first are the trendsetters; people looking to do something in a similar league will go to that working example for inspiration and copy it.
I often get annoyed when people look to already existing designs for inspiration rather than thinking objectively about creative problems (this is especially the case online). The reasoning is, most directly transcribe what they see into their own work and it loses any uniqueness that the idea should have; it becomes a re-appropriated version of someone else’s hard efforts, rather than an insightful and innovative creative outcome.
With so many design agencies adopting the “hello. We’re different, let us tell you how” approach (seriously, look up.) and making no effort to actually be different, I can’t trust that they’re going to do anything differently. To them, it is just the normal way of doing things.
With sites like Pinterest, it’s nice and easy to look at collected, curated work from designers and the like. But I always have this urge to criticize most of the stuff I see; I will slate a corporate brand in person, given the room to do so, but on that website I just can’t. I keep telling myself I should be more critical, though it never happens. What I realize is that people put work out there to be praised and as an offering: “feel free to use this idea in your own work, I hope it helps”. I can’t crush that, even though I should. Design shouldn’t be a place to cut and paste visual material, but it’s actually a requirement in design (and art) education; they call it research. To get the best grades, you would have to take inspiration from an existing piece of work or a particular style and give evidence of how it informed the end result [Ed note: I also took Graphic Design at A-Level and can confirm that this is the absolute truth]. To me, as to all other wannabe designers, this felt like the process at the time; it felt like that was how you should design. It is precisely why I now hate my college work. There was no strategy in place, nothing off-the-leash or – that dread phrase – ‘outside-the-box’. Only the well-behaved would get the best grades, the ones that did what they were told what to do – the fundamental flaw with all education.
If you came here looking for answers, what makes a brand unique, then you won’t find what you seek. By trying to tell you what makes a unique visual identity, I would be defeating the entire point of this article. Instead, I can tell you what not to settle for, as well as where to start.
The same, but different.
Remember that hint of intrigue you get when you come upon something you’ve not seen before? It’s exciting, and moving. Why treat a visual identity any different? After all, the company has to be new in some way; otherwise what’s the point of it existing? It either does something different or better, or it has something other companies lack; whichever it may be, they should still have the authority to call themselves unique and thus have a bespoke visual identity to match. See, most people head into branding a company thinking about its similarities with companies of the like and not what makes it different – we call this ‘sector-trapping’. This is the notion that all design created for the brand must follow suit with other companies in that sector. It’s especially true of eco-companies, who all need to be green and have leaves just in case you were under any impression they hated the Earth.
Following what other sectors do makes it easier to communicate ideals with pre-existing signifiers, as with before, this approach lacks any real insight. Should all things change (like we find out green makes people pass-out or something equally trivial) you would find yourself needing to fork out for a rebrand. Design should stand the test of time; it needs to be lasting to become iconic. So if everyone is off doing the same thing you’ve got room to play, a lot of room.
Rationalise, rationalise, rationalise.
What you have to remember is that if you are doing something out-there it needs to maintain some relevance to your company. Making sure that it actually means something to the company, rather than some wacky/quirky crap that claims to have depth but is instead totally meaningless. A lot of designers use away of discovering ideas from within the company by looking to the company history. This “Brand Story” is the design industry’s most recent effort to find some nuance within a company in which they can build a design concept around. They are a good way of delivering an emotional investment into a brand; the catch is actually having a good story. If your reason for starting a company is “there was a gap in the market” and not delivering on a life-long passion, you might find people care less. A good origin story is compelling and often speaks of hardships faced or a genuine need for what the company does/offers.
Innocent Smoothies have a pretty darn good origin story, I’m not about to tell you all of it, but it talks of friendship and a humble passion, which has now changed the healthy digestive habits of several million people. The friendly notion informed the language the brand uses whilst it never screams for attention with its humble, minimalist design. Obviously this exact type of approach has been mimicked after several years of Innocent being on the market, but at least Innocent had a good reason to be that way in the first way.
So, keep in mind when branding a company that if you’re not doing anything different, it’s not really worth doing it at all. The answers to what make a company different rest within those founding it and sharing passions is thoroughly encouraged.Disqus