“Design” and “Brand”
You hear these words a lot these days, and oftentime in the same sentence. How do they relate? By Shawn Hazen
“Design” is now a word in the popular vocabulary. It’s almost achieved the rarified (and unfortunate) status of “buzz word”. This is a recent development and is due in large part to companies like Ikea and Target that have elevated design—and designers—to a selling point. It’s sinking in that design has a quantifiable “value.” And consumers actually expect good design now. So even if a service-oriented company doesn’t offer products that are “designed” there are still numerous ways that good design can impact the customer experience: printed pieces, signage, the Web, the logo, and so on.
Wait, what exactly is design?
Simply put, design is the “art” of “communication”. The designer’s job first and foremost is to use their visual expertise to convey and enhance a message. The message can be very specific, in which case clarity might be the priority. If the message is more intangible, as is the case with branding, the approach may need to be more evocative. It’s amazing what people pick up on—color, type size, material—that will make them think “these guys really have their act together” or “this is really high-end”. When it comes to branding, design is processed on a very subconscious level: the primary goal is simply to leave an impression in the customer’s mind.
When I was a designer at Chronicle Books, I would hear “wait, so you took the photos?” It’s hard for many people to understand that graphic design is a very specialized craft. As is true of architects, we don’t initiate the projects we work on, we give form to other people’s projects. The form is based on sensitivity to how people interact with the medium—paper, TV, what have you—and how to best represent the message in that context. If clarity is the driving force, we develop layout grids to organize information for maximum understanding. If impact is the driving force, we create look and feel to achieve that elusive “wow factor”. Like architects, graphic designers have are experts, with a special perspective and set of skills.
Even though I defined it as an “art”, graphic design has a lot of rules, for everything from the optimal width for a column of text to how best to crop a photo. The rules are based on visual science, geometry, human factors, and like most things, centuries of trial and error. It’s how to implement and selectively bend the rules that constitutes a designer’s expertise—and their creativity. And once they’re bent to good effect, they become new rules: rules for your visual brand. Consistency across campaigns or identities is always paramount—we implement everything with one eye on the larger system. Designers are trained to create order not only on a given page, but between all the various visual elements a company puts out into the world.
So, design is more than just style, yet it is still often regarded as ephemeral. But it needn’t be, especially when designing an identity. Think of a logo, any logo. There’s a good chance you thought of something that’s been around a long time. Long-lived logos that are “timeless” are the holy grail for identity designers. Take the GE logo or the Morton Salt logo: both very “of their time” and stylized, but they have been implemented intelligently, deliberately, and with consistency. They have been subtly modified over the years with expert sensitivity. It’s this thorough and pragmatic approach to the application of an identity—or any visual component of a brand—that we strive for.
So, what’s a brand then?
“Brand” has also become a buzz word recently. The biggest misconception about branding is that it’s just the corporate identity or just an ad campaign. Those are only one part of a larger system that permeates everything within a company. A brand can be whether you have a presence in the community outside of your business pursuits, the subject line of emails you send to your customers, the carpet in your office, and the orientation packet you give new employees.
This last point is another big misconception: branding isn’t just how you talk to your customers, but also your employees. Office “culture” is a popular concept these days and if culture is a part of a company, as such it has to be a part of the brand. Communication within an organization should be consistent with the overall brand. Moreover, the employees should understand how the brand works and feel ownership of it.