Examining the challenges and opportunities to stand out in today’s market
Designing a brand or re-energizing an existing brand is one of the best projects you can work on, especially if everything goes right. when handled by professionals, and when viewed in hindsight, great branding projects appear effortless—every piece just falls in place and the extensions of the design language build texture, not complexity. The reality is that branding is like all great magic tricks.
When you master them, they appear easy, but hidden out of sight is all of the hard work it took to get there.
Reducing an organization down to a few base elements that will endure changes in aesthetics, technology and economics is no easy task. For every inch of creative freedom you are given, there are three inches of constraints.
While never an easy task, I do believe today’s designers face challenges that are unique. We find ourselves in a tsunami of change on the cultural front, the economic front and of course the technological front.
We live in a very different visual landscape than we did as little as 10 years ago. That’s a challenge and a blessing for the working designer, a chance to escape the gravity of what came before. We are solving different problems, so we should be creating different answers.
Instead of creating another list of the top branding/identity trends, lets look at what forces are changing the outcome of designers and brands. What are some of the challenges we face that might produce a different outcome?
Too many brands
There has never been a more branded world than the one you live in now. The fact that any brands stand out is a minor miracle. But branding is not just about standing out and communication, ultimately it’s about ownership. We brand things as a way of owning an idea, a promise, an expectation. Remember that when you are designing, you can’t own an idea with a borrowed aesthetic.
Make the logo smaller
We used to have to fight to make a logo smaller, but the rise in digital and mobile technologies has created a need for brands to shrink to sizes no client would ever agree to in past years. We are viewing more brands on small screens and they have to fit into the “app” universe. This means identities have to be created so they can feel proprietary at these really reduced sizes. Sounds simple enough, but that is a very small canvas for a world full of brands to find differentiation in.
Many of you may have noticed the latest version of Facebook features a tiny little “f ” in the top left corner. For many consumers this will be the version of the logo they see most. The blue box of the original logo now lives as the nav bar and the “f ” is reversed out of a white square.
We have seen a similar change in the twitter identity. The blue “t” has been replaced by the more unique bird icon. We will likely see more of this kind of small scale differentiation.
Reinvention of legacy brands
Some of the world’s most legendary brands are finding themselves feeling dusty or out of sync with where their audiences are now. This is one of those moments when you have to change just to stay the same. The Levi’s rebrand by Turner Duckworth and the
accompanying “Go Forth” ad campaign by Wieden + Kennedy is one of my favourites.
They went back to the beginning and distilled the brand to its most basic elements. They mined the roots of the brand and reminded us Levi’s are bigger than fashion: they are the spirit of youth; they are the hard work that built the country; they are democratic.
I love how they created a visual language that is identifiable. The graphic strength of this stripped-down work still has enough texture to be interesting in different applications. It feels fresh, but at the same time it is authentic to the brand. For me it made Levi’s feel relevant.
It’s hard to believe we used to be able to launch work into the world without an immediate flurry of commentary in social media and design blogs. I, for one, don’t think this kind of conversation is making branding work better, even when I agree the work is not good. Why? Because it will only make rand managers and design firms more conservative in what they do. There are already so few clients who are willing to take a risk on work that pushes the boundaries, and the threat of a public flogging on the internet is not going to increase those numbers.
The famous reversal of the new Gap logo was a new phenomenon when it happened, but that dynamic is commonplace today. In our market the Mountain Equipment Co-op identity created by Concrete was the latest to stir up the trolls.
Yahoo has come up with an interesting way to launch an identity in the social age. In early August they began launching a new logo every day for 30 days, building up to the actual redesigned Yahoo logo. It’s sure to fan the conversation and get a fair bit of PR play, and it might just create some “Troll fatigue” before the final logo premieres.
Morphing as a core element
Why confine yourself to the rules of the static world when your logo lives most of its life on a screen? The Google logo is a fantastic example of a logo that uses its high rotation as a chance to give a gift to the user. You see the logo at least once a day, so
Google changes it up to give you an unexpected smile by linking the logo with what might be a popular/relevant search that day. This is an approach that wasn’t scalable in the pre-digital world (though newspapers could have done it).
The logo in tribute to Les Paul (left) was one of my favourites, especially since the logo could be played like a guitar.
I think we are going to see more brands embrace the chance to push the parameters of what makes a logo brandable. Its going to be fun to see behaviours and motion added to the design standards.
Rise of the amateurs
There was a time when you were the author of a brand’s visual identity, but social media has created a situation where consumers are active contributors to the visual landscape of a brand. They are uploading their videos and photos, they are hashtagging their Instagram feeds with your brand name and taglines. In fact, they are producing more content and imagery than you might be.
The smart designers are the ones who are going to be looking for ways to harness and integrate this into the fabric of the brand’s design language, because brands are going to want to get credit for their social media status. The rules are open on this one, I have not seen many people do it well, yet.
Make it simple, and take me seriously
Okay, I lied, this one is a trend. Logos seem to be getting more pared down and simplified. It might be a little bit of an Apple effect, but it’s likely a desire to look modern and confident. The recent changes to the Microsoft and Ebay logos are a part of this trend. They have given up some of their quirkier elements and replaced them with very stripped down logos. In fact we even saw the twitter bird redesigned to look a little less quirky/awkward.
Barry Quinn is a founding partner at Juniper Park in Toronto.