Design by numbers

Published:  March 13, 2012
Hugh Edwards
Design by numbers

In response to a previous desktop article, The logo isn’t dead, Hugh Edwards discusses ‘brand fatigue’ and ‘death by design’.

Brands have been around for well over half a century in the advertising community and in less than two decades, designers have abused and misused the word to the point where it has numerous and conflicting meanings. As the only synonym that can be used for ‘brand’, in the context we use it, is ‘personality’, then defining a brand is as diverse, changeable and complex as any individual personality.

However, when broken down into two simple components, brand identity and brand personality, it’s relatively easy to clarify. Brand identity, predominantly the domain of the designer, traditionally included the company logo/symbol, applied to a range of collateral and forming a corporate identity. An advertising agency would then handle the advertising components for electronic, press and print, creating a personality through mass communication. And then, quite apart from the technology, it started to change.

Slowly, and primarily under the guise of brand management, complete with a plethora of buzz words that said a lot but meant very little, designers began to design every possible and conceivable aspect of a client’s marketing and promotional collateral. This was the rise of the clone designers who created templates for anything and everything. No longer did we have to think. Simply follow the now monolithic style guide and use the templates to create and reinforce the brand.

Tone of voice is written down. Photographic style and content is set in stone. A palette of primary and secondary colours is established. Fonts are selected, customised and even renamed. Need a DL brochure, PPT template, email signature, pull up banner or a quarter page press ad? All you have to do is simply refer to our brand manual as it’s a panacea for all visual and written communications and it’s all beautifully designed and packaged. Vary slightly from these rules and regulations and the marketing police pounce. “You naughty little designer, you’ve broken our rules, now go back and follow them.” Sort of flies in the face of the first rule of design, which is, learn the rules so you can break them.

What has unintentionally been created is corporate camouflage, primarily as this uniform approach to design does not allow for, or tolerate, differentiation or variation and consequently is completely devoid of any personality whatsoever. It reminds me of the old paint by numbers presents relatives used to give me when I was a kid, when they heard that I liked to draw and paint. Fortunately, I never used them.

In one of those situations where you are dictated by global identities, we recently put together some posters and pull up banners for a client utilising their international brand identity templates. The client was horrified with the final result, exclaiming, “but they all look the same.” Unfortunately that’s the misguided result of design brand management masquerading as a complete visual manifestation of identity.

This is not a problem with the logo/symbol as that’s merely the identification of who the product or service is available from. However, when designers attempt to control the layout principles and tone and manner of content for a client, they’re predetermining the brief with a one style fits all mentality. While the cornerstone of corporate design is the consistent application of identifiable elements, these need to be carefully considered in conjunction with the overall brand so that like any personality, it can be nurtured and adapted to suit the increasing modes of communication that are available. Otherwise, future briefs will be superfluous as it will simply be a matter of referring to the manual, page 22, see format style 2.1.7.

An excellent example of a flexible and developing brand is the Brisbane City Council identity. Basically, this consists of a blue and yellow cleat on the left hand side, logo at the base and on double-sided or multi-page publications, a colour panel on the back page to include all the mandatories. While they have a corporate font, this is only mandatory for body copy. Content and fonts are left up to the discretion of the designer/art director as long as the creative solution is relevant to the brief. This functions in developing the brand holistically, primarily as the identification remains strong while the creative execution can appear corporate, artistic, educational, informative, youthful, or institutional as required.

While templates do have a function within corporate design, they’re really a guide to enable others to copy something accurately. So the next time you consider designing one for a client, ask yourself, ’are you actually building the brand or merely designing another piece of brand fatigue?’

Thumbnail image: supplied by Hugh Edwards.

One Response

  1. Corbin

    Excellent and well thought out article Hugh. I work in an LED signage agency. Our medium works best with black/dark backgrounds on a limited space. The amount of times I have had the brand nazis stick their brand guidelines in my face stating it NEEDS to be on white, it NEEDS this much space around the logo, we CANNOT reverse the colours, etc is just ridiculous. The end result is a message that is illegible and does no justice to their marketing efforts.

    Thank you for standing up to the world’s brand zombies.

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