Ask 20 people what design means and you will get 30 answers. Ask them what branding means, and you will get 40. For some time now, design hasn’t been neither about simplicity, nor problem-solving, nor aesthetics. It used to occupy the sweet spot between science and art, taking enough philosophy from both worlds, but now we’re drowning in overly complicated frameworks and processes.
It’s not only branding we’re overcomplicating
Whereas art and science are hard, designing a webpage exactly like every other one or telling companies that they need to do what Airbnb or Uber is doing, is pretty easy. The aftermath? We ended up having designers in abundance, but design is about problem-solving, (remember?), so we went on to solve the problem of abundance by inventing overly complicated-sounding job titles to make sure we stand out from the crowd. We’re Product & User Experience Designers having no clue what our audience experiences on a daily basis. We’re Brand Strategy Designers, having no idea what this means. We’re Product Growth Designers, currently in search of a product to sell to justify that self-made title. We’re Digital UI Motion and Visual Branding Designers, because… well because those are some trending hashtags on Dribbble and LinkedIn. We’re Ethical Designers applying for jobs at Google or Facebook, to make a positive change while working together with racist AI’s and for white, hetero, male CEOs. Don’t judge us for being creative and wanting to create all the time, judge yourself for not being cool enough to come up with your own job title. Maybe Designer Job Title Designer is a good future-proof design discipline, or is there a designer-titles-auto-generator that takes a bunch of overused-in-meetings words and turns them into a job title? If there is, sign me out of this digital world of ours.
Anyway, we’re overcomplicating our own job titles, which is very ironic, seeing how design is mostly about creative problem-solving. Too much emphasis on creative, and too little on problem-solving I would say. So now we’re just creating problems that need solving, not solving problems already there. We’re not only overcomplicating our job titles but everything we do. A few days ago I was interested in what those mystical design figures have to say about branding, so I went on a wisdom journey throughout Medium, and boy, am I way more confused now than I was before. Here is what wisdom Medium holds on branding:
There is a utilitarian designer (job title explanation included in the article) telling you that branding in UI is basically having a colorful app splash screen (too bad if you don’t have an app then) and a confetti plugin to make those annoying pop-ups pop up more. There are marketing peeps out there telling you that (surprise, surprise!) Airbnb & Uber succeed because of their color usage, so now go on being like them, doing what they did. Brand Design Leads telling about their branding process consisting of — step one — get visual inspiration on the internet, step two — design 150+ logos of the same thing, step 3 — create stickers. Tada! Branding. Design agencies tell you that after some research you need to start designing a logo and put it on today's must-haves — business cards, T-shirts, and other useless things like pens, cars, keychains, etc. Other people, with very simple job titles (🙌🏽), are telling you that brands are going to be flexible (because… have you heard of what Netflix is doing?) and give examples of how the tech industry is basically a copy-paste of each other's logos. But the article’s still missing the point of branding and what to do with this information. All of these are.
I’m not trying to undermine those individuals' views on branding and colors and logos and logos on T-shirts. What I’m saying is, there is almost nothing to learn from what we, the designers, have to say on branding. Copy-paste would be the best thing you can do after reading these (and for that matter almost all) articles. So for years, we have been in the copy-paste culture and now we write articles on “Why do all companies have the same logos?” and when we land a branding project, we start by designing a logo that fits into this list. Have you ever noticed how almost every (design-related) article on Medium is a “How-to” or “Why you should….’ or something number-related, like “5 trends to…”, “6 ways to…”, “7 steps to…”.
So, before talking about splash screens, colors psychology, and other not-so-useful things, let’s take a few steps back to see the bigger picture.
The branding of branding
Not so long ago, a bunch of people used to own cattle. Person X owned a bunch of cows and person Y owned a bunch as well, and there was a problem. How do you know which cattle is yours and which is your neighbors? A bunch of Cowboy Cattle Branding Designers came to the rescue and solved the problem by proposing a wait to brand your name into the flesh of an animal. This way, everyone will know it’s yours. So far, so good. I mean.. definitely not good for the poor animals, but so far, so clear at least.
That worked like a charm but then came the industrial revolution and the production of almost everything was booming. All of the sudden, cattle became bacon and burgers that you can sell at grocery stores and restaurants. But how do you make sure people know it’s your stuff, and your stuff is better than someone else’s stuff? With branding. Different products could have the same name and symbols on them and people would know that it is the same person or company producing those. The American Dream was born, the Mad Men era has begun. Together with the baby boom, the Western world say a brand boom as well.
Very soon, colorful brands were a ubiquitous part of our lives. Everything we purchased had a name on it. Brands were everywhere and we loved them. Why? Because those packaged fake dreams had beautiful stories to tell. They will pop up on TV & radio (also a very novel and interesting development back in the days) and they will tell you stuff. So next time when you entered a store, maybe, hopefully, you will spot something familiar from the TV and you will feel a bit special when you purchase it. See, people have this weird fascination with things seen on TV, like other people doing their job (celebrities like actors or TV hosts for one) or a product that interrupted your favorite show or opera to sell you soap (hence — soap operas). This fascination with seeing stuff on TV is still present, that’s why influencers, celebs gossip platforms, and the constant urge to create content is now a thing. So far, so clear. Right?
Why are we overcomplicating branding nowadays?
Because branding doesn’t really exist. Companies exist. Products exist. People purchasing those products exist. But branding — it’s just the art of saying and defining “mine”. The gap between ‘my product’ and ‘your solution’ is what we’ve grown to call branding. And all fancy frameworks, how-tos, processes, and never-ending-PDFs aside, branding is about two things and two things only. Consistency and storytelling. Well, it’s actually about one thing, a consistent story.
When creating something that does not exist, you have to make it exist in people’s minds. You have to make it a thing, very tangible even though it isn’t. Seeing how important storytelling has been for human survival, it’s an extremely powerful tool to use in this case. So much research has been done on the power of storytelling and by now, one thing is sure –
That’s why we love movies, music, books. For our brain on movies makes us live the life we’ve never lived. When a fictional character dies, we cry, even though we know that this same person is still alive, awaiting his/her Oscar. When something scary happens, we are terrified. When something funny happens, we laugh. Storytelling is extremely powerful.
If you are a company, offering whatever product or service, you want to have control over the story that people will tell themselves about you. That’s where consistency plays a very big role.
If you can make 100 people think the same thought about your product, branding is achieved. To create a strong, resonating story you can start from within with endless brainstorms sessions hold in too small cubicles with too many people in there, but then how do you know if that story will stick with people? How do you even know who those people are? It takes generations to build an empire like the one's Apple, Coca Cola, Nike etc. have built. The problem? Your boss is probably too impatient to wait generations to see it happening. You probably as well. So before any strategy, brand core, identity, or whatsoever is made and put into keynotes and presented to stakeholders, it’s our job, as designers, to go speak to real people and hear their stories. The false assumption that a bunch of data on demographics will do the trick is one of the main reasons why so many brands, products, and campaigns fail. They’re not telling the right story. The second reason for failure? They are not being consistent with the story.
There are many different car brands, and although all of them make the same thing, a box on wheels, we all perceive them differently, don’t we? Because car brands are not about what a car can do, which is bring you from place A to place B, they are about how a car should make you feel. If you want the ultimate driving experience, you get a BMW or an Audi. If you want safety you get a Volvo or maybe a VW Beetle? If you want status and to let the world know that you have a lot of money, you buy a Lamborghini or a Bugatti or whatever. No one is confused about that. A multi-billionaire will not incidentally purchase a Skoda, and there is a reason why many people fantasize about owning a Ferrari, even though they might already have a car that can bring them wherever they want. Each car brand owns a different spot in our minds.
Soulless processes become soulless brands
Different frameworks can be useful as guidelines in a (re)branding project. Mission and vision statements, values, positioning, colors and typography guidelines, and many, many more, are just guidelines that have one very clear purpose — keep the consistency. For smaller start-ups with big dreams, it’s easier to tell a consistent story, because the whole company started from the urge to change something for the better and it’s difficult to forget to mention that from time to time. For bigger companies and corporates, articulating one consistent vision or thought is much more complicated. With thousands of people working there, everyone is too opinionated on what the brand should say, how it should say it, and the ‘why’ has been usually forgotten generations ago. So then you need to assemble a branding team that will keep the quality and consistency going. Every decision starts to take months to be made, with too many stakeholders having something to say about it. Rebranding one of these companies takes a lot of time, sweat, tears, and modern-day sacrifices. Not only because of so many people being involved in so many decisions but also because of the overly complicated state of design processes.
If we focus too much on frameworks and processes one thing will be inevitable — the power of the storytelling will be lost. Another thing that will happen if you focus too much on those frameworks is– you will probably become seasick, there are too many arrows leading to too many circles 👀. It’s a maze we’ve created for ourselves. There is no storytelling in Excel sheets, just numbers that you can tweak to tell whatever you want them to tell. There is no story in a 20+ page document about guidelines of how to use and how not to use the logo. So, if you really want to know the first thing about branding, know that it is about a consistent story that will either make people relate to it or not relate to it. Those that relate will probably become your brand ambassadors and keep the story going by telling people around them about it. Those that will not relate to it — let them be and let them go, don’t do the stupid mistake of wanting to appeal to EVERYONE by constantly changing and tweaking the story, that will harm your brand way more than heal it.
And one more takeaway that I want to give to everyone (especially fancy titled designers) is this — You have way more power in shaping the future of brands than you probably realize, so make sure to also have some principles about which companies you will work for and with, and which not, because bad and even ugly & evil brands exist, let’s not feed the monsters but focus on ambition and a better future for ourselves.
I hope that this article will bring a bit of perspective to things. It’s not the usual ‘How-to’ or ‘Why you should..’ so it ends with a still unanswered question. I guess it’s our own individual job to reflect on it and answer it for ourselves.