“Could you make the logo bigger?”. This is the most common client objection I get and I’m sure it’s the same thing for most designers too. It is a fact that clients overestimate the value of their logo in relation to their brand. They want it everywhere, on their website, social media content, merch, stationary, etc… If it wasn’t too much, they’d have it tattoed on the necks of their employees!
Why Do brands have logos
A logo is the first piece of identification for a brand. For most people, it’s synonymous with the brand itself. It’s so much so that many people don’t even know the difference. So let’s get a few things clear
Your logo is not your brand
Yes, up until as recent as the twentieth century, a logo was literally a symbol on the other end of a branding iron. Branding meant literally putting your logo on stuff for people to know it’s yours.
It turns out that the term “brand” derives from the Old Norse word “brandr” or “to burn,” and refers to the practice of branding livestock, which dates back more than 4,000 years to the Indus Valley, in the northwestern regions of South Asia, somewhere around modern-day Pakistan. It used to be just cattle, but it spread to be used on packaging items such as wooden boxes, leather patches, and paper sacks. A branding agency in the elder days would’ve been a forge shop that manufactures logos and puts them at the other end of a stick.
However, today, a brand is so much more than an identity system. It has to do with value, status, reason, and emotion.
“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”_Seth Godin
So no, a brand is no longer just a logo, but a logo still has the same basic premise. Telling which people made this.
A logo is about identification
Sagi Haviv is a world-renown logo designer and a partner in the design firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. These are the guys responsible for some of the world’s most recognizable logos. He says that logos are for identification, not communication. At heart, a logo’s job is to tell us with whom we’re dealing and make sure we don’t confuse them with their competitors or anybody else for that matter.
However, I feel the need to highlight the fact that just because a logo’s primary goal is to identify, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t communicate. If we look at CGH’s clients, they’re large corporations with established communication outreaches so it makes sense why their logos don’t have to bear the burden of telling people about a company. However, this might not be the case with my clients and your clients.
A very simple way of demonstrating this is with luxury brands. Have you ever been walking in a mall and you stumbled upon a new shop, a brand that you’ve never seen before. Have you ever made the decision to not go in because it looked too expensive? Or did you go in and see the price tags and made that “I knew it” smirk? Logos do play a communication role, but that’s not their immediate role.
Why logos aren’t sufficient
So yes, a logo is your identification champion. The problem though is that it is easily detachable. I don’t mean physically. I mean that a logo and the item on which it’s placed are two sperate things and the link between them is as feeble as the glue holding together
The point is that when your users or customers are interacting with your brand, they’re in direct contact with the value proposition you’re supposed to be giving, not the shell. It is, therefore, necessary for us to build brand identity into the offer(product/service) itself. that means thinking of identifiers not as something we stick on our offer, but parts of the offer itself.
Brand Identity is not limited to sensory perception. It transcends the visual, audible and tactile to the essence of what makes a brand stand out
Visual identity though is the part of brand identity that is related to visual perception, the things we directly see. We’re going to take it from there and go up in abstraction levels and see how identifier become one with the brand
An abstraction level is a classification that takes into account how specific vs abstract an item is. The higher the abstraction level, the stronger the identifier is, but the more time it takes to benefit from. The lower the abstraction level, the more direct the results, yet the tighter the applications can be.
Low abstraction level brand identifiers:
This is the obvious stuff. It’s basically deliverables of your entry-level “branding” job.
As we discussed, The logo is the first identifier that comes to mind. Earlier brands used to just write the name of the company or person making the product for a logo. They didn’t use symbols. Those are called Wordmarks or LogoTypes.
In general, there seems to be a trend of going back to this approach. Think Instagram, Google, Pinterest, Uber, etc… Wordmarks give a direct tie to the name as opposed to something abstract like the Toyota Logo for instance. They have proven to be more “time-proof”. There are also Monotypes which are just letters instead of the whole words. Examples include Luis Vuitton, General Electric and the New York Yankees.
And then you have the colors. Some brands have just monopolized some colors to the point that you probably can guess identify them just by looking at the color palette
Color is not just about the palette. We can also talk about color grading which is essentially a way of modifying the colors of a picture. The perfect example of this is CocaCola’s photography.
Admittedly, there’s a lot going on to the CocaCola photography than just the color grade. The choice of subject, the diversity, the feel, the way it’s all about family and friends, how wholesome it is… These are just some of the things that go into it. But the color grade plays a big role too!
Aside from that, you have brand patterns. Patterns reinforce brand recognition on larger scales without being too obtrusive. They’re great on merch, stationery, and signage. Clothing is one of the perfect applications for patterns.
The great think about these low abstraction level identifiers is that they’re easy to use. If you have just the slightest bit of taste, you can probably arrange them to the delight of your customer and still get great identification. The downside is that since they’re so simple, they’re easy to replicate and they can make you look like everyone else. The even worse news is that they are to varying degrees things you stick on your offer, they’re not part of the offer itself.
High abstraction level brand identifiers
A design language is not a design system. It’s an even more abstract concept that governs how every product, service and interaction looks and feels
Many designers have probably been in this situation: you can’t get your work to look perfectly alike. Whether you’re a photographer, illustrator, editor or animator, chances are then when you first started out, your work wasn’t really consistent in style. We’re not talking good or bad. We’re talking consistency. It’s easy to make similar things look alike right? Because it’s basically duplication. But when you want to play around with the compositions, spice up the color palette, try new subjects, explore new patterns, it gets really tough doesn’t it? But we can all look to any piece of work by Monet and tell it’s Monet even though we didn’t take a contemporary art class at CalArts!
Let’s put that to the test
Look at the paintings. They’re all from the impressionist school, all about transportation, all in the same general style, painted in the same era. Heck, if you looked at them just for pure recreation, you probably can’t tell that one of them is different. Two of them are made by Monet. One is made by William Turner who is some other dude from the same era. Can you tell the odd one out?
It’s number 1, but it’s okay if you didn’t pick it out of the lineup. That’s not the goal. The goal is that now that you know, you can go back and you’ll see it very obviously. And you can say it’s the confirmation bias kicking in and maybe it is, but we all have something that we can pick from a thousand similar things.
Now, unless you’ve got some sort of advanced art training, you probably can’t pinpoint exactly what makes it look different. Right? Even though I feel this is somewhat a misleading exercise because these are cherry-picked examples and it’s easy to tell and ridiculously hard to tell at the same time. The point I’m trying to is this: Every artist has his own flair that lets you tell his work. Companies also try to replicate the same effect in their designs. It’s called a design language.
In practical terms
The easiest way to tell what a design language is is to think of Apple, big surprise! When you see an Apple product, you know it’s Apple. Other companies try to replicate what Apple does to profit from its association to quality. But they fail more often than not. Look at the Huawei Matebook line of laptops and Xiaomi Air notebook. They’re nothing but carbon copies of the MacBooks but it still shows even to the non-enthusiast. Copying a design system is not hard. Copying a design language, however, is very hard. It’s like trying to paint your own Monet. You probably can’t.
What I like about the name “design language” is that it is really like a language. You can sure as hell learn English, but for most people, until you spend a few years in the US or England, any native speaker can tell directly that you’re not. There probably are rules that you can follow to get there, as evident by the advancements in text to speech software like Siri, Alexa, and the mesmerizing Google Duplex, but it’s so complicated that it takes a lot of time to be able to do it flawlessly, to get the stressed letters right, to get the intonations, the speed, the rhythm, the pitch, the pauses, the slang and all the components of the accent, let alone Grammar, vocabulary, idioms, etc… For the native person, it makes perfect sense right out of the gate, and they don’t think about it. But for a foreigner, it’s really hard to tell.
In industrial design
One of the best examples to show this in action is in industrial design, especially in cars. A perfect example is the headlights. What brand makes these lights?
Anybody that had the slightest interest in cars will tell you directly that it’s Audi, right? Here’s the challenge: Can you find one thing in common between all of them that you wouldn’t find in another brand? Probably no. Definitely no. And they can keep changing them every year adding Xeon lights, laser light, HID, LED… They can make them tiny, big, round, straight, Doesn’t matter. It always looks like an Audi. And the big brand name manufacturers all do this, Mercedes, BMW, Aston Martin, etc… But try to apply this to a Korean or French brand and the distinction becomes so blurry. No wonder their brands pale in comparison.
Another very abstract identifier is the editorial line. Think about a BBC documentary. If nobody told you it’s from the BBC and you watch a lot of documentaries, you’d probably get it yourself. Same thing from Canal+, History, or Telemundo. Some smaller media organizations have this too. Vox, Vice, Cut are perfect examples or Youtube channels with a solid editorial line.
It’s not just the tone of voice, it’s not how the piece is structured, it’s not the language (because you can still get it even if it’s translated), it’s not the color grading either. An editorial line all of that and more. It’s how the story is being told, how the bits an pieces fit together, it’s how the feelings inside of the viewer are being built. And there you go, you just crossed the visual line. Because you can’t dissociate the editorial line form the video itself. It’s a part of it and it’s what makes it identifiable at the same time. If you would publish a Vox video on Cut, people will be able to tell in 3 seconds.
Brand identifiers don’t have to be design choices
There’s a lot of subtilties to these identifiers depending on the domain. Things like the choice of material, a certain cut if you’re in fashion design… I know a pizza place that opens only for 3 hours a day for no other reason than to be known as the pizza place that opens for three hours a day. As far as brand identity goes, they’re Genius.
-Did you try a pizza at L’Antica?
– Which one is that?
– It’s that pizza place that opens only from 5 to 8.
– Oh yeah, that one, I was there Yesterday.
Brands spend a lot of time and energy innovating, coming up with new ways of doing things better. If these things are not being directly linked back to them, then the efforts are not reaching their full potential. So, instead of making the logo on your website bigger, think of other ways you are identifiable. It can be something clear like your design system with strong typography and good use of color, or something subtle like the greeting words your employees use to greet your customers.