Designers, Branding, and Soulessness
Adrian Shaughnessy has recently written an interesting article revolving around the idea that designers should embrace their fundamental importance to creating identities and abandon the notion of creating brands. The two sentence abstract being: Brand is far too generic a term and not something you design, it's something you. Since you can't express your brand without the basic building blocks of an identity (logo, visual architecture...). designers need to return to the idea of creating identities and calling themselves identity designers rather than brand designers.
The article is somehow sprawling and succinct at the same time, and worth a read. I do have some issues around his desire to slightly demean branding in order to elevate design. Hence I will take things totally out of context and proceed o comment about them. I suppose it's best to start at the beginning with Shaughnessy's wonderful and belittling to all introduction:
Graphic designers rarely question the practice or culture of branding. Hardly surprising, since the creation of brand identities and branded communications is what provides so many graphic designers with a living. Designers need clients, and clients want branding. Vast swathes of the public love brands, and we live in a world where everything and everyone from Premiership football clubs to former Big Brother contestants think of themselves as brands.
So, if designers want to have plenty of work, it's probably wise not to look too closely at what branding is, and what its effects are on the profession of design or on the wider culture.
A few things on this. Where he's right is that the idea of branding has become pervasive and has in fact lead to a proliferation of work for designers of all ilks. But I find the idea that we don't question what branding means to culture to be a little elitist. I'm not some sort of genius and I write about it all the time. There is no shortage of writing on the subject within the profession. Designers tendency for liberal guilt wouldn't allow such things. And let's not forget that the idea of making a living as motivation isn't in all cases corrupting to our principles. Moving on:
A less sympathetic description comes from business writer Lucas Conley in his book Obsessive Branding Disorder. "More than marketing, more than advertising, or positioning, branding is an all-in-one ideology - a facile reduction malleable enough to govern all facets of modern business. In the name of the brand, any idea can be defended as valid and any crackpot can assume the status of a guru." It's clear from this short statement that Conley is not a fan of branding 'ideology'.
My personal view is that the role of design in branding is about the creation of the symbolic or outward face of companies, institutions and services. But as soon as branding becomes about depicting or conveying the less tangible assets such as 'brand essence', 'brand promise', or any of the other clichés of branding, I become skeptical about what designers can contribute.
Anyway, telling customers what to think in the age of social media is simply a waste of time. Not only that, it's also a form of fundamentalism.
This is a very juicy bit. First, I absolutely agree with the last paragraph of this passage and will unabashedly steal it in the future and claim it as an original thought. But
this idea that branding is somehow a facile reduction is interesting and I think likely wrong. Anything can be turned into a facile reduction. With the new rise of Apple it was "design" and there were scores of business articles around the idea of "innovation." All of these terms became catch-alls for ways to improve. The fact that branding is a term that's been co-opted by business as a justification for decision making is not the fault of branding firms (not totally anyway), it's simply what happens in the culture of business.
And some more juiciness:
And here's where the problem lies: designers are notoriously tricky and mercurial characters. They're difficult to control and stubborn about their ideas. As far as the brand consultants, the marketing people and the PR busybodies are concerned, life would be much easier if it could be proved that design is only a minor part of brand building, and much better if non-designers were in control of it.
By making branding into something other than a graphic design discipline, clients have leveraged control of design away from designers and into the hands of various non-designers. You can see this most clearly in the big branding groups, who employ dozens of 'suits' - strategists, business analysts, account handlers - and only a tiny number of designers.
The most significant effect of this is to hand control of branding to brand people, and to be a brand person, you don't need to be a designer. Business people understand branding in a way that they don't understand graphic design.
I won't comment on the dig at "big branding firms", but the dig at clients seems a tad bitter. I don't quite understand the argument over the concept of control. I've never grasped how you can make a diva like complaint about not having any control to bemoan clients and simultaneously complain that you're being accused of being a diva. It seems entirely reasonable to me that a client would like to feel in control of their identity or brand. As designers we're interpreting things into a visual vocabulary, not imposing a visual vocabulary. Additionally the notion of PR folks being busybodies is as slipshod as calling designers divas (regardless of the fact that they're both likely true).
And then this:
In other words, businesses imagine that they can brand their way to success - which of course is an illusion... Which really takes us to the heart of what branding has become: hype and spin. We've all been driven mad by banks that profess to be customer-centric and spout mantras such as "always giving you extra", and "we like to say yes", but then fail spectacularly to live up to those claims.
Well, yes and no. Part of the inherent power of a strong brand and the development of brand values is that they can help to create something the internal culture of a business lives up to. Whether or not that happens isn't necessarily the fault of the brand (or the branding firm, assuming they were being honest with themselves), but a fault of the company leadership.
Shaughnessy then takes a bit of a leap to essentially blame "the age of branding" for poor design:
Take the Google logo. It is cheerful, and people seem to like it, especially the way it is allowed to reflect events and anniversaries. It has been created for the digital era - a near zero-weight logotype designed for fast loading. But I can't help thinking that its cheerfulness is designed to mask the darker aspects of Google's activities. I don't think that Google is evil, but it is unavoidably involved in aspects of digital culture, mainly relating to privacy, that cause concern.
However, my main objection to the logo is that it is a piece of woeful logotype design for one of the most ubiquitous companies, and it could only have emerged in the age of branding. It's impossible to imagine any of the great logo designers, dead or alive, doing anything as weak and lacking in subliminal qualities. Yet for the age of branding, it is somehow acceptable.
This seems to be a conundrum to me, but not for the reasons that Shaughnessy seems to believe. First, Google didn't start as a ubiquitous company. It was a tech startup that exploded into the company that now runs the planet. As such they minimally invested in design and as the company has grown, retained that original design. And why not. Everybody knows it, trusts it and seems to think it's totally fine. Clearly Shaughnessy feels it's an atrocity, but it's not an atrocity created by the branding age. It may continue to exist because the Google brand is so powerful and most folks in the branding age would be loathe to change it. That's hardly a root cause. The root cause of the Google logo being blah design is that a couple of college guys at Stanford commissioned a cruddy logo when they were starting their business. I'm pretty sure that probably happened in the age of Paul Rand and company as well.
Google, though, is the outlier. If you create a product(s) that is as literally life changing as Google, it almost doesn't matter what you're visual language is. But for most others, I believe Shaughnessy is right, we need to focus as designers on what we do best – designing. Using visual vocabulary that's imbued with as much of the brand as can be mustered into a logo. We need to build an architecture upon which brands can be supported. When it comes to control, that's all we have. Once those things are in the world it's up to clients and the public to make of it what they will.