While gathering material to write up some recently completed client projects as case studies, I was struck by two things, broadly based around creativity and productivity:
Firstly, by the many, varied, sometimes counter-intuitive and often unexpected influences that sparked the eventual brand identities.
And secondly, by how much we’ve actually achieved – something that can all too easily be overlooked when you’re caught up in the everyday and deeply immersed in doing the work.
Those themes of creativity and productivity feed into the big story which seems to never be more than a scroll away – AI and its consequences in general, and Chat GPT, in particular. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, hoping I could alight on a definite perspective but I’m finding that I keep coming up with (or generating) more and more questions on this massive topic.
The evangelists would have us believe that anything that removes friction and saves us time has to be positive. But in my area of brand consulting (strategy and identity) – it’s taking time, asking lots of questions, acquiring a thorough understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and engaging collaboratively in a co-creation process – that yields the results our clients are looking for; namely, brand identities that can play a key role in driving their businesses forward.
It’s an approach that also plays into why me and my collaborators – the content strategists, copywriters, designers, animators, developers and photographers – who make up The Co-Foundry, do what we do. Pursuing the careers we love, in a way that everyone enjoys and gets satisfaction from, sustains us and I believe, contributes to the success of what we produce for, and with, our clients.
In short, how we create something matters and affects the outcome.
Technology has long been promoted for its time-saving aspects, as if saving time is a universal good and the only marker of progress. But faster and with zero friction isn’t always better. And then there’s also the question – what are we saving all this time for? (More on that later.)
The strategic intention, range of information, diversity of perspectives and lived experience that us humans bring to the creative process are instrumental to successful branding. These elements are not easily reduced to an algorithm and even if they were, AI would still treat these ‘data points’ in a value-neutral way – something which explains why ChatGPT text can end up sounding flat or slightly off.
Our human brains may not be able to come up with ideas instantly on command but, as the illustrator Rob Biddulph says, ‘Pressing a button to generate something is not a creative process’. Not knowing how you’re going to do something and working things out as you go along is an essential stage in the creative process. Even Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine (in a recent conversation with Tyler Cowan) says that when he sits down to write something, the very act of writing reveals what he thinks about it.
Getting stuck and struggling is also part of the process – one that may not get the airtime it deserves. Being stumped may be uncomfortable because it represents a point of friction but it’s also essential because it forces us to slow down and/or step away which is very often when the seeds of a solution present themselves.
AI, by contrast, isn’t built to take time out, go for a walk or get annoyed with itself and interrogate what it’s doing so it can gain a better understanding of what it’s looking to achieve.
When we’re stuck, it might feel good to know there’s something to hand that could make the problem we’re trying to solve, melt away. But the struggle for an answer, the process – considering possibilities rather than just scanning probabilities is what being human is all about.
Quoting the words of the great Rick Rubin, creativity is ultimately an act of noticing and choosing what we pay attention to. In his recently published book, The Creative Act, A Way of Being, Rubin makes a timely case in this age of accelerating technological capabilities for broadening our practice of awareness:
there’s an endless amount of data available to us and we have a limited bandwidth to conserve, [so] we might consider carefully curating the quality of what we allow in.
It’s these very choices and intentionality that distinguishes human output from AI whose efficiency doesn’t give nuance a look-in. Human creativity – be it in brand design, art or writing takes a point of view – an element that injects soul into the finished work giving it meaning and elevating it beyond the merely decorative.
There are a multitude of voices and a somewhat controversial letter (‘Pause Giant AI Experiments’ from the Future of Life Institute) calling time on untrammelled AI development and urging us to consider the sort of world we want to be shaping. Do we want to be enslaved by machines that we initially created?
US tech expert and law professor, Tim Wu warns of the risks already posed by AI, cautioning against building a future where ‘a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive’ sees us using the time we’ve ‘freed up’ to do more of the same, ultimately unsatisfying work. A future where convenience technologies (offering predictable results from minimal human effort) do the work for us rather than work with us. Wu calls for the intentional development of ‘demanding technologies’ that ask something of us – technologies that take time and skill to master and can both challenge and occupy us.
It seems there is no neat answer, just more questions: What will happen to AI if we increasingly keep turning to it for answers? How will that, in time, affect the quality of the inputs it’s receiving and learning from? Having initially learnt from human-originated databases, how soon will it get to a situation where it’s cannibalising itself, combing and then mashing up its own source material? How can its outputs keep pace with any sort of quality control if all they’re learning from and recycling is their own material?
This quote, from Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book on Laughter and Forgetting (from 1979 but wonderfully prescient) sums up the dilemma we may encounter, and it wouldn’t be good news for the creative industries, ‘One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will ensue.’
Brand language, brand framework, brand toolkit… these are just some of the terms used, sometimes interchangeably, when talking about the myriad visual rules regarding shape, colour, typography, iconography, photography, video and motion, and user interface design in branding. A better way of looking at these rules, when they’re all put together, is that they make up a Brand System.
The combined elements of a clear brand system, consistently applied, help foster brand recognition, both online and offline – taking in everything from social media posts, to physical touchpoints such as signage and large format display. Your audience becomes familiar with your brand looking, sounding and speaking to them in a particular way and this, over time, builds trust.
From your side, having a brand system and the brand guidelines that flow from it, ensures that all your external creative agencies, as well as your internal team, are always able to produce high-quality communications that retain the thread of that original brand idea.
To illustrate the concept of a brand system and run through what goes into it, here’s an example of a recent rebrand The Co-Foundry did for Abode Worldwide, a PR and content marketing agency that has a leading position within, and works exclusively with, the lodging tech sector:
Typography – a typeface reveals far more about a brand than you might imagine – switch the Nike font for say Time New Roman and the dynamic personality of the Nike brand identity is immediately lost. But it isn’t just the typeface or combination of fonts that gets established by a good brand system, it’s also the hierarchy and case (whether it’s all caps or if you choose sentence case for example) that gets set out.
We selected just one typeface for the Abode Worldwide rebrand: TT Norms, choosing it for its contemporary precision. Its understated nature reflects the Abode brand’s confidence and leading position in the market, something which is further emphasised by employing just one font weight and using colour and size to give hierarchy, rather than relying on capitalisation or varying weights.
Colour palette – this refers to the combination of colours that expresses the personality of a brand. The number of colours and variation, and the use of primary and secondary colours all form the rules within the palette.
The personality for Abode Worldwide was defined as one of substance and gravitas – they are a market leader in the area they operate in. The resulting palette has a limited range – gold combined with a pale paper beige and a serious deep blue. With the brand idea for Abode Worldwide being Rise & Shine, we selected secondary fonts drawn from dawn and dusk colour palettes. This plays out across Abode’s sister brand, Pillow Talk, which is their established thought leadership media channel, well-known for providing the industry with insight and inspiration.
Graphic devices – at the heart of a brand system, these shapes and illustrative devices are used as image placeholders and signposts, adding dynamism and interest to the brand.
Abode Worldwide raises its clients’ profiles by increasing their exposure. The radiating circles device was created as a key element of the brand identity and is primarily used as an image overlay or watermark, adding soft texture or highlighting a point of interest within an image.
Iconography – used sparingly to add meaning or signpost content, a library of icons can be a hardworking component within the brand system. Sticking with one style (be it hand-drawn, single colour, full colour, linework etc) helps to reinforce the brand language while overcomplicating with a mixture of styles dilutes brand identity.
For Abode Worldwide we developed two types of icons – a set of radiating circles to signpost content and more illustrative devices to develop infographics, such as their approach graphic:
Logo – the most obvious and well-known element of what goes into a brand system. It is often, but not always, combined with a tagline. A brand system will typically include rules around the placement and use of variations (full colour, inverted, white out, one colour, black).
Logomark – now synonymous with social media avatars, the logomark or motif is derived from the logo and is used for website favicons and social media profiles.
Sub brands and lock-ups – depending on the brand architecture model defined during the strategic planning stage, this is a set of rules for articulating sister or sub-brands and needs to be defined at the design phase.
Abode Worldwide has a thought leadership media channel, Pillow Talk, which is delivered as a Substack blog. We developed the identity for this sister brand using the same motif as for the main brand, twisting it to create a moon motif. It can also be set in an alternate blue palette:
Photography – The images you choose can reinforce or challenge perceptions of your brand and, as such, need much thought and consideration. For example, employing conceptual stock library images, and mixing them with naturalistic documentary style photography rarely works to present a cohesive style.
As well as photographing the team for website and marketing collateral, we gave Abode guidance on the balance and choice of images for their own content marketing activities. We encouraged them to source images of people working, resting and playing, balancing that with property photos (an 80% people/20% buildings ratio) to give some context without getting too geographically specific as Abode’s audience is global.
Video and motion – transforming your brand identity from static to dynamic literally brings a brand to life, making it a far more engaging proposition on digital platforms. As with any other aspect of a brand system, setting style guides for motion design helps to build consistency and recognition.
Animating Abode Worldwide’s radiating circles device expresses something growing and evolving, communicating the value Abode brings to its clients as it raises their profiles through public relations and content marketing.
User interface design – following on from the wider brand system, this is a digital design system that defines interactions and components such as call-to-action buttons and interactive behaviours such as hyperlink hover states. A brand is experienced across many touchpoints and the experience should always be consistent, and never jolt or jar.
Abode Worldwide’s new website design and development set the style guides for everything from image hover states to dropdowns and client testimonials.
Brand guidelines – aka the brand system rule book – this is where everything comes together including tone of voice guidance for the verbal expression of the brand. Good guidelines should demonstrate how the brand’s visual elements can be dialled up or down, depending on use, case or audience. For example, social media applications can be more flexible, allowing for something more visually dynamic while proposals and stationery may be more reserved in their application.
A brand system is so much more than a logo, in fact as your brand becomes known and recognised, a branded touchpoint should be recognisable even if the logo is hidden from view. This is something which is called ‘passing the thumb test’ – would your audience know who you are without seeing your logo? Would your brand identity still be recognisable when your logo is obscured?
As a brand becomes more established, there is always scope to ‘play’ with its identity – i.e. step outside the rulebook – for example, for seasonal or thematic campaigns. But take care not to start out on this tack too soon and break rules to satisfy your own creative itches. Stay true to the system and avoid change for change’s sake or you’ll risk losing valuable brand equity.
In recent years we’ve moved from static brand identities to incorporating motion guidance and digital UX design rules, but what will we need to be thinking about next?
As we start experiencing the metaverse, a 3-D digital space, in the mainstream – brand systems will grow and become more complex, but the need for consistency and building trust will only grow more important.