Picture this: You’ve taken the decision to overhaul your brand. You know that a brand refresh or full rebrand represents a mighty undertaking – financially, commercially and culturally. It’s vital that the new identity lands and has the right sort of impact. Having committed to making that change you know that it’ll trigger all sorts of thoughts and emotions, from insecurities and doubts, to fears that might get in your way.
Now, go a little further down the line, your creative agency has just presented you with their vision for your brand identity. Your first feeling might be one of elation but what comes next often goes a little like this…
Cue, path-blocking objections and concerns: ‘Is this creative original?’ ‘Haven’t I seen something like this before?’ ‘Will it last longer than the last brand identity we did?’ ‘Is it too ‘now’, of its time and faddy?’
Or, your elation might have frozen you to the spot with thoughts along the lines of, ‘This is fantastic, how can we make sure we own it, protect it, maintain it and build its value?’
You may even vacillate between the two and that’s ok, because there are a lot of factors at play here. Change and uncertainty are not meant to feel comfortable but you have to accept that this sort of discomfort is all part of the process.
They want proof that this is really, really gonna work. The problem is there isn’t proof. It’s [down to] how people see and perceive and accept things.
Paula Scher, Pentagram
As with any blocked path, it’s worth taking small steps to overcome the obstacles, so let’s break those reactions and conflicting emotions into three categories and take them on one at a time:
- Trends vs fads
Why is the desire for originality or novelty so important? The purpose of originality is to be innovative, be the first, bring something fresh to the market, stand out and so ultimately gain an advantage. But can we ever truly be original and does it matter as much as we might think?
No discussion on originality is complete without this quote from Mark Twain:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
And this of course stands true in the graphic design world of brand identities. Our visual language is naturally limited to what we can see: shapes, letterforms, pictographs and even colours. Seemingly infinite, they can only ever be grouped into a limited range. What makes them appear fresh, new and different is how we combine, express and apply them.
A colour wheel can be broadly broken down into 12 groups:
There are only a limited number of geometric shapes in the world:
When it comes to pictographs we can go back to prehistory to see how humans used them to communicate (Image: Robert Brewster Stanton in Glen Canyon, Colorado River about 1893):
While Mesopotamian ‘graphic designers’ were limited by their rudimentary tools, we too are restricted by the requirements of the digital world – forced to reduce shapes down to their simplest forms – which again reduces the opportunity for expression and detail, and therefore variation.
16px favicons are one of the smallest sizes a logomark needs to be legible at:
Seeking to be distinct within your category is almost always a strategic goal. However, you may choose to take the opposite path – wanting to make your product or service feel familiar. In this case, you might don the clothes of more established brands, or borrow from and reimagine established industry norms.
For the purposes of this post though, let’s assume being distinct is your objective. If that’s the case, then a decision needs to be made as to how distinct you’re looking to be beyond the category you operate in. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter that, in the following example, Pepsi and Korean Air have remarkably similar marks. After all, they operate in significantly different spaces and look different in application.
In contrast, I think Meta has demonstrated a lack of imagination with their infinity sign. An infinity symbol in itself is naturally going to be part of our universal language and therefore often used, but in the tech world the symbol is overused. It also bumps up a bit too close to Virgin Media which is also active in the entertainment and digital spaces.
I never fail to be amazed that Gucci and Chanel arrived at such similar marks given that they sit side by side in the designer bag sections and perfume and make-up counters of department stores. Much has been written about the homogenisation of luxury brands – it’s a category that is ripe for some disruption.
Now let’s take the pictograph of a bird as an example. Covering a diverse range of sectors, the following brands don’t need to play or fight in the same commercial space.
And one poor soul – our trusty Twitterer has been unceremoniously knocked out of their nest – the owner clearly not recognising the value inherent in that now familiar shape.
Airlines are naturally drawn to the motif of birds in flight. So, while the use of a bird motif is not original, differences are communicated through the expression of that idea. Japan Airlines has used the stork in a roundel since 1959 – it feels culturally appropriate (a meaningful symbol in Japanese arts and culture), distinct and memorable. Clearly though, the airline category more broadly, could look further afield for inspiration.
When designing the identity for Skylark Media we were of course aware that using a bird motif was not an original idea in itself. Within that category however (video production studios), our research revealed that this could be an original approach, while incorporating the bird into the serif of the ‘K’ reinforced the fresh, new treatment of the motif. It would have felt remiss not to play on the film production company’s name.
Inevitably any monograms (single letterforms) will have a shared resemblance. In this particular case, a Hong Kong fashion school and an Italian rail network are in no way in the same competitive space.
But it’s how these two brands are applied that also helps to differentiate them.
Naturally a fashion brand needs the freedom to evolve over time, and the agency Toby Ng Design has given the client the ability to change the branding as trends and fashions change. Genius!
And that leads us neatly onto our next category: trends vs fads.
2. Trends vs fads
If it’s classical timelessness you’re after, then selecting colours and typefaces that are long-established is a safe bet. To be super safe, choose to avoid stylised motifs, because even the expression of a motif can date.
However, if your brand strategy calls for a contemporary look and feel, one with broader appeal that’s possibly looking to attract a younger target audience, then you’ll want to be more ‘of the moment’, part of the zeitgeist. In this instance, your designers will need to walk that fine line between being on trend and referencing what might be a short-lived fad. So what’s the difference between trends and fads? A starting point is to look at the dictionary definitions for both each:
1. a general direction in which something is developing or changing.
2. A fashion
an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived; a craze.
The danger of a fad is inherent in its dictionary definition. There are of course opportunities for short term campaigns to ride on fads, but as we’re exploring overarching brand identities here rather than focusing on one-off marketing campaigns, it pays not to take a short-term approach: Brand identity recognition, awareness and recall build and evolve over time, and there’s a danger that, in being so of the moment, one moment, you’ll appear dated in the next.
Trends come and go but this usually happens in much slower cycles than those around a fad. And very often their reference of the past is deliberate and strategic.
As shown in this Cisco ad, the use of dynamic ‘living lines’ feels very on trend. It isn’t a novel idea (see the example on the right from 1967) but its application does feel ‘of the moment’. I don’t believe it’s going away anytime soon either because it isn’t stylistically ‘out there’ in a way that might date it.
Distinguishing between a trend and a fad
Fads often emerge suddenly, gain rapid popularity and then quickly fade away within a short time frame (typically less than a year). Trends, on the other hand, tend to evolve more gradually and can persist over several years.
Trends are often rooted in societal shifts, changing consumer behaviours, or advancements in technology. They address underlying needs or preferences which can make them more sustainable over time. Fads are usually driven by novelty and excitement, and lack the substance to endure.
Trends tend to have a broader and more diverse appeal, attracting a wide range of demographics. Fads may have a specific target audience and appeal to a niche group for a brief period.
Ultimately, determining whether something is a trend or a fad requires a combination of observation and understanding of the broader context. It’s worth noting that even experts can sometimes make poor judgments, as the distinction between the two can be complex and influenced by various factors.
On trend or derivative?
There is a difference between designers being on trend and being directly derivative. However, with the echo chamber of Pinterest’s algorithm throwing out the same visual reference over and over again, this is happening more and more but through osmosis rather than because of deliberate copying. In this short video Derren Brown demonstrates how susceptible people are to the influences they surround themselves with:
However much they may be influenced by their industry or find the work of award-winning peers attractive, an established, professional designer is highly unlikely to copy an existing visual concept.
A good designer keeps their field of vision wide.
Build in checks and balances
A professional designer will factor due diligence into their practice, alongside researching the client’s category.
Tip: sometimes brand identities are put together at pace and iterations are requested at the last minute Build enough time into the project to allow for checks to be run at every iteration round. Bear in mind that designers are not IP Lawyers – they do not have legal expertise or database search capability, so if differentiation and protection of your new identity are of vital importance to you, read on.
This post is not written with FTSE 100 corporations in mind, it’s aimed at third sector organisations and SMEs with more limited budgets – organisations and people with a dynamic mindset and a more pragmatic approach.
Of course, if you’re CocaCola or a similar concern such as Intel, you would go so far as to register the shape of your bottle or audio identity. But do you need to formally register your identity?
Anyone can pop a ™ on the end of their brand name but only a fully ® Registered logo will carry enforcement rights.
Before you file your design application – ask yourself, is a trademark Totally Meaningless™ or Really necessary ®. Once you’ve registered it, will you maintain an enforcement strategy, monitoring any conflicts and infringements? If you aren’t prepared to invest in monitoring and enforcement, is there any benefit to registering?
A trend or concept that is familiar, tried and tested may make us feel more confident and reassured about the design direction. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is very definitely a sliding scale for designs – from designs that are novel (if not original) and challenge the norms, to designs that regurgitate fads – the graphic design equivalent of fast fashion. The balancing act is about reconciling the facility for sustaining an identity over the long term while satiating the appetite for something new and different.
Don’t follow fads. Stay true to something that you understand and have a principle about and try to grow it.
Design decisions have to be made based on meaning and relevance. Rather than searching for originality ask yourself, is this on trend, a fad, or stylistically derivative? Does it feel true to our brand essence? Does it hold meaning? Paula Scher again, on authenticity and pushing the brand down a new path: “The goal is to make them look like them, but allow them to feel comfortable that they’re going out to the party. Not overdressed, not underdressed, they’re them. That’s what I care about. Raising it, creating a surprise, moving the needle.”
Designers and clients have a shared responsibility to widen their terms of reference – going beyond award-winning concepts in design-trade press, avoiding falling down Pinterest rabbit holes and arming themselves with knowledge of design history. Or, put more simply, looking up and drawing on inspiration and reference from all around you.
Stop obsessing over novelty. Instead, focus on value. Even if your idea is not new, your unique perspective and spin could create something the world needs.
Stephen Shapiro, Innovation Consultant