In the early to mid 1960’s, the concept of “Corporate Identity” hit the mainstream across the world, and the job of graphic designers became inexorably linked with this concept. Pioneers like Saul Bass, Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli led a movement to develop visual identity systems which helped large companies communicate to consumers on a level never before conceptualized. Identity systems allow companies to sell not just a product or a service, but a personality and system of values that corresponds with the purveyor of the product or service. A brand becomes an extension of the product, it adds value and validity to the purchasing experience for the customer.
Back in the 1960’s, corporate identity was generally reserved for large corporations, like Coca-Cola, IBM, or American Airlines. As the business world has expanded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and graphic design has become more and more accessible to the average business person, brand identity systems have evolved into a necessity in the modern marketplace. The unfortunate drawback of this rapid expansion, however, has been a sincere lack of understanding as to what a “brand identity” really means, or how to execute this properly.
So lets take a step back to examine the working definition of “brand identity”. In my personal experience as a contract graphic designer working with small businesses, it is astounding how many seasoned business owners and marketing professionals seem to still be operating under the assumption that “branding” is a term synonymous with “logo design.” Many clients will ask us for a logo design, thinking that that means when it is finished they will have a “brand.” One of my greatest challenges as a designer in a small creative agency has been helping our clients understand the difference between a logo design and a brand. A logo, to be certain, is a cornerstone of a brand identity. It is often the first peice of the puzzle created to develop this identity. A logo design can determine quite a lot about a brand. It can help anchor visual brand decisions which influence the overall look and feel of items which correspond with the brand, such as fonts, colors, and an overall visual vibe. But the logo doesn’t simply determine these features. Rather, the look of a completed logo should be a self reflexive piece of design which is built by translating the key personality traits and values of the brand and how the brand wishes to be perceived in the marketplace into a visual representation, which then drives the other elements which support it such as the colors and font choices. Yes, a logo is a cornerstone of a brand, but a brand first be self-aware enough to allow the logo to be born.
Now we have come to a point in the discussion where many independent businesses, such as my clients, get lost. Our clients say: “So I have a logo. That means I was self aware enough to choose the right one for me, and I have colors and fonts, so that means I have a brand, right?” A stock logo website would tell our clients: “Yes, this is all you need. You’re done. Go forth an conquer!” But let us consider, if you will, what one does with a logo. Where does it go? Our client might say “On a business card” or “On my website.” And those answers are, of course correct. But what do those things look like? Do they communicate the same personality and values that your logo does if not designed in the same self-aware manner as your logo?
Imagine, if you will, you’ve just seen an absolutely stunning logo in the sidebar of a google search. This company is precisely what you are looking for, as their name and logo and services listed in the google search seem to suggest. Yet when you navigate to their website, it is nearly blank. It utilizes the same colors and fonts as the logo to be certain, but it has no visual design, no animations or interactions, and no hierarchy of information. The text is simply in one large text block in the center of the page with some pictures below it. The logo floats alone in the top left corner of the page (or hidden in the bottom), beautiful independently, but ultimately ineffectual.
Would you stay on the site? Most people would answer no, they would leave and seek a competitor, whose brand was pleasant to interact with and provided you with the information you were seeking in a pleasant and visually pleasing way. This is an example of why a logo is NOT a brand identity. A visual brand identity, instead, is anchored by both its logo, verbal rhetoric, and by its collateral elements.
Collateral are items like a company’s website, business cards, or packaging, which are the point at which customers directly interact with the brand. A customer does not interact with a logo alone, rather, they interact with objects generated by the brand in either a digital or physical space. Properly executed collateral design, therefor, should expand upon the design principals set down by the logo design, and establish a modality by which the brand both visually and verbally communicates its prime directive to their customers.
The most powerful brand collateral evolves with the brand and the marketplace. The design of the collateral may shift to incorporate new elements, new trends, even new services offered by the brand, but ultimately upholds the design principals and brand personality. It allows the brand to adapt, and remain consistent simultaneously. The most successful brands, historically, are ones which are able to achieve this flexibility by way of their well designed brand collateral.