September 4, 2015

Earlier this week, Google unveiled their new sans-serif identity, ditching the familiar serifs for which the company has been known since its inception for a cleaner, simpler look:

Google's new logo on its iconic homescreen.

Among the population in general, and particularly among designers, reviews have been mixed. Some herald this as a fresh new direction, perhaps the emblematic tech company boldly being unafraid to leave behind the conventions of the past to embrace the present and future. Others…well, others thought it might have been better.

That’s an understatement, really. Barely 48 hours had passed since the announcement when, with a cursory search of the word “Google” in Dribbble, I came upon pages and pages full of graphic designers posting their ideas for a “fixed” or “better” version of Google’s new logo. Here’s just a small glance at everything that was out there (believe me—there were hundreds more, and again, this was less than two days after the new identity system was announced):

Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo

To say that this behavior was limited to Dribbble would be inaccurate. The announcement was made on Tuesday, and before the day was even over there were slews of articles, some thousands of words long, popping up all across the internet, many of which filled with righteous indignation over Google’s decision to go with something so supposedly unoriginal, plain, radically different, or just bad (in the opinion of the writer, of course).

Accusations cropped up. Some said Google had copied their new logo from an old Gymboree mark (as though two colorful sans-serif capital Gs ought to look unmistakably distinct):

Others accused Google of simple unoriginality (as though a few cherry-picked modern sans-serif logotypes wouldn’t look similar when they’re all shown side-by-side in black):

While still others thought it was just plain poor, like this typographer.

In the case of Google, I’d like to go on a small tangent and point out that Google is really playing their own game here. In terms of identity, their needs are radically different than pretty much any other company on Google Earth. They don’t really have competitors, at least not like most brands do. Sure, there’s Apple and Microsoft, but for the most part, Google has already won every game it’s playing. Google is the 800 lb. gorilla; it sits wherever it wants. It doesn’t need to worry much about being confused with, or looking worse than, any another company. Short of Google changing their logo to, say, a swastika, people aren’t going to stop using Google products. We’re still going to use google.com for searching (which everyone will still call “Googling,” even if it’s not technically accurate), we’ll still use our gmail accounts, we’ll still look to Google Maps any time we need directions somewhere, and on and on. Even the least plugged-in among us probably still has their life impacted by Google a dozen times a day.

Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.

So in terms of branding, Google doesn’t really have to listen to anybody, least of all an upset designer on the internet.

But tangent aside, and not specific to Google: any time a new design comes out, there is bound to be discussion about whether or not that new design—pardon the pun—misses the mark. Sometimes this discussion will be heated. Sometimes it will even become such a cacophonous outcry that the brand behind the design decides it might be best to take a step back. (Gap, anyone? For the record: I don’t think it was as bad as everyone else did. So the aborted logo redesign was plain. What is Gap, exactly? Gap sells khakis and business-casual button-ups. If that’s not Helvetica in clothing form, I don’t know what is.)

I’m not necessarily saying Google’s new logo is the greatest thing ever (though that’s beside the point: Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.) And I’m not saying all the feedback that emerged from the design community was unwarranted or inaccurate. That typographer above makes some reasonable points. Many designers did.

But the problem was, they made these points and registered these reactions instantaneously and without regard for what makes graphic design more than subjective window dressing: the how and the why.

Emotion vs. Thought

Graphic design is a tricky thing. It’s both art and science, subjective and objective. It’s part left-brained rationality and part right-brained creativity. It’s a merging of thought and emotion. And this is what makes reacting to graphic design such a careful balance of immediate reactions and delayed reactions.

When we present designs (and especially redesigns or entirely new names) to clients, we always tell them: register your immediate reactions, think about them and remember them. But don’t put too much weight on them and don’t let your immediate reaction kill an idea before it’s had a chance to grow on you, because—and this is important—the human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to.

You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar. So it is with design; we say we want things to look fresh and new, but our brains really don’t like anything we’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. It’s just part of human nature. That’s why we lash out at new logos and new identities; like it or not, no matter how consciously aware we are of it, there’s an animal part of our brain that screams out “I don’t like it!” like a toddler refusing to try a new food.

The human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to. You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar.

But fortunately for our primitive brains, time changes perception. We all have things we didn’t like at first but grew to love as we came to understand them better. (For me, pretty much every one of my favorite albums is one that I didn’t like at all on first listen, while most of the albums I loved right off the bat I now find completely uninteresting.) Every time Pepsi changes their logo it seems like a radical shift for a little while, but before long, it looks weird when you spot the last version in the background of a movie.

We’ve all tried something we hated at first or met somebody we didn’t like at first impression, only to realize over time that either we were wrong, our perceptions were wrong, or we’ve actually changed. Design requires this type of delayed reaction. It requires you to live with it and get to know it on a deep level, not just a surface emotional reaction.

Emotion screams out at first impression. It’s irrational and unhesitant, but it’s fast. Thought takes time. It’s careful and logical, but it doesn’t happen quickly.

And that’s one reason why you shouldn’t be writing scathing blog posts about new logo designs or remaking them to “fix” them within the first hours of their existence. But there’s another, more important one:

The Message You’re Sending

Even if you were able to immediately and completely process a new design at first glance and be ready to write a comprehensive blog post about it on first impression (and just to reiterate, you can’t. But even if you could), there’s still a good reason why you shouldn’t.

If you’re a designer, you undoubtedly tell your clients the same thing you were told as a design student, namely: no matter how simple the end product, design is hard work, and aesthetics aren’t the whole point. To come up with something that looks good, something somebody likes, is at best tangential to the main point. We’ve all chanted the mantra a thousand times: design is about more than appearances. It’s about problem solving and communication. And problem solving and communication generally require days, weeks or maybe even months of intensive research, ideation, brainstorming, creation and revision.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

And you don’t know the answer to that question.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

You didn’t see the brief. You weren’t there for the meetings. Odds are that you have only a casual knowledge of the client in question. You didn’t see all the ideas that were pitched and you weren’t part of the discussion on why some failed and others succeeded. You didn’t weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this color or that font. You didn’t present the final iterations, you didn’t hear the client’s feedback, and you didn’t have to find a way to merge each and every last one of those requirements and limitations into a single, cohesive entity.

That gives you absolutely no right to critique anything except the subjective aesthetics of the design you’re seeing.

And I’m willing to bet money that you hate it when somebody does that to your design.

Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t.

“Well, sure I wanted to change this, but the brief required…”

“Yeah, I would have liked to explore typefaces more, but the budget…”

“This color definitely wasn’t my first choice, but according to our audience research…”

These are all sentences you can’t hear because you get the luxury of seeing the final product without any knowledge whatsoever of how it came into existence. Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t. They had deadlines, budgets, parameters, meetings, goals, briefs, revisions, concerns and loads of client feedback. All you have is a starting point that somebody else already created for you and a social platform full of people willing to click the “like” button.

Remaking somebody else’s logo without knowledge of the full process behind it isn’t design; it’s doodling.

Don’t Cheapen Design

Taking somebody else’s work and toying with it is a fine exercise for somebody who’s learning. But it’s little more than plagiarism if you’re telling an audience that this, in terms of real design, has any substantial meaning or value whatsoever.

When you show the world that you can supposedly take something existing and make it better in a single day, the message you’re sending is, “design is effortless. It takes very little time, thought or energy. It’s cheap, petty, subjective and shallow.” You strip design—and every other designer out there—of their value and the respect that they deserve.

Don’t do that. Don’t cheapen what we do. Don’t give the world the message that what we provide is easy, quick and mindless.

Design, at its best and as it ought to be, is absolutely none of those things.

August 5, 2015

Dollar sign in a heartWorking at a branding agency, you frequently find yourself in preliminary meetings where people describe their organization to you. “What makes you different?” is the question at the heart of branding and marketing. And whether the organization in question is a nonprofit, a Fortune 500 company or a local startup, the people at the head of it always have very specific ideas about what makes their particular outfit different from any other.

(Whether these ideas are original is another matter—”Integrity” is such a popular word in these conversations that it’s immediately rejected as soon as it’s spoken. Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?)

But that’s ok; we as designers, branding agencies, etc. wouldn’t have jobs if everybody already knew all about the unique strengths and weaknesses of their own brand and how to ideally leverage those qualities. We’re here because clients need an outside, more objective point of view; an expert.

Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?

One of the things I love about where I work and the process we employ is that these conversations are not by far the end of our discovery—nor should they be for any agency that takes branding seriously. David Day | Associates’ brand process (at the risk of sounding like too much of a company man) can often take weeks or even months of intensive research, interviews, surveys, workshops, roundtables and market exploration. All of this takes place at every level; stakeholder, consumer, competitor, market peers and those completely outside the brand’s hemisphere.

This practice certainly isn’t unique to dda (though most branding agencies have honed and personalized their approach to it, ours included), but the goal and result of this is the distillation of brand values: a collection of words or phrases painstakingly extracted from this process which form the central brand identity. These values are a mantra of sorts, a kind of brand code, refining and solidly defining why the organization exists, how it does everything it does and will go about operating in the future. Some companies (and the agencies that brand them) have other names for the brand values, but the meaning is the same, and virtually every company on the planet—especially the larger and more successful ones—have and embrace them.

If done well and researched carefully, the words and phrases that emerge from the branding process form a cohesive identity. These values will be personal, meaningful and unique.

For example, below are the ten core values of Zappos:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

That’s great, isn’t it? That list sounds like Zappos. It feels like their brand feels. You get a sense of what that organization is all about and even what their workplace culture might be like just from that tiny list. And that’s the whole point; this is the beating heart of the brand.

It’s not uncommon for executives to commission posters, mugs and mousepads with the brand values on them. In the offices of a company that’s been through this process, ideally, everybody from the CEO on down makes their business decisions based on their alignment with these values, HR rewards employees for exhibiting these values in their everyday work, and the success of the company and its employees is measured solely against them.

Deep breath.

But…that’s not often the case, is it?

Where Brands Fall Apart

Here’s where I’m going with this: that company I just described doesn’t really seem to exist in reality most of the time, does it? Which begs the question:

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

Just as any executive or business owner will say their company values integrity (and quality and service, of course), so virtually every company claims that they reward and value their employees exhibiting their brand values.

But is that really accurate?

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

I’ve heard of a lot of CEOs being fired for failing to turn a profit, just as I’m sure you have. There are countless examples of the exit door swinging open rapidly for executives who dropped shareholder prices or who initiated plans, programs and products that weren’t sufficiently fiscally successful. If you want to lose your job, there’s no surer way than to lose your company some money.

So where are all of the CEOs, executives and managers who lost their jobs for failing to adequately exhibit and execute the brand’s core values?

To take the example above, if you work at Zappos, hopefully somebody will take notice if you’re not pursuing growth and learning (#5), or if you are not helping to build a positive team and family spirit (#7). But whether or not that happens in reality (and I can’t speak to that particular company’s culture either way), I feel confident they’ll notice and respond quickly if you’re costing the company money.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values? What if the employee or manager who’s losing the money is doing so in the name of upholding the brand values?

There are many instances where this exact thing does happen; we just don’t tend to think of it in this light. For example: a business that says it puts people first will lay off workers in a location that isn’t sufficiently profitable even when there were other options available; a company that claims to value family above all else will either pay its employees too little to afford child care or demand too many hours to make raising children viable; a company that says it values innovation will try to guard its own research from other innovators for fear of losing dollars; and a business that supposedly takes pride in its country, state and local community will move offshore to avoid taxes. Hell, I’ve even heard people in healthcare argue against treating patients in desperate need if they can’t pay.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values?

All of this is invariably done for one central, core, defining purpose: profit. It’s the first option in the flowchart of modern capitalism: Can you make money? > YesMake money. End of chart.

So this leaves us in the position of accepting one of two uncomfortable realities:

  1. Companies lie about their values;
  2. Companies tell the truth about their values, but profit is also one, and it trumps the rest.

In either of the similar realities above, we’re forced to ask what purpose and legitimacy these brand values actually hold. It’s almost insultingly easy to find a product or service advertising something like, “We put quality and integrity at the heart of all we do.” And we buy it (figuratively and literally). But if that exact same product or service said “We put profit at the heart of all we do,” we’d flip it the bird and walk away—even though we all know deep down that if every company were being honest, almost every piece of corporate business communication would say this.

This is a problem. How do we change this behavior?

As always, it’s up to you, consumer. Vote with your dollars. It’s time to reward companies that truly live out their brand values and put those before their own profit margins.

It’s up to you, employees, to raise your voice and blow the proverbial whistle when you see companies contradicting their own values.

And it’s up to you, bosses, managers, presidents and CEOs, to put the health of your brand ahead of the health of your shareholders’ wallets. Money’s nice, but it’s nothing more than a means to an end. And if you’re sacrificing good people on the way to that end, then it isn’t worth it.

The best way to improve your product, service, or whatever it is that your organization offers is to invest in the people creating it. And that is often completely counterintuitive to investing in profit.

Profit is not a value.

It’s up to all of us to stop acting like it is.