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Think BR: The new bland identity

It's time for brands to create bolder statements, writes Kai Turner, experience lead, Huge.

Kai Turner, experience lead, Huge

Kai Turner, experience lead, Huge

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The trademark. A timeless seal of a craftsman, set in stone, bronze or steel. A badge. Corporate heraldry suited to battling your way to the top of your industry. A brand. Emblazoned proudly on your fleet and service uniforms as you venture out to change the world. 

That was a different time. When the pre-MTV generation just wanted a Coke and a smile. Before we were swooshed by Nike, tangoed by Orange or ogled by Google. Now we live in a multiplatform multichannel stream of visual noise constantly vying for our partial attention. 

In this environment, simplicity and clarity stand out. Simple shapes. Bold colours. Modern typography. Less is more:

  • Microsoft. The familiar rippling window simplified down to a two-by-two grid of squares.
  • eBay's unkempt typographic logo given a fashion makeover and a modern sans-serif typeface.
  • USA Today's finely detailed globe becomes a massive visual full-stop, with an unmissable traffic light-like colour system to clearly denote its different media channels and that lends itself to information graphics. 

Are these ideas simple or safe? Modern or mediocre? Brand identities or bland identities?

The practice of branding corporate identities emerged at a time when the visual landscape in print advertising was a cluttered sea of typography. In this environment, enabled by, but also constrained by, advances in print technology, visual brand identities began to take shape.

They were simple and bold because they had to be. The limitations of the medium were embraced by both ad agency and artists. It would define new minimalist aesthetic movements such as De Stijl.

Designers didn't follow trends - they created "isms". Minimalism, modernism, functionalism - these weren't fashions, they were a life philosophy. And when a designer made a mark to define a brand, both the mark and the company it represented were meant to be timeless. 

What makes a timeless brand identity?

In 1951, William Golden, an in-house designer at CBS created the iconic logo that is still in use today, having survived the company's growth from a radio and television operator to a global media conglomerate.  

At the time, Golden was thinking about the power of communication, and trying to find a symbol that would be easily recognised across a variety of media.

He couldn't have imagined all of the ways in which it would eventually be used, but he attempted to create a timeless mark and he succeeded. 

Some of this built to last spirit continued into the 1970s, when Paul Rand designed the IBM logo that still exists today in a form fairly unadulterated from its 1972 original.  

Around that same time, Saul Bass applied his design genius and cross-media savvy to creating brand identities - the average lifespan of his designs has been roughly 34 years - with logo designs for Kleenex and Minolta having been minimally refreshed from the form they were given in the late 1970s. 

An example of a modern classic is something as close as your local Starbucks. Starbucks simplified its visual identity, arriving at something memorable, easily recognisable across media formats, and remaining true to its brand heritage.

Brands that want to change the world - and designers who know how

I'm calling on brands to make bolder statements, but also first look at why they are changing their identity, and not take that decision lightly or to view it as a band-aid covering up a deeper operational wound.

The true champion is the designer. There are myriad reasons to arrive at a bland identity and equally a number of ways in which to justify those decisions and make them sound deliberate, but that's not good enough.

Designers need to start trying to change the world again. One brand at a time.

Kai Turner, experience lead, Huge

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