The Agony of Brand Identity

I’ve become quite uncomfortable about lots of the words we use to describe our working life. They are all so loaded, and I don’t think they’re always that helpful, or even reflect what we’re actually doing. BRAND IDENTITY is definitely one of those terms.

Do you really need a ‘brand’ identity?

No, you don’t. Well, actually yes, but I don’t think it’s really about ‘brand’ now. Here’s why:

There was a doc about Joy Division on BBC4 recently. Bernard Sumner was reflecting back on the band’s successes before Ian Curtis’ heartbreaking death, and was asked about their sense of image, design, their look. He got annoyed. Really annoyed. All that mattered to them was making and being immersed in the purity of their music, but the music industry always wants image, to create personal brands that look great on posters, and this, he said, steals from our raw, real-human-being truth. His was a righteous anger about branding at large, which he says is manipulative and dishonest, ultimately a mask to hide behind. It’s a false front, deceiving people by creating an illusion of perfection and desire.

Fierce words. It’s nothing we don’t know, though, so where does it leave us?

It helps to think about context.

In the 1980s, late 70s, Sumner’s words will have been so, so true. The Bakelite sheen over life was superseded by big hair and shoulder pads, almost designed to keep reality at bay. Ads of the time make us smirk with their falseness, and the Mad Men marketing campaigns make us squirm under the sleeze. Today, offensively huge, janglingly rich empires exist for the 1% because the 99% have bought into the myth.

Sick of a hollow happiness promise from the world’s gigantic brands, more of us just want to break free and find independent solutions to our problems that involve real people being honest, making and sharing stuff from the very heart of that beautifully messy confusion that real life actually is.

Grow your own, close to source, fairly, ethically and lovingly crafted. For those of us who choose different paths in our work, to do something that matters, how can we approach the matter of brand identity and marketing with some sense of integrity?

While I agree with Mr. Sumner to a point, I think what we mean by ‘brand’ is so much more nuanced than it was at the angry birth of punk. It’s because we have tried that other way for generations, and watched it go wrong, lots of us are now trying something new, in numbers, and with massive encouragement to each other to do the same. Our future on this planet depends on it! Because we now live and communicate the way we do, we are finding better ways to represent ourselves and our expertise truthfully, but still with some style, grace, elegance, wit, character…

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

We need to think about how we come across, but not hide behind a false image that tricks the world into thinking we’ve got something we haven’t. We’ll get so found out. Maybe we could replace the words ‘brand identity’ with ‘visual identity’, and see how they fit as we explore a new way now.

No one has the same face as you, or fingerprint, or voice, so let your Visual Identity be as honest and unique and full of character and stamina and life and breath and changing seasons as you are. Let the design of your visual identity evolve naturally, powerfully, with real sincerity, to reflect that purity of your best work. Thinking of it like that, nothing’s being stolen from anyone.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Why and how to build a visual kit box

I’m feeling a bit sad now that summer dwindles off over the hill, and all camp action is (probably) done for this year. Too soon!

Here at my desk I’m dreaming back on those easy days of barefoot slobbing on balmy sites in France this summer, taking a designer’s aesthetic and organisational pride in the state of our pitch in order that maximum camp satisfaction can be achieved.

Let me tell you, this wouldn’t happen without The Grey Box. The Grey Box is like our Mission Control, full of essential camping weirdness (mallet to lighters to multitools, tealights and tent pegs, etc) that keeps a trip going smoothly. By far, it takes up the most space in the boot but we’d be lost without it.

And why do you need to know about The Grey Box?

Because having a lovingly prepared kit box makes the difference between shambolic and triumphant operations.

We all need a work-related ‘Grey Box’ when it’s time to get our great messages out, I reckon. A kit of parts that has a useful tool tucked away for certain occasions – right through from a simple business card to a big, bold manifesto.

In my visual world, I want ideas to be the heroes, and I think the world needs much better words and ideas to focus on. So it figures that we need loads of different ways to make sure that happens*.

*I ran through some of these in my last post.

If being prepared can only be born of experience, making clanging errors and learning from them, then it’s alright to take time to build your kit box slowly but surely. Watching your business grow over time, you will learn what works and what doesn’t for you, for your style and what you have to say.

You may hit moments of horror or frustration, realising there’s a key piece of stuff missing from your kit yet not enough time to get that together (eg. “Agh, wouldn’t it be perfect if I’d done that little booklet and could give her this right now!”)

Nevermind, I say. You will figure it out, because your message and ideas grow from travelling a brave path that’s taken a lot of graft to follow, and if you just turned up in your pants alone I bet you’d still communicate the lovely essence and quality of all you hold true. (BTW. Please don’t just turn up in your pants. That was not an invitation.)

Communicating your lovely ideas is an adventure. It takes time and experience to build the kit you need. Let the path unfold, have fun exploring, see what your people engage with and set up camp there for a while. Listen, and have faith in the journey. 

You’ll soon figure out what you need when you find [the thing you didn’t know was a thing] is not there in your kit box.

A bit like arriving at your campsite and realising the rubber hose connecting the gas bottle to the cooker is missing… (sorry about that M – add it to the checklist?)

So, wherever your adventures in thought and work and life take you, happy devoted kit building, people!

On the banks of Lake Taupo, NZ

Touring Lake Taupo, NZ

Making Your Film

Having the inspiration to make a film or animation for your business is exciting. A gorgeous, emotive film with a strong message can be an absolutely fabulous, sharable piece of content that causes a real stir and helps you connect with people in just the way you want.

More than that.

If it comes from a truly heartfelt place then it gives us a piece of you and what you feel and believe about the world, and that is gold when you’re trying to communicate your ideas to us all.

When not to make that film

People often come to me asking about making a film, and I always see how it would work, with bells on.

More than words. It’s visceral.

But often I’ve been with people on the journey as the commitment of making a film causes quite a rethink. It brings up some really good questions, worth asking before any big commitment of your time and money that will go into making a film or animation:

What do I actually believe? 

Will I still believe that in a couple of years? 

Will people sit through 2 or 3 minutes of my film, or am I better in direct conversation with a postcard version of my manifesto to give them? 

I know the first part of my story, but I’m just not sure where this ends. Am I better off working on a short eBook?

How about a blog series over a few months with some illustrations, while I knuckle out my plans?

Facing these questions may feel like a massive roadblock, but fear not. It’s totally normal, and to be expected if you’re thinking properly about your visual communication. It’s something I’ve chatted through loads while partnering with people on the design adventure. It’s wise to ask questions and the thinking you do now will set you up even better for your future marketing and revolutionising!

Yes, a film is a totally fabulous thing to make – when you’re ready for it. Before you go racing ahead on that, think about—and enjoy—all the other rich forms of visual content at your fingertips that are less of a commitment while you figure out your sound thinking.

There are all sorts of alternatives to making a film in the early stages of getting your message out, which over time will prove invaluable.

Never make a film just for the sake of it, because everyone else is doing one.

Above all, here’s the most important thing to hang on to:

If you are creating pieces that help you connect with people in a real way, and which truly help proper, meaningful conversation to happen, then it’s always going to be worth your investment.

how to engage with a designer : pt1



Sometimes the thought of talking to a designer or agency about your visual stuff just feels tricky. It shouldn’t. 

Whether you’ve had experience working with designers before, or are new to the game, what’s best to focus on when weighing up design services on offer? I reckon connecting person to person has a massive amount to do with helping your communication mission taking off smoothly right from the start.

I outlined some key things to think about in a previous post. Here, I’ll concentrate on the emotional aspects of these initial chats, that can so often get forgotten about but which I think drive our projects. 

Today’s focus is on the heartfelt considerations in choosing the right person to work with.

First of all, are they proven? 
Simple (perhaps obvious) one to start off – do you like their online portfolio and does it show their relevant skill? If it gets your heart going that’s a really good thing! 
 
You may get excited by examples of their work and see something you feel really speaks your language. That’s obviously a good sign. An emotional response means that their way of saying things is visually resonating somewhere deep down, and is a potentially powerful tool for getting your message across too.
Visual language can connect in a heartbeat. Listen to that.
 
Some designers have a distinct style, and it may or may not hit the right notes for you. That’s okay – not everyone goes for the same things, the way not everyone likes the same music. 
 
Perhaps you found them through referral, so what do others say? 
 
 
Second, what does their biography say? 
Check out their track record on a biography page. Is it rounded, relevant and interesting? 
Someone with a bit of life experience will not be phased by twists and turns that inevitably go with building a business, and the changing demand on your brand design or visual content as a result. 
Awards? Well, yes of course they are nice, but they aren’t everything. I say this having won a few awards, and also spent years being out and about making adventurous projects happen too, so can definitely see both sides here.
 
Sometimes people with the most interesting life stories will bring just the perspective you need to make good decisions about your communication. 

Remember, this is about character. Do they have it, and do you like it?
Next is empathy.
Do not underestimate the value of empathy.
 

Do they get you? Do you get them? Do you like them? 

Once you have met up, have they listened to you, and asked relevant questions that help get to the heart of the matter? 

On the unusual and non-linear orbit of design and visual communication, having personal empathy for one another will really help in negotiating the right course.
And do you respect each other?
 

Choose to believe that that great biography counts for a lot, that they really know their stuff about how humans communicate, and are also willing to talk to you about that in plain english! 

However, in the middle of this, are you reassured that they understand and respect your expertise, challenges, market, audience, budget? This is so important.

Mutual respect for the expertise you both bring will carry you an awful long way. Be prepared to ask vulnerable questions and listen out for wise insights they offer in response. 

 
To jointly realise those dreams for your business, showing trust and being able to let go a little will be important, but it goes both ways. Do aim to meet face to face, at least with a video call if not in person. We all pick up more than we imagine this way. And finally…
Don’t be bowled over by swagger and bullshit. Please. The world will be a much better place without that.
***

So to sum up:

Does their work make your heart beat faster?
Do you like their character?
Do you empathise with each other?
Do you respect each other?

And DON’T be bowled over by arrogance.

When I think of my favourite projects of all time, respect and empathy have been mutually present all the way through, and have been crucial to overcoming hurdles along the way. 

I’ll pick up in my next post to talk about some of more practical considerations, such as budget and project management. In the meantime, enjoy the soundtrack and do get in touch with thoughts, questions or useful experiences – it’s always good to swap notes then we design people can learn how to do it better.

***
 

“Sometimes you feel so deserted,
but hold on ’cause help’s on the way”

{Today’s Soundtrack: The Chemical Brothers – Sometimes I Feel So Deserted}

Halfway Down a Long Path

Now roughly half way through this 100 Days project, I want to take a moment to check in with some ideas that have occurred as I’ve progressed, and the reasons for taking a break before continuing.

As mentioned at some point in recent posts, rattling through 100 Days really is a long time to be rattling, and is rattling really a good use of my precious time? What am I learning here? What is better in the world as a result? It’s a long time to keep mechanically repeating a task or approach with either no critical judgement—”I’m just doing it for its own sake, and that is good enough.”—or with no sense of direction either.

I realise I want direction. 

I realise I want the wealth of all those days to add up to something significant.

I want that wealth of thought or effort to show either in a resolved, embedded attitude of mind, and/or better skills, and a rewarding body of work too.

Agreed – sometimes its important to just play as that’s when your mind can loosen up and become free enough to let new things happen.
Somewhere in here though is a neat point about the purpose of regular discipline and the benefit in forming a new habit. By definition, a new habit will not be so polished to begin with. Being accountable to the world by sharing all this online amplifies inevitable personal vulnerabilities, and maybe these last couple of weeks I just needed to take a breath and then here’s the next thing I realise:

I realise that being publicly accountable with the things you make day after day is a little nerve-wracking and slightly exhausting, and quite difficult to do unless you have the strength of a rhino, which I don’t

This began with the question, “What could you do with 100 days of making?”
I have a new question. Now I have glimpsed what’s possible and I know the effort involved, how can I make my next 50 days really count? 
 
{Today’s Soundtrack: Shivum Sharma – Flicker}

_benefits of good design

The time has come. After working long and hard to start your business, after taking a brave leap to realise this new dream, devoting months, possibly years, to polish raw thought into clear shape, you know your new business venture really deserves to look its best when you launch into a world that badly needs it. 
You know good design and a strong brand is important for getting your message across, but can you put your finger on why? 
To give you something to hang on to, here are my five top reasons good design will set you apart.
1. Good Style
It is so important to present your business in a way you know is true to you and your mission. Your good visual style begins here, to match your good thinking, smart thinking, with appealing character – all characterised in your visual communication. 
Style is about character and personality. Fashion is about fad and trend. They are not the same. 
Done well, good design style always transfers beautifully across all materials you use in the day to day of your business. Business cards and web banners are just the tip of the iceberg, but good style can come through on anything you use to communicate with your audience because it’s based on something true that comes from the heart. And it also has flexibility to adapt – so basically, your perfect capsule wardrobe that goes to work in all sorts of scenarios. 


Paying attention to good design means you always show up in really good—and appropriate—style, because you know yourself, and you know your audience. 

2. It’s about Personality
A well-thought-through approach to your design and visual communication gives you plenty of scope for getting your personality across. Good design should give the world a sense of you and what you stand for, so whether someone has a quick glance at your business card or a longer read through an eBook or slideshare, they get a feel for the type of character and attitude inherent in your business. 
3. Coherent Communications

I’ll say it again. Good brand design should be transferrable across many platforms and materials. I’ve mentioned web and business cards, and consider too – proposals, blog illustrations, training material, the book you’re writing. These can all work really well for you with a strategic approach to the design. What about the signage at that annual ideas camp you’re dreaming about hosting, or the campervan-freindly stickers you want to give out

Think about the stretch – how far will your company reach?

The folk at DO have a very simple approach, but they do it so well. And I like Pie Minister too (obviously). You can always spot both of these a mile off, whether a bookshelf at ten paces, or food-stall banner at a busy festival. 

Coherent design plans mean all elements clearly live in the same visual family. Not to say they all look identical – different formats are used for different reasons, but it’s important they all work together. 
Your audience should always know they are looking at your stuff. 
4. It Helps People Believe You

Done well, consistently, and over time, good design helps people to believe you – your message, your passion, your integrity and conviction, and commitment to making the world a better place. It’s consistent with the key principles of good content marketing, which says wherever you speak, whenever you speak, do so in a consistent voice.

Of course, there are many more things that go into the mix, but without good design woven all the way through, well, it’s like buying a campervan and only using it for the school run.

Benefiting you and your message, and helping your audience know what to expect from you, good design really does set you apart and give you distinction by communicating in the voice only you have. 

Good design can be a mark of integrity.


And finally,


5. More than words

Sometimes an idea is so much more powerful seen visually, with a great image or some cracking typography.

Think of a painting or image you’ve seen that made an instant impression, held you glued, gazing, with no verbal explanation necessary.
I have a little fridge magnet on the radiator next to my desk, bought at the National Portrait Gallery during their Lucian Freud exhibition a few years ago. What he’d make of a fridge magnet I don’t know, but I love the quote:

“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.”

Visual communication can do these things for us too, if done well. 


So that’s it. Hold on to these five gems, they’ll help you make good decisions as you grow your company’s design.



***
If you’ve found this post helpful, you may also be interested in these articles: 
• My friends over at Valuable Content flesh out some of my suggestions with super-practical advice
• And in more detail, here is Newflangled with some Content styling tips

_navigating a ‘creative process’

Day 9 & 10 of #100Days project – Carol Ann Dufy & D.H.Lawrence

Anyone setting foot on the path of creating—making, inventing, imagining, developing—is saying ‘yes’ to the so-called creative process*. Inevitably, there will be mess, confusion, both silence and noise, and probably fear too.

You are a brave and adventurous soul, agreeing to this slightly frightening mystery, so how best to hang in when the above recipe seems too sticky to stir and you just need to get something done because you’re up against budget and deadline?

I don’t think it’s complicated.

I do think it’s about courage, and faith, and accepting the mystery for a while, and just getting better at recognising what’s going on when you hit those sticky points.

Simply:

Courage
In having the initial idea, there is something happening inside telling you that this thing could work. The sub-concious knows it, and is trying to get a message through to your cognitive, rational mind.

Have courage that there is sense in your hunch, and put that first step on the road. 

Faith
You have tools at your disposal to throw at this conundrum. You have gathered those through hours—years—of practice, so have a little faith that the practical tools in your kit are there because they work. Pick them up. Have a play. (What are those tools for you, by the way?)

Have faith that your tools serve a really useful purpose, and just pick them up! 

Mystery
Making ourselves accountable to journeys in which we have no idea what the outcome will be, it is all of the above (fear, mess etc) but it is also—in and of itself—a fantastic fact of life, and the better we can become at life, well, who’s not up for that?

I’ve been really inspired by a recent interview with artist Ella Luna on The Great Discontent. “What could you do with 100 days of making?” she asks. It’s a project she’s running for MoMA, inviting anyone to pick up a habit over 100 days, tweeting or posting on Instagram with the hashtag #100Days.

I have lots of ideas and couldn’t wait for the start date so just got on with my own version, without knowing what I expected out of it except a hunch that something new wanted to emerge. Absolutely miles out of my comfort zone here! My plan simply revolves around writing something positive everyday, and picturing that somehow. I post on twitter, Instagram and my Tumblr page, and to friends on Facebook, labelling the day number and some brief thoughts.

Now, ten days in, I realise what I’ve committed to – it’s a big, fat, juicy mystery. That’s it! But because I have faith and courage on my side, I reckon it’s worth putting one foot in front of the other on this mysterious path, knowing that all those steps along the way are going to take me somewhere.

Sharing each step so publicly can throw up raw and vulnerable feelings, no doubt. But it’s a kind of accountability, to myself, to my friends, communities. It is frightening; revealing.

But the mystery of a project unfolding is also exciting, surprising, and delightful, and that’s what to keep pursuing in tiny, incremental little steps.  

So how about you? What’s your project, or dream, or adventure, or risky business plan? Perhaps you can take some encouragement from these words along your journey, and share with us how you get on.

*
If any of this struck a chord, here are some more thoughts on the topic:

Another post on the creative process theme, looking at what resources we have in times of the mess.

And for when you’re just knackered and need a break, have a read of this post!