The Business of Design: My view of branding and brands.

Twitter, Path, Square, Airbnb—what do all these multimillion-dollar companies have in common? All the CEO’s are designers. In the last 20 years, branding has become one of the most important (if not the most important) aspects of any company’s successful business plan. Apple Computer’s iconic logo and marketing strategy has marked the turning point in the importance of graphic designers in company branding.  What role are designers playing in branding strategies for businesses and why are they so important? Which design strategies work; what doesn’t work; and what can graphic design students do now in order to adapt to the ever-evolving/demanding industry of graphic design?

Ok, so lets talk Apple. It’s simple, clean and obvious, yet it is the most iconic logo in the entire world today (diagram #1). You could virtually live underneath a rock and still know the famous symbol without hesitation. But what is it about this graphic that has allowed us to so effortlessly accept it as part of our culture? Who better to ask than the designer of the Apple Logo himself? I came across an interview with Apple Logo designer Rob Janoff, where he explains his ideologies behind what makes a well-designed logo so effective. “The main thing is to make it simple, because designers especially young designers tend to over-design or clients want too many things in there.”  To make a long story short, when it comes to graphic design, less is in fact, more. A big mistake made by designers/companies is that they try much too hard to make something work when it just doesn’t.

Logo designs should be clean, simple and clever; if they are too complicated or abstract the consumer is much less likely to remember it. Take the Fedex Logo for example (diagram #2), notice the simplicity of the two toned “FedEx” text but also see the hidden arrow made from the whitespace of the “E” and the “X”, the hidden arrow implies motion which relates entirely to FedEx’s business model of the shipping of products and goods. Now take at look at the Bstoned logo (diagram #3), look how over detailed and complicated this logo is, the stone looking border is much to complex, the typeface doesn’t go at all, way too many colors (just to name a few issues). The key to having a great logo is for the consumer to be able to look at the design and think “well of course that’s the logo, what else could it be?” now this strategy may sound really obvious, but is an extremely important aspect in branding your company (check out Objectified the movie). Both the FedEx and Apple logos have remained almost exactly the same in the last 30 years; the effectiveness of these design strategies speaks for themselves.

So we’ve talked about logos, but what really breaks a company away from the pack is how they brand themselves. Allow me to explain, branding is how a company markets themselves for correct demographics of the consumers they are trying to appeal to. Still a little unclear on branding? Ok, lets pretend that the Logo is Brad Pitt, and his “branding” is managed by his Public Relations Rep. Now lets imagine our old pal Brad is trying to host a new kids television show, but alas all his fans still think of him as a sex icon (see how this could be a problem?). So if Brad was trying to re-brand himself as kid friendly his PR Rep would probably recommend dressing Brad in a bunny costume for some cartoony billboards (hypothetically), that way he would become more appealing to kids and parents. Way back when, branding was usually taken care of by marketers, but as design becomes more and more integrated with the backbone of a successful company, in-house graphic designers (designers whom work exclusively for the company) must learn not only how to design, but also understand the wants and needs of the consumer and design accordingly to those parameters.  

A poll was taken of 100 different Fortune 500 companies in which they were asked how important design is to their overall business strategy, over 81% said that designers belong on the founding team of any successful new business (startupthisishowdesignworks.com). The reason that graphic design has become so important in business is simple, it has to look good. Consumers today have an extremely high standard for the quality of the products they buy. So if your selling the most incredible underwear ever made, no chaffing, no itching, feels like your wearing nothing, and reasonably priced; 20 years ago that would have been enough. But now the underwear must not only feel good, they also have to look good. It doesn’t matter if you made the worlds greatest undies if your logo looks like two turds sitting on a tree branch. No one will buy what you’re selling if your branding isn’t accurately reflecting your business.

One of the most effective branding campaigns in recent history also happens to be originated by the most profitable company in the world right now, if you don’t already know…its Apple. You go into any Apple Store and you pretty much see the same thing, a butt load of white. Apple’s philosophy on design is based off designer Dieter Ram’s “10 Principles of Good Design” theory. Dieter explains that the design of any good logo or branding strategy revolves around the idea of using as little as possible in order to get the point across. That way the consumer is not distracted by all the frills and can really focus on the quality of the service or product. This makes the business appear much more honest and user friendly to the consumer. If you have seen any of Apple’s commercials or billboards in the last few years, you will definitely notice a reoccurring theme that says “here’s our product, and this is what it does”(diagram #4 and #5). This elegantly simple branding strategy is so effective because it makes it exceptional easy for the consumer to understand what it is they are looking at, who makes it, and what it does. 

I was lucky enough to find a great job working at a marketing/production company as a designer/creative consultant, which has really allowed me to observe these branding strategies develop from start to finish. As I continue to spend more time working in the graphic design field I am discovering that the line between marketer and graphic designer is starting to dissipate. In a few years the expectations of a designer will be far more demanding especially for in-house designers as far as understanding not only the creative aspect but also the business aspect of the company. What I would recommend as a current Graphics Communication Major at SFSU (graphic design) is to minor in marketing. After speaking with a design major councilor, along with advice from my coworkers and a few of our clients I discovered that getting a minor in marketing along with a major in Visual

Communications allows you to be much more versatile and therefore more valuable to a design agency or a company (like Nike, Apple, Twitter) with their own in-house design teams. If you know what the consumer is looking for, and what your company has to offer, you decisions as a graphic designer will be much more relevant.

“We designers, we don’t work in a vacuum. We need business people.” (Dieter Rams). Remember graphic designers; we do NOT have the same skill set as the fine artists (painters, sculptors, cartoonists) we are often confused with. Graphic design is serious business, where every choice you make must have a good reason behind it as opposed to just letting your creative juices flow.  Graphic designers are so important because we are the middlemen; we define how the consumer will perceive a business, and what they stand for. Companies need graphic designers for the same reasons woman put on makeup; the goal is to show people the best parts of whatever you’re representing and utilize it, while keeping the focus off less relevant or undesirable aspects of your company. So no matter whom your designing for, weather it is Apple, Nike, or even a urinal cake manufacturer, before you over-think it, just remember to keep it simple, clean, and clever.

Author Jonathan (JJ) Mas most of his high school career as a huge nerd. He began to develop a passion for new media. At the age of 13, he started making short films with his outcast posse of library-dwelling friends in order to gain YouTube fame (mostly to get girls); thus spawning Ordinary Productions. Eventually his thirst for a broader spectrum of creativity lead him to photography, web development, and graphic design. Spending the next several years refining his creative abilities, JJ has developed a unique simplistic/grid-based style of design. After sending out his portfolio to everyone and their mother, he was eventually hired at the boutique agency NIA Creative as a designer/editor. Now at the mere age of 20, JJ currently lives in San Francisco, where he attends SFSU as Graphic Communications Major. When he's not working on a project (which is almost never) JJ likes to play ice hockey, watch cult classic films with his roommates, and refer to himself in the third person. You can check him out at onlyhuman.me.

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