‘What do you do?’ A common question in the modern world where work often defines us to new people. ‘Branding? What’s that?’ The stock response. Be it a new friend at a party, a driver on a long cab ride or the person sat next to you in transit. Whether we like it or not, graphic design is advertising’s poor cousin. Everyone knows what an advert is, we’re surrounded by them. Logos? We’re also surrounded by them, but in my experience people never think about who designs them or rarely have a favourite. And the thing about all of this? Most new clients once held this position until it came to branding their company.
When we engage with a new client their first question is often, ‘So tell me how this works? What are the steps?’ They want confidence; confidence in the process, confidence in their chosen partner, confidence in what they are buying. How do we achieve that magic component? Well, beyond everything that comes later – like listening and understanding their brand needs and adapting our process – we have to show it first. Most branding agencies try to achieve this on websites by illustrating an end-to-end process – and it seems a lot of online commentators in the design community have a big problem with this.
April 1 every year brings the hilarious tranche of jokes from brands, media outlets and individuals. The vast majority of them turn out to be crap, created by people trying to be funny and failing. This year a few were widely shared on social media. One hit the note perfectly as Matvey Choudnovsky and Kolya Fabrika created a fake collection by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for Swedish fashion power brand H&M that went viral. It delved into the world of celebrity endorsement, combined with the obsession with everyday basics, creating a site which felt so real you got lost in it (I almost forgot it was fake). It wasn’t rude about H&M, but poked fun gently and knowingly at their use of celebrities obsessed with fashion, something it’s clear Mr Zuckerberg isn’t.
At the other end of the scale, Baltimore studio Post Typography created a fake branding agency, Blandly. A hilarious dig at the vacuous world of branding where we point at Post-Its and make up processes to b justify our large billings, when we should be getting down to it and making our hands dirty, like good honest designers. The fallacy at the centre of this joke, however, is based on some gross misunderstandings.
A good agency defines and designs all those workshops, tasks and conversations for two very big reasons. First, to build confidence from the client, so that we understand their needs and where their business is going (and to show that we are listening). And second, so that we design something they need instead of our own vision of what we think they need from our removed position.
As accurate and funny as Blandly is, it’s mocking something without really understanding it – because to a lot of designers, their own vision is enough and it’s the client who needs educating. This is a superiority complex at its worse and the reason why designers get a reputation for perceived arrogance.
Big brands often have big, sprawling complex audiences. The best ones understand this and constantly work on connection; building useful and interesting products that meet their audiences’ needs. Branding needs to be the bridge between these two positions. This is the work I am most interested in – design for everyone, big ambitious products and fresh ideas. To get this work right takes us hours of thinking and talking – so we can design those solutions to fit. This process is often unexpected and requires a lot of the client’s time, something that most are short of and often surprised about.
So all the Post-It note photos and group chats? Well, they are crucial. Which is why I was surprised when a brand like Virgin America created their weird rebrand joke case study, pointedly mocking the Airbnb rebrand I led in 2014. They had gone to a lot of trouble to mock the process of modern branding with me becoming mercurial creative maestro, chief creative officer Connor Barnaby of agency N_Fuzion.
I was told by one Silicon Valley VC that it was great as it meant they talked about us a lot. I see his point and agree in part, but I was trying to work out who the audience was for this joke in the end? Especially as some customers thought it was real and, before they knew it, sexism charges were levelled online at Richard Branson’s spoof video appearance.
So why do we feel the need to mock the process of branding? There’s no doubt that there are a few branding agencies that run the client’s budget into the ground without delivering something of use. We’ve all seen the big projects in the case study that look epic, but that end up being badly rolled out and lose all the impact in the process. And in these examples, when the perfect case study comes out – it’s with the obviously posed project photos, everyone’s wearing their brogues and staring at a white board. There’s that tote bag visual we’ve seen a million times, or the girl in the busy Manhattan street. Well, then there’s a lack of authenticity which leaves a bad taste.
Products such as Live Surface, which initially revolutionised the process, can now often end up being more of a hinderance than a help. The best visuals appear in endless case studies where designers want to show a breadth of tangible outcomes, creating a feeling of fakery. I believe this is born from designers wanting to show what a job can be – and often wanting the client to invest more budget in broadening the brand’s potential outputs. Ideally, most designers are excited about what they do and its potential effect; our enthusiasm leads us to thinking about how a brand can connect. But in this excitement we’re ironically tripping ourselves up, making something feel fake and disingenuous.
How we explain the branding process is of crucial importance – and understanding the audience is the first part. Some designers find it easy to attack these case study elements as they see a purity in showing just the ‘work’ (as they see it), but ultimately, the visual work isn’t the whole of the job; we need context, ideas and reasoning.
Every conversation we have is part of the work, regardless of what form it takes, and that deserves capturing as much as the lovingly-crafted typography. Otherwise it just becomes about personal taste and a showcase for our contemporaries to praise or criticise, depending on their mood that day.
In wanting to know what the process looks like a client is asking, ‘Why should we do this?’ In this case, a great digital process case study can answer a lot of these questions without you even opening your mouth.