Just published my first essay over at Stemmings! Give it a read and let me know what you think.
Brand and identity are pretty easy to conflate, as they both answer the question, “who are you?” To understand the difference, we can take the metaphor a little further.
Identity is your social security number. It’s the token to play. if you were strictly speaking in identity terms, when asked ‘who are you?’ you’d reply with your name.
But, to answer ‘who are you’ with your credentials is a shallow dip into the pool. This is where brand comes in: what makes you inherently you? It’s the swagger and the voice that make up a brand and ultimately speak to your essence.
There are plenty of companies that do both, one or neither of brand and identity well (some more intentionally than others).
Examples of companies with strong identities and strong brands:
Nike, Levi’s, Penguin books, New York Times, Virgin America, Coca cola, Nintendo, Apple, PBS, Gatorade
Examples of companies with strong brands and weak identities:
Urban outfitters, Wikipedia, Many fashion design companies, Ray and Charles Eames, The Smithsonian
Examples of companies with strong identities and weak brands:
CBS, FedEx, most car brands, public transit systems
Companies with strong identities are immediately recognizable, and companies with strong brands are easy to relate to. When a company has a strong identity and a weak brand, it seems like a utility. It’s easy to find when you need it and different from its competitors, but you don’t expect it to have much personality.
Companies with weak identities and strong brands feel extremely democratic and mercurial. They can be rooted strongly in trend or the flow of the people. For Urban Outfitters, for instance, a lack of identity actually strengthens their brand. They appeal to irreverent, young renegades, and their damn-the-man attitude is amplified by their ever-changing logo.
The reason a strong identity and strong brand is the holy grail of companies is because only when utility and ethos are combined can a place really portray itself as a service. However, it is an interesting thought experiment: what would happen to your company if you leaned one way or another? Is one side more appropriate?
Silicon Valley doesn’t know what to do with people like us. They call us graphic designers, visual designers, marketing designers—as if we are stylists who trim the windows and top the cakes.
No. We are makers, pixel poets, paper-molesting war mongers, stitching the standards of international revolutions. We play in a universe where everyone is a genius, everyone is a hacker, everyone has the tools to take dominion over their own fate. We prime the masses for the better world ahead.
The ink, shapes, type, color and copy—it’s all a vessel for crackling ideas and so are we. We are not deceivers. We are not charlatans who sell cardboard cutouts. Our gift is dangerous if abused and so we are serious in our work. We help Peter Parkers ache to become superheroes. And let me tell you, we all have a Peter Parker growling within us.
So, sound the bugles. Build the ramparts of a product and start the whispers, the low hum of a beautiful cause. We will paint it on the walls. We will tell the story. And with a strong story, a narrative to perk their senses, they will start to believe. You will start to believe. We can all occupy the same town square, the same inch of grass. It might be for an instant, but it will change us all. They, with excitement on your app’s load screen and you, benevolent and economical with a blueprint in your hand.
Call us communication designers. Call us to the fight with you.
All good things come to an end. Or, they would if we ever stopped evolving.
There are two kinds of reinvention. A company that’s settled into a comfortable and wan pattern will shake up its brand to fly under a steadier standard. Take the Current TV redesign, which does this quite literally:
(image from Brand New)
The idea of an army-sized movement, of the immutable power of the tide, of a billowing flag in the dark—that’s got a lot more heft than techy crowds wielding pixels. And, it’s what Current has always been about.
There’s a different genius in the second kind of reinvention, the reinvention of conviction.
Sunglasses are built to shield us. They block out the sun, they anonymize movie stars to the flash of the paparazzi. I have always loved Ray-ban for its complete opposition of this idea. Let the other sunglasses keep out the world. Never Hide in Ray-bans.
Jeans are built for hard, gritty work. But, in Levi’s, there’s work to be undone. In the nostalgia for our forefathers, we don’t find factory drudgery. We find the love of careful craft and the freedom of razing the past to start anew.
When your brand’s heart runs dry, find a new north. Run in the opposite direction. Free yourself from the metropolis we’ve built and head for the frontier. Breathe the country air. At the very least you will come home changed.
Let’s shoo the clients, bosses and managers out of the room for a second and talk about process.
Process is the bugle call of our design generation. It propagated with the IDEOs, frogs, Zurbs and Smarts of our industry and infiltrated every company. Finally, the heady coven of creation, distilled into phases and checkpoints—this was something the most empirical CEO’s could understand and salespeople could sell.
That’s wonderful. My parents don’t call me every night worrying I’m dumpster diving, and human beings have access to better designed objects as a whole.
Backstage, though, I pray to the design gods that we ourselves aren’t drinking this simplistic koolaid. Problem-solving and brainstorms are vital, but simply following the process we outline for non-designers would yield (and has yielded) unremarkable work.
Ouch! But, really, the ‘design process’ is bland, mechanical and easy. A problem comes in. You arrive at solutions, pick the winner and push that baby out into the world. It isn’t the interesting part of design at all. What really makes a brilliant designer is the white space between the outlined gospel. What creates the visual metaphors, the right questions to ask or the right shade of pink? That designer’s particular experience, whether it be school, work or play. There are hidden wells inside of us that don’t surface in explicit ways.
Even if you’ve known me for years, you might not know I watched nature documentaries every day for five or six years. Mental space for reminders and algorithms is filled up instead by seemingly useless animal facts. Besides helping me remember the names of conference rooms at Twitter, this experience gave me respect for systems and symbiosis, a sense of scale, and an eye for movement and detail, among other things. I didn’t know it then, but this antisocial TV habit was inherent to my personal design development, and vital to my career.
We create in the context of ourselves, and that’s not something easily quantified. I could never tell a client, here’s a charge for the hour I spent watching that Discovery documentary about salmon migration fifteen years ago. I couldn’t have found this solution without it. There’s no proof and no deliverables for that time. To the rest of the world, that’s nerve-wracking, but to us, it should be comfort that the best method of interesting work is to seek out experiences and learn how to let them change you.
Sell, and sell well. But never forget—each day is part of your process, and that you’re preparing for a project that may be years in your future.
Stewart and I chatted about design education recently. Plenty of people succeed without a degree, but plenty of people don’t.
You should go to school, but you should go to a good school. However, there are definitely things you don’t learn until you’re out hustling with the best of ‘em.
Some things I learned in school:
(or, things that I picked up in the pressure cooker of CMU):
It’s possible to live on 3 hours of sleep for up to a week and not lose all functionality (but you will become socially inept).
You can cook a feast for under $10.
Kill your darlings and your real darlings will shine.
If people look at your work and have nothing to say, it means it’s unremarkable. Start over.
The pain of the push is forgotten after the glory.
Failure is forgiven.
People have the power to fulfill your karma.
Look at your process work. It will make you want to keep going.
Things take time.
Good design looks inversely effortless to the toil put into it.
Contrast is king.
Don’t put lipstick on pigs.
There’s a metaphor for everything.
How to kern.
How to pair typefaces.
Sometimes the only way to know is to try it.
Authorities are sometimes wrong.
The computer’s a tool, not a magic box. Don’t rely on it.
Constraints are good.
Don’t date people in your studio.
Some things I learned after school:
(or, things education did not help me with)
Never use pure black (#000) as body text in digital media.
Talent matters, but less than network at first.
Fake it and there’s a good chance you’ll make it.
Success is slow.
401ks, stocks, RSUs, PPO, HSA.
How to work with engineers.
How to work with clients.
Try not to put yourself in a position where you have to please too many people.
Chain of people to please: User > You > Art Director > Client
Things take a long time.
It’s normal to take a few hours a day for your own enjoyment.
It’s hard to do good work when you’re worrying about money.
People will hate you for being brave.
People will love you for being brave.
Assume everyone around you is doing the best they can and you’ll be happier.
In-house designers aren’t designers who gave up—they’re designers who believe in a cause.
Your friends are still your best asset, even professionally.
Photoshop layer effects: drop shadow: set to 90 degrees.
Have other interests besides design.
Famous designers are accessible.
Smithsonian NMNH bird collection, photo by Chip Clark
There’s a beautiful yet unpalatable quality to this photo. The human mind craves vast and organized displays, yet the idea of dead animals sorted into boxes unsettles the heart.
For scientific categorization, a room like this is perfect—I want to see a macaw, and I want to see it right now. In fact, show me ten macaws, show me any bird I want to see. However, the cold sort of birds by species isn’t a great way to sort everything—relationships with people, for example.
Defining relationships is difficult, but not impossible: Friend, foe, family. The problem is that relationships themselves aren’t easy categorical buckets.
One facet of this issue is that relationships change over time (see Kevin’s great post on this issue). A macaw isn’t going to morph into a canary, but a friend may turn into a girlfriend.
However, the other large failure of such an organization schema: it’s not a natural compartmentalization of the people in our lives.
If there’s one human behavior social networks feed off of, it’s our obsessive need to share. We revel in each others’ success, fall with each others’ failures and get to know each other through common interests. We ultimately love Facebook, Twitter and Google+ because they help us connect with the people we want to have a relationship with.
When you have a relationship with another human, sure, you can put labels on it. My mom, sister, brother and cousin are my family. My boyfriend is my boyfriend. My professor, manager and coworker are my professional network. However, when I come to a nugget of content I want to share, I simply don’t stop to think of people in that way.
I don’t know if this is an effect of our fractured age, but we have different kinds of friends. There is that friend you ask for recipes, that friend you go to bars with, and that very special friend you’d tell if you got cancer. I’d never want my entire family to know I cheated on a test, but I might tell my sister and my roommate—just like if I discovered Trololo Man, I might want to share mostly with my cousin and a couple buddies from my old a cappella group.
We don’t generally find content expressly to cater to a group. We typically find gold in our travels and then want to share. So isn’t it artificial to lump people into categories rather than sort by the content itself?
Show me a social network that easily differentiates between “people I’d tell my address to” and “people who care I met Paula Scher”. That will be the rub.
(As a pre-emptive disclaimer, this has nothing to do with my first two weeks at Twitter. I have an in-depth update coming up about my job and my coworkers, who are wonderful human beings. I believe with all my heart that they would never say such a bile-inducing phrase).
There are many bad terms for people we don’t like. Here are a few. Hussy. Dick. Douche.
What do all these insults have in common? In a single word, they not only tell you that the person they are referring to is a jerk, but also illuminates gender.
The glory of artful language is that if you pick the right word, you can efficiently describe a situation. Instead of, “male jerk who likes to sleep with anything with legs,” you can say, “manwhore.” When you tell a story, this effect can be powerful. Crassness and judgments aside, it replaces the slashes of verbal parrying with a Zorro-esque Z.
Let me run another word by you. Pretty.
This word makes me want to burn down the crit room. When you call something ‘beautiful,’ it’s overwhelmingly positive. There is never room to mistake ‘beautiful’ as a derisive comment. ‘Pretty,’ however, is a backhanded compliment that people feel obligated to counter. Some proof: here’s a comparison of the first four results for, “designers just make pretty pictures” and “designers just make beautiful pictures”.
None of the results for ‘beautiful’ are actually related to that statement, while all of the ‘pretty’ results are articles or comments appealing people to respect designers.
While ‘it’s pretty!’ is a synonym for ‘it’s beautiful’ to most innocent wielders, in critique it often has the efficiency of ‘manwhore.’ When someone says, ‘it’s pretty…’, they typically mean, ‘eh, it’s beautiful, but thoughtless.’
First off, let’s address the fact that snarkiness and cynicism don’t have a place in a productive critique. If our intent is to improve each other and do good work, veiling your feedback with sarcasm is harmful.
Secondly, why bring the issue of beauty into the matter at all? While beauty is subjective, one of the goals of design -is- ultimately to create beauty through evocative contrasts, gruesome or golden. No one approaches any interface saying, “I’m going to make this thing all busted and ugly,” and people don’t fault a good interface for being beautiful.
Should we really despise a work more so for being visually considered and thoughtless than for being ugly and thoughtless? Should we hate a physically beautiful person for owning a symmetrical face, or because they ask why poor people can’t keep their yards clean like the rest of us?
Perhaps the scornful ‘pretty’ is a disgust for deception. Perhaps the outward beauty leads us on, and that’s what we really hate when we say, ‘pretty’. The promise of a delightful experience, dashed by the reality of flippant thinking.
Regardless, to give specific and actionable critique, let’s be transparent. If a piece has a harmonious composition but inappropriate typefaces and colors, be specific and state both sides. It’s okay for a thoughtless design to get a couple things right. It’s still thoughtless regardless of good kerning, and would be thoughtless with bad kerning as well. Leave ‘manwhore’ and ‘douche’ for storytelling.
One of my deepest, darkest, most cliche aspirations is to be a writer as well as a designer—and I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to have it all.
There’s something in the abstract nature of words that acts as a great equalizer—we’re surrounded by texts daily, quietly sponging up gorgeous words and ideas. That’s no small reason for your average mom of four or bank accountant to find their creative escape in writing.
I’m consistently intrigued by great writers who did not spend most of their days as writers. WC Williams, for example, one of my favorite poets. To me, his poems are painfully American, and painfully great. While he caroused with the best artists and writers of the time on his days off, he was a doctor by profession.
Listen to ol’ WC read ‘To Elsie’ here: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15538
It’s not a far jump to wonder, why isn’t design like writing? People don’t say, “I’d like to be a designer. I think I have at least one good website in me.” Perhaps the answer is literacy. While in the past the written word was a bourgeois pastime, it’s pretty much expected that everyone you see on the average street in a modern American city probably knows how to read.
Could/should/will we ever teach our kids design literacy? Is design such an elite and hard to grasp skill that this education would just bankrupt the next generation as they spend their first paycheck on a set of Eames chairs? I think not—if the rise of sites such as 99 Designs and Deviant Art are any indicator, the visual revolution is already here.