Monday, March 21, 2005

Blindy Branding

Blindy Branding

Let the manual do the thinking for you!

I've recently been reminded about a problem I haven't had to deal with in a while. To protect the innocent, I'm just going to change Kim's name to... hmmm — Mik. WAIT! Oh dear...

Alright. So, Kim is working currently on a tight brand. What do I mean by tight? Well, the brand manual must actually only be a page with two words on it: 'Bunny' and 'Pink'. The problem with this, is that she's designing a website for this client, and they keep getting the jitters about the design, and giving the only advice they know is safe — 'More Bunny' or 'More Pink'.

Now, that might work for a magazine ad. Or a billboard. But not a website. But before I delve into that, let's take a trip back in time... to Design School!

What is Brand?

Now, I know many of my readers are not graphic designers, so I'll try not to nerd it up too much. But I think it's pretty important for non-designers to have a little understanding of Brand anyways — it's always helpful to understand how marketers manipulate us like a pin-striped Greek Pantheon. Anyways, I've included a 'glossary' of sorts at the bottom of the page, so if you get confused at anytime, feel free to see if I explain myself better at the bottom.

When you get down to it, Brand needs to do two things — allow you to quickly recognize a company, and evoke the proper, department-approved feeling. The consumer needs to breathe a sigh of relief when they recognize that familiar, sensuous red color; the seductive twists and turn of the Coca-Cola logotype. The comforting knowledge that this is INDEED the same cola they've been sucking down twice a day since they were 5, and it will taste just as good on the day they die from Type 2 Diabetes. The savvy investor craves the soothing, stable assurance of a nameless bold sans-serif on a colored field, and the humorless, marching prose that lets you know you're reading Bank of America collateral, and BY GOD your money is safe with them.

Brand is the heftiest tool a marketer has for convincing you to buy their product. The next heftiest is the Sweepstakes. After that, it's hired goons.

Building A House with Only a Hammer

Brand rules can be quite helpful to the designer. But for every thorough, flexible, well-thought out corporate identity manual, there's a brand enforcer who will use it less like a guide and more like a big ol' shiny shield. Problems arise when brand limits the elements you're allowed to use to successfully organize the page. Design is the organization of information. The more info there is, the more elements you need to use to establish hierarchy. Now, say the client's specifications are pretty limiting: 'Our brand is red and black. Use our corporate font.' Well, you'd get this. They may never stop working for you, but they're making you work just as hard trying to figure out where to go on this page.

It's a tough situation. Brand rules are designed to protect a company. It's very easy for a designer fresh out of school to say 'I want this BMW banner to look like, 'cuz I LOVE that pixel look!'. (I won't get into why the designer IS wrong, nor will I visit the instances where the designer actually IS right — some other time, perhaps). But too often, marketers use brand as an excuse to kill legitimate techniques for keeping the eye moving about the page. That pattern you're using? Kill it — it's off-brand. That font isn't Arial? Off-Brand, again, buddy. That box shape? Off-Brand! Dotted lines? Off-Brand! A curve? OB!

Advice for the designer

There's not much to do. Situations where a designer can overrule a client who is zealous about their brand are far and few between. All you can really do is have a reasonable argument ready for why you used the elements you did. Take my own site for instance...

Why use the watercolored header?
Because I wanted you to associate this site with the artistic nuances of that medium.

Why is everything so monochromatic?
Because I wanted maximum flexibility in the color of images I could upload, and also allow them to be the chief focus.

Why are the Links and Downloads buttons not in the top header?
Because, they're not near as important as the ones that are in the header.

Where is the Pet Bear?
I told you, it's here!

He's cute!

This kind of dialogue (Pet Bear remarks aside) is not a matter of 'bullshitting'. The placement of objects on the page, and their size is often motivated by matters of usability. The size and treatment of the type should be the best balance between readability and style you can manage. Even seemingly ungrounded stylistic choices can be supported by the argument that you're trying to evoke a certain mood (of course, what 'mood' is being evoked is subjective). The flipside of all this is, if you don't have a reason for its presence, the design element in question needs to come out. Otherwise, you'll have to make up imaginary reasons to keep it there — and that's bullshitting. That's lying. And this profession is dishonest enough without your help, Mister!

In closing

Go out into the world, my friends. Design as you see fit. Embrace brand, for not all rules are meant to cage the free spirit; there is wisdom in the guidance of approved pantones. But beware — even the thinnest manuals can be quite inflexible in the wrong hands.

A Compendium of Nerdy Terms

Promotional and marketing materials. The pile of brochures they hand you when you open a checking account? That's collateral.
In terms of design, a hierarchy is when you're giving the more important information the page greater visual weight, so that people go there first. When a successful hierarchy is achieved, people see what you want them to see in the order you want them to see it.
That is a font that doesn't have little footies on the ends. Arial and Helvetica are common sans-serifs. The font you're reading right now is a serif, provided I haven't changed my style-sheet since I posted! Hah hah hah!
Hmm. Maybe I should just re-word my sans-serif definition...

Comments on this Article

There are currently 52 comments.

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You summed it up pretty well, amigo...


Had a similar experience, Anders?

Jason Santa Maria

Yay! THERE'S the pet bear! I've been looking for him!

John Nick

If Kim's client wants more bunny and more pink, she should have the whole screen be one giant close-up of a white bunny's pink nose.

Or a close-up of its pink eye.

Is this the Kim who's a rapper who's on trial now? She was great in "You Got Served!"


Hmmm.. that would explain her LONG absence...


You should go back to teste jokes.
Oh. And way to call me out for my BMW banner on the Internet!


How appropriate too, that her birthday ice cream cake was a bunny. we are good.

happy birthday kim!


Thanks for the post. Now, someone please "accidentally" send this to my client.

John Whittet

Shouldn't "SAN-SERIF" be "SANS-SERIF"? Serifs are those "little footies" (best description ever, by the way) and "sans" means "without" in franch (and probably some other languages). So "sans-serif" means "without little footies". "San" is my aunt's nickname, and she doesn't know so much about fonts.

Note: I've seen sanserif used the way I just did: without a hyphen. Probably because if you just removed the hyphen, you'd be left with two adjacent Ss, which looks weird. So I think the rule of thumb is either "sans-serif" or "sanserif".


(On a related note, Apple spell check thinks "sanserif" should be "snares".)


John W: Is "Franch" similar to "French?" OH ZING! =)

*high fives kevin*


You know, John - I believe you are right. I shall make the change now...

But I'm not taking back my high-five with Niff! :)

just joking - thanks for the heads-up!

R R Anderson

Pretty Neato, you speak with love in your heart and the sword of justice in your hand... also your bear is two cool for school.


i thought that john's use of "franch" was deliberately incorrect. like in "better off dead" when lane's mom puts together the "fronch" dinner for the exchange student.

that's right, i went to "better off dead" again. what's the over/under on the number of consecutive (relevant) "better off dead" posts i can make?


yes, I've had my share of "we need more hands" (legendary client speaking of the cursor over links)... :D


RR - Thanks! I shall continue to fight the good fight!

Wayne - 12/34

Anders - hah - that's how they ask for more links?

Stephen Schumacher

My advice with dealing with any client is to stare at them until they burst into flames. Good Luck!


Look, Steve - if staring 'caused fires, I would have set your dreamy blue eyes a'light ages ago...


my personal favourite is the guy who actually did the company's previous site in WORD(?!)...I called him 'Boss', mainly because that's what he boss...


I've had a client that wanted Comic Sans (Non-french = Comic Without) EVERYWHERE. On his website, his stationary, business cards etc. I tried to stare at him until he caught fire, instead it felt like i was on fire... What did i do wrong?


Daniel - You got one of those too? I wonder what it's about that font that's so appealing to visually challenged (that's challenged, not impaired) people?


Anders - He said the font was "fun". That's all, just after he said it, I ran out of the room. On fire... Well, that played out in my mind. I was actually so speechles after his "request" that i couldn't come up with a good defense. I said that the font was childlike and un-professional and it wouldn't reflect the companys seriousity. To make a long story short, it ended well for all Comic Sans-fans, and that company doesn't exist anymore.


that's an argument; 'this font is pure Evil, it will kill your company with its bare, serif-less stumps' :P


It could be worse... you could have to do an entire campaign with 'Zapf Dingbats'.

client: 'I like the stars! Use more of them!'


"Sure, I'll make you see stars..." :D


now that I got your attention I just have to say that I'm a long-time reader, first-time poster, and I love your work! :)


Well, thanks - Always glad to hear that :)


Spooky... I'm also a long-time reader and first-time poster. And i assume that you, Anders, is also swedish? A couple of more swedes and we can call it an invasion...

3 favorite Bearskinrug-things:
- The sketchbook, really inspiring. I now have a small black sketchbook with me all the time.

- The wallpapers, check the url my name is linked with.

- The Bear


Daniel - are we twins? :S


Yes silly, and we are joined at the hip. I keep reminding you... :)


so that's what the sharp pain in my side is...
I have to apologise to Kev for us getting so off-topic, but that's Swedes for ya :)


now, since it is past midnight on this big island down under, some of us have to go to bed... gonatt! ;)


Daniel - You don't know how pleased Mojo was to see that desktop in use. He's throwing feces everywhere!


Ahhh to be a monkey...


Havent posted a lot, but i'm def a long-time reader... Love the bear!

Me and a friend had a 'battle' where we fed him as much chickens in 1 minute as we could.
And then he puked.

I really need to get out more.

Still love the bear tho.

The Jones

Long time reader, infrequent poster, not Swedish, hate the Bear (he keeps eating all those bunnies)...Ah who am I kiding I love the Bear! But not as much as that scarf I still wear in the heat of Florida!


Jessie - Awesome - I'm glad I can encourage healthy competition!

Jim - Kim will be glad to hear about the scarf! Don't smother yourself, though...


Sometimes I want to brand the client. Like with a flaming iron rod.


A client permanently scarred by the logo they wouldn't approve; a physical representation of your own mental anguish.

This could make a pretty good TV Movie, Ducky.

The Philanthropist

Jeez, 39 posts? You've grown too big Cornell. I'm getting of this bandwagon.


Nooooooo! I get a free balloon at 50!!!!


Lovely, good comment Kevin.

Heads up!

Ryan THAT's an informative piece - fun AND educational!

Thanks for the design lesson -

and I can finally find the bear: go to this article and click here

Jason Santa Maria

Hi Kev, it's Jason. Longtime reader, first time commenter. Uh, do you still have the bear on this site? I miss him and can't seem to find him anymore.


It's Here. Everyone make sure you submit a name to the bear!


You'll have to forgive me because I'm a copy editor by trade, but I think you mean:

The consumer needs to breathe a sigh of relief...


Good catch, Tony. I made the change - Thanks!


First time reader, longtime poster.

I respectfully submit that the bear's name be Ricardo. No idea why, but it just seems /appropos/.

In other news, what comment-styling format do you use? Texttile? "USENET"-style (aka slashes and that business)? HTML? SO MANY CHOICES I DONT KNOW WHAT TO PICK LOLS!!!!!!


I think you have listened it a million times before, but i need to say it: you have a great work that helps me a lot. Thank you for everything and forgive my terrible english. A bearhug for you.
Paulinho, your friend from Brasil.


Jordan - The bear refuses to actually tell me his name; unless it's "Growl", or "Rowr"...

Paulinho - Thank you very much! And it would be pretty lousy of me to find fault with your English, seeing as I don't know a lick of Portuguese...


Dear Sir,

Our records indicate that the thread, 'Blindy Branding' has reached 50 posts which qualifies you to one (1) complimentary 'I Reached Fifty Posts and All I Got Was This Lousy Balloon' balloon. To collect your prize, please send a self-addressed stamped envelope to 'The Internet.'

We at the Fifty Post Prize Patrol Selection Committee would like to congratulate you on your recent fifty-post achievement. Thank you and have a lovely day.


Awesome! I can't wait to tie that balloon to my website!

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