Identity Crisis

The 3rd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

There is a common misconception that a logo is a brand. Although important, a logo is only a visual representation of the brand. However, if done properly, it can also be the foundation for everything — informing how the brand goes to market and communicates in addition to leading the development of the overall look and feel. Pretty powerful stuff. No, a logo is not the brand, but it is a crucial piece to building a strong one. And, for whatever reason, logos sure are undervalued nowadays.

If logos are so important, then why are they undervalued? Is it cost? Is it because sites like 99 Designs offer buyers five design options for a 100 bucks? Or Fiverr, where you can farm out the logo to a hungry designer in some far off corner of the world for $10.00 or less?

Then there’s the Nike mythology. As the story goes, Phil Knight paid an art student at Oregon $35.00 for the Nike swoosh, and they seem to have done pretty well with it over the years. But how many times in the history of branding has there been this kind of wild success?

Sure, cost is one thing, but this leads to another misconception — that logos are easy to make. They’re so small and simple, logos should come quick and be cheap? That’s hard to argue with when you look at many of the latest designs on sites like Brand New. There are a lot of logos out there that look like they were thrown together, lacking in overall quality, and haring a certain sameness. Why should you pay good money for an ordinary logo?

Along those lines, a logo can indeed be a very simple image. So as logic dictates, certainly if it did not have taken THAT long to create, it shouldn’t cost that much.

But here’s the misnomer, it’s not about the time spent on creating the logo; it’s about how valuable the end product is.

An example from design lore: Paula Scher was engaged by CitiBank after they had merged with Travelers, to design a new identity. Legend has it, Ms. Scher drew the initial design for the logo right then and there in the conference room while the meeting was going on. That design now graces their cards, business papers, signage, sites, and virtually every piece of marketing material they produce.

I’ve had a similar experience. We had just landed a new account, a start-up called Environmental Effects, or EFX, for short. While my boss was giving us the assignment and talking about the company (they were in the business of collecting and selling weather data and how it might affect commodities), I doodled what would become the finished logo later that day.

In both these instances, the design came quickly. Does that mean there is any less value in the design? No. In fact, when Ms. Scher talks about designing the Citi logo she acknowledges that it only took seconds to draw. But she goes on to say that it took over 30 years to gain enough experience to be able to create the logo in a matter of moments. That’s some serious unseen value.

No matter how fast or obvious the outcome, the creation of logos is never easy.

I’ve always thought designing logos is like making a roux. Picture Emeril Lagasse throwing a few ingredients (BAM!) into a sauce pan, turning on a flame and stirring the mixture together. And stir and stir and stir, whisking out the clumps while the roux thickens. As he stirs, all the goodness from the bottom of the pan he had been cooking with adds to the complexity and flavor. Stir and stir until it is nice and thick, ready to make whatever he is preparing all the more rich, deep and yummy. That’s logo design. A good logo makes everything better.

Urban Harvest is a non-profit in Houston, Texas, who plant community gardens in inner city neighborhoods to grow fresh produce in areas where wholesome food can be hard to come by. The studio I was at was asked to design a logo for Urban Harvest back in 1995. Being a freebie, my boss passed the assignment to me.

The design took a while. With paying projects taking priority, the logo took a back-burner at times, and when I did have time to work on it, nothing looked or felt right. Sketches here, tighter drawings there, but nothing seemed to stick. Weeks passed.

Finally my boss gave me a deadline — get it done.

I scrapped all my previous thinking and started over from scratch. I remember seeing a illustrated poster in an old design annual (back when art directors looked at books) where an ear of corn stood in the midle of a metropolitan skyline full of skyscrapers. That was all the inspiration I needed.

I simplified the forms, breaking down the a tower to it’s purest form, a set of blocks. The structure not only took the form of a skyscraper, where the blocks looked like windows, but also came to represent rows of corn. The outer leaves created an organic shape of a “U”, giving the tower a place to grow.

The logo became a perfect reflection of Urban Harvest — growing fresh produce in inner cities while also growing communities. The logo is still in use 25 years later. That’s value. although in recent years, someone changed the building’s color from the original warm gray to a bright yellow. In my opinion, with this one tweak to the original design, it loses the double-entendre. But even with that change, it is a unique form that has stood the test of time. Again, there is tremendous value there.

This leads me back to time as an issue. When talking about value, we’re not talking about the amount of time it takes to create something, but rather how long the logo lasts. Will the design remain relevant over the years? Will it be able to be flexible over time to adjust to different tastes, mores, and media for that matter?

That is where quality comes in, and why clients should not jump into a logo lightly. A logo is an investment, one that will pay huge dividends for years to come. When talking about the value of a logo, it is hard to put a dollar figure to it. Something so small can have such a lasting impact on a business. Or an idea.

So how do we ensure logos are valuable?

First and foremost, the design should be appropriate. The right look, feel, tonality to best visually represent the brand.

Be unique to the brand. Plenty of designers design logos to fit their style. A logo should not be a reflection of the designer, nor a competitor or anyone else, it should simply be about your brand it represents.

Strive to be timeless. Don’t follow the latest trend or reside with the herd. Where others zig, make sure the logo zags. When it comes to a logo, being different is everything.

Take the time to work through the design, instilling inherent quality and careful craftsmanship This is a two-way street — the client carefully considering how the design will affect their business and the designer responding to those concerns. Fret over the details; they will make all the difference.


Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The first in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Since the inception of the idea for this series, a lot has happened in the world. This first topic has taken on greater significance in light of the events in late May since the aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Let’s get started at the beginning…

Back in my studio days, I worked on the Cabot Oil & Gas annual report for 6 years. Each fall, we would meet with the CFO and his team to discuss general themes and topics that the executives wanted to communicate in the book. We would then go back to the studio and brainstorm how to best articulate those messages into a compelling narrative. If all went according to plan, the brainstorming would guide the visual approach as well.

For the 2002 annual, we were given very explicit direction: they wanted to talk about their company values.

Before going too much further, I want to clear the air. I’m not a fan of corporations talking about values or other soft, fluffy attributes about their brand. Most, if not all, companies can make similar claims, so from a branding perspective there is little to no differentiation between the competition. I’m not talking about taking sides on an issue, rather about inherent qualities about how they see themselves.

Secondly, I find it weak when companies hang their hats on these platitudes like they’re something special. For instance, it should be table-stakes that they will act with integrity when you’re a publicly-traded company. I don’t think they should be boasting about it.

Further, extolling your virtues is merely chest-thumping in my book, of which I am not a fan of, either. No one has ever trusted a brand because they said they were [insert value here – generous? “woke”? caring?]. No one cares how great you say you are.

Lastly, in my experience, I have found that when most companies that say they are [insert value here – i.e., diverse, responsible, team-focused, family-friendly, etc.], they are often times just the opposite. The only way a brand can truly exhibit any of these wonderful qualities is by living them on a daily basis. As Holden Caulfield might say, talking about all this in marketing pieces makes it all sound phony.

Just to be clear, I am not a fan of this sort of virtue-signaling approach to branding. Not that a company cannot or should not strive for high ideals, but should this be the focus of your marketing?

Back to the annual report: How do you reconcile all these issues and still meet the client’s expectations?

It takes a big idea.

My father was a civil engineer. When I was a kid, I remember going to his first office, which was nothing more than a tinky building the size of a double-wide, with only enough room for him, his partner and their receptionist because half of the space was filled with shelves containing core samples.

If you don’t know, core samples are small sections of the earth drilled out and pulled up to the surface so that geologists or other scientists can study them to get a better understanding of what the ground is made of under their feet. In the case of a civil engineer, they wanted to understand what is underneath the structure they are building so that it doesn’t fall down. Kind of important.

This is where the real value of creativity comes into play. Being able to make connections with the knowledge gained through life experiences gives shape to new, big ideas, connecting seemingly disparate bits into one cohesive thought. Big ideas are unifying, encompassing many different facets of life to make the something new, more accessible and relatable to more people. It becomes easy and natural to make the leap from core samples to core values. Both give us understanding — core samples tell us about the earth, whereas the core values help us understand why we can trust a company.

The 2002 annual was titled “At of the Core of Cabot,” with a core sample exquisitely photographed for the front cover. With this image we are visually telegraphing to investors that we are giving you a reason to believe.

This big idea adds depth (no pun intended) and context to an otherwise fluffy marketing pitch. Because their business is grounded (pun intended) in core samples, it becomes a perfect metaphor to talk about Cabot’s values: stability, discipline and integrity. These values are intrinsically intertwined with their beliefs and the way they operate their business, much in the same way a core sample is central to oil and gas exploration.

There was one key ingredient to ensuring the success of this particular big idea, and that was that Cabot could back it up. That was what the annual was all about after all. They used language that anyone else can use for themselves, but once you dig into the report, readers found that Cabot can back up all these claims.

And that leads me to back to virtue-signaling, becasue there is a lot of it going around these days. It’s one thing to say you are a certain way, that you believe or feel this way or that. But where it counts the most is in your actions. Can you live up to what you are saying?

When it comes to building a strong brand, if a company can live up to its high ideals, I’ll hang my hat on that messaging every day.


The I’s Have It

As this site has been assembled over the years, it has lacked focus.

Although it is a personal website, being that I am one of those people who is strongly defined by their work, it has needed that glue to hold it all together. I’ve been stewing on this for a while and I am finally ready to move forward with a philosophy, a cohesive thought about what I do and what I had to offer the world as a Designer.

I used to think I made logos, ads, movies, websites and other sundry things. That is true. Along with that simplistic view on my work, I have also proclaimed that it’s the act making these things that gets me out of bed every morning — the challenges that keep me interested in the things I do. This has been truly a simplistic way of looking at things and entirely wrong.

So I dove into the deep end. Pulling a Simon Sinek, I asked myself “Why?” over and over again. Much like a scene out of Ant Man and the Wasp, I’ve gone deeper and deeper down inside and found an answer to all those why’s. I was looking for answers that were not about me, why design, and how I can help make the world a little better than before.

Over the past few weeks I have been working in earnest to compile work I’ve created over the years. It now populates this site. Not everything, but numerous pieces that represent this philosophy and shows the world what I actually design:

Identities, Information and Influence.

I’ve looked at a number of other words to describe what I do, but all those words merely describe things. For me, Identities, Information and Influence are not things, rather they are outcomes. These are what I strive for, toil over and pour myself into so that together with my clients we will  make the world a better place.

Not only are Identities, Information and Influence outcomes, this is also a flow. A way of looking at design in total.

Identities are the most basic building block of communication, the starting point to broadcast who you are to the world.

Information design helps people you are trying to reach make better decisions.

Influence is the goal — to encourage change and make it easy to take further action.

This is a simple yet rich view of Design, one which I will continue to explore conceptually within this site and practice with my clients for years to come.


The Weight is Over

Everything changes. What do you think this whole crazy evolution theory mumbo jumbo is about anyway? If there are any certainties in life, a bigly one is that things will change.

So, it is reasonable to assume this sentiment can be applied to branding problems, too. Brands need to grow and change with the times to continue to be relevant, attract new customers and change as their current customers do. Totally makes sense.

The latest butterfly to burst from the chrysalis is WW, the brand formally known as Weight Watchers.

Like everything else on the planet, page after page of commentary for and against the rebranding can be found online as the critics weigh in. (I’ll quit with the puns at some point.) I do not intend to tread the same ground, rather my intent is to get designers to take a closer look at the things you while redesigning a logo and carefully look at the meanings we bake into our work.

There are many instances of clever use of negative space to add more meaning to an otherwise simple design. One of the most famous being the FedEx logo. If you scroll through the inter-web you are sure to come across stories from the design team regaling their genius in building the letterforms around the arrow created by the negative space between the “E” and the “x”.

Hogwash.

Dig deeper and you will find that the “easter egg” so carefully crafted was actually a happy accident, that it was only discovered after the typeface had been chosen and the designers began toying around with it. Further, this arrow reportedly was a huge topic of debate that almost killed the entire design because the arrow points to the right. This detail is great when the logo is on the right-hand side of the delivery truck because it is pointed forward, but not so good according to FedEx execs when displayed on the left-hand side because the arrow is pointing backwards. Not a positive connotation for speedy deliveries.

Obviously, FedEx got over it and zillions of logos with the hidden arrow have since been splattered across the planet.

Unfortunately, WW fell into a similar trap.

I understand Weight Watchers’ desire to change their brand from “diet” to “wellness” (a terrible word, by the way.) It broadens the company’s offering and creates the opportunity to reach people who want to be fit but not have the whole diet thing hanging over their heads.

But look at the logo and its unintended easter egg. There are arrows created but the negative space in the diagonal strokes of the W’s. They point up and down.

Unlike the FedEx execs who approved their new logo despite initial reservations, these WW guys should be flogged for making this choice. Weight yo-yo-ing up and down is a primary cause of so many health issues from the obesity epidemic to heart disease, particularly here in the USA. The logo communicates this message on a very subtle level.

All is not well that ends well.


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