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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.


High Touch Over High Tech

Long Tail marketing refers to the strategy of targeting a large number of niche markets with a product or service. It’s mainly used by businesses that are dominated by a huge market leader. Facing a battle to grow, a company can shift their focus to multiple niche markets that have less demand.

I love the Long Tail  because I’ve always had an affinity for very obscure things. Whether I’m looking for a bone-folder, a custom-made popper, a hand-painted Italian racing bicycle or some long out-of-print book, riding the long tail is both a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you Internet, for making this possible.

Lately I have hit on two instances where the Long Tail has been taken to the next level. Finding things is great, but when you can actually connect with warm-blooded people who also share your passion, that makes the experience all the richer. In both cases, this connection led to something I did not expect: Not only did I want to buy something, but I want to buy more, more often. This is not like me at all. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m as big a spend-thrift as old Uncle Scrooge.

A warning as you read the two examples below carefully; they might be cleverly disguised adverts for the respective company.

First example: For the past year or so I have suffered from a low-aching soreness in the ball of my right foot. Nothing debilitating, but enough to keep me from my morning runs. After a visit to a podiatrist earlier this year, my foot started feeling better so I went to visit a specialty running shoe store. It happened to be locally owned, not a chain. The shop is called Good Times Running Company and it is quietly tucked away in a suburb west of Houston.

Now, you may say that running is a mainstream sport, how is this a trip down the Long Tail? This is an example of the Long Tail in that I had a very specific need that a mass market retailer could not be unable to meet.

I went into the shop and met with Mary Ann, the owner. Although my brand loyalty has been with Altra for years, I went in my few preconceived notions of want I wanted; rather I would rely 100% on her experience and knowledge to help guide me to a shoe that would keep me running regularly, but more importantly, safely.

Mary Ann spent a solid 45 minutes with me on a busy Saturday afternoon. We talked about my issues, past experiences and preferences. She evaluated me gate (I’m neutral) and tried on a half a dozen different shoes in various sizes until I found one pair that offered me the comfort and protection I needed: The Hoka One One Bondi.

The experience was phenomenal, and I have recommended Good Times to several friends, all of whom had the same level of service and satisfaction.

From now till doomsday, I will only buy my trainers from Mary Ann. It would be cheaper, faster and more convenient to go online, grab my next pair, but why would I when I have the opportunity to engage with a fellow runner, talk with an expert and get exactly what I need. As an added benefit, I get to support a small local businesses, which I love being able to do.

It did not occur to me that this story was worth sharing until it happened recently when I wanted to ride down the Long Tail again. Like before, it would have been much easier and more convenient to have gone to Amazon, but I really wanted to talk with someone before making my purchase.

For years, I have made a practice of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. I find the act of writing a form of active meditation, and often time find answers to tough problems while relaxing at the same time. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss interview with Neil Gaiman. Although I have read a ton of Gaiman’s books, I do not care for them but still find him terribly interesting, so I was excited to listen to the interview.

A shiny new Pilot Metropolitan

One key topic discussed was that he begins writing his novels by hand, not on a keyboard, and he uses a fountain pen. Gaiman went on extolling the virtues of writing with an elegant pen. Such a pleasurable experience. Years ago I had a fountain pen my grandfather gave me but misplaced it — I am sure it is tucked away in a box somewhere in the house. After listening to Gaiman, I wanted one.

I found a shop in Rice Village that deals in specialty writing instruments called Dromgoole’s. I drove into town early Saturday morning to beat the afternoon rush that overtakes the Village on the weekends. I pulled up, walked in, and understood how Harry Potter felt when he walked into the shop to buy his first wand. The place was magical.

I was way, way down the Long Tail. I entered into a world where people value the simplicity of making letters and words by hand. Adding meaning and personality to the words they write. People who slow down long enough to absorb all that is good in the world, including the simple and pleasure of writing.

As I entered the store, Larry Dromgoole introduced himself to me and asked what brought me in.

“I’m looking for a starter fountain pen”, I replied. Larry asked for a a price range and jumped right into showing me an array of pens. Holding each pens, dipping the tips into a jar of ink to see how it looked and felt as I wrote – the experience was wonderful.

I felt like Harry Potter leaving the store – equipped to perform magic.

And isn’t that what traveling down the Long Tail is all about after all. Yes, the Long Tail is about choice and economics. It worked in spades for both of these examples because there is no doubt in my mind both these shops just got a customer for life. The added benefit is this journey is that you not only have the opportunity to connect with new things, by finding exactly the things you want, but there now exists an unforeseen opportunity that pushes the idea even further, to be able to explore more of the things that make you happy but also dive more into who you are.


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