Paying for Negative Space


Sounds strange, doesn’t it? With high print costs, the shrewd thing to do would be to fill all that negative space with graphics so you can get your money’s worth, right?

Maybe not.

Maybe that’s what a lot of people are thinking. Maybe, even, you’d have a higher return on your investment if you let the negative space be negative.

Negative space, by itself, draws little attention. Space filled with lots to look at doesn’t draw much attention, either. But empty space with, say, one small focal point: that draws attention.

Say you’re glancing out the window at a dense forest; there’s too much to look at, too much to take in. To avoid sensory overload, you look away. That doesn’t mean the sight is unpleasant; it just can’t hold your focus and you’re left with little memory of what you’ve just seen.

Then you glance out another window and view a wide open field, big sky and one tree.

If this was a design situation where the goal was to convey “tree”, I would opt for the latter option. People crave simplicity; if we can take just one, solid thing away from what we’ve viewed, we’re satisfied—and we’ll remember what we saw. The greater the complexity, the more quickly we lose focus.

Setting your message apart and inviting the most attention: that’s the goal. And it may be that paying for negative space is the way to get you there.


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Just over four years ago now, Chris Bowden interviewed Pentagram designer Michael Bierut about a number of topics including logo design. The full transcript can be found here, but I wanted to excerpt and discuss a few portions of Mr. Bierut’s comments. In particular, I was taken back initially by this first comment—and I still have a little trouble with the broadness of the statement—but I can see the sense in his overall point. In response to the question of the rise in crowd-sourced logos of late, Bierut stated,

The truth about logos is that they are not that hard to do. If you ask people in the US what logos they like and recognise, they’ll name Target or Nike. Target for example, is just a dot with a circle around it, that’s all it is, so if you want a logo like Target, you don’t need to hire a designer, you barely need to know how to operate a computer program, the logo may as well be anything. God knows we do a lot of them here, but I think the best work in the area comes down to what most designers would agree on: the obvious thing, it’s not the actual logo but how it is used. The Nike swash that cost $30 and was designed by a Portland State University art student was probably worth that when she first showed it to them. At that point it had no equity at all. None of the guys commissioning it particularly liked it, they all wanted the Adidas three stripes and they thought that was a good logo. In the meeting she said “these guys don’t want a new logo they want an old logo, the Adidas logo, but they can’t have that”. So finally, because they were guys and they were embarrassed talking about logos, they said screw it, we’ll take ‘example number three’ the one that looks like a check mark. They just built so much messaging around the logo and associated it with a lot of good products as well; then it became a ‘strong’ logo. The logo itself is really nothing, it’s just two curves, and it’s not hard to do.

What gives me some pause is his saying first that logos are “not that hard to do”—referencing simple designs such as Target and Nike. Yes, if those making the decisions for Target’s brand identity said to themselves, “Let’s just make it a target,” they would not have needed a designer for that logo. But as David Airey discussed in a recent post on my blog, one of the key functions of a brand identity designer is to exhaust every option you can think of—even if the first on the table is the one ultimately chosen. So, to put it simply, if the obvious “target” was in mind from the get-go, and that’s all Target wanted, fine: draw a nice target, type the name in your favorite font and there you go. But in most cases, a designer or team of designers would be hashing out and rigorously brainstorming, sketching and rendering multiple ideas to present.

So it’s really not a question of how “easy to do” the design is. It’s the skill involved in getting there. By and large, logos aren’t supposed to be complex. After a month or two of striving to arrive at the best design with a client, it is possible that the final logo design could be replicated by a ten-year-old. But that doesn’t nullify the importance of the process of arriving at the best solution.

Consider automobile manufacturing.

Once a Lamborghini rolls out of the factory, it could be then shipped to a Ford plant and completely replicated. But Ford couldn’t replicate the process involved to get that Lamborghini completed from drawing board to complete car, because that process existed in the minds of the designers and engineers at Lamborghini.

And it’s that thought-process—proven in a designer’s finished work—that makes him/her attractive for hire.

Essentially, the process and the final result go hand-in-hand. Once the Target logo is complete and shown to the public, everyone says, “I could have done that!” But that should be countered with the question, “Yes, but did you?” It’s ironic, but much hard work goes into something that can be sketched in a few seconds. Anyone can copy the final design, but not everyone is creatively-inclined enough to get there.

To the next consideration: logo value.

It’s best realized after some time rather than right away. Investing in a brand identity is investing in a long-term return more than a short-term one. Initially a logo may well be received with accolades and customer appreciation. But the real test of an identity is the value it commands over time; and, as Bierut states, building value into the logo by employing a proper strategy:

The way identity firms earn their money is in guiding a company into making a decision about one of these things and giving them a plan for actually using it so they can start to create value around it. That’s one of the reasons I think I like old logos. Someone has already ‘picked’ it and they may have forgotten they did, but we’re not going to argue which is the right logo, we’re just going to say you already have one, here it is! I’ve done that with a few companies. I think part of the reason I like doing that is because I actually don’t think that brand new logos are worth that much or mean that much in and of themselves. So why not have a class of third graders compete to design your logo?

In the full interview, Michael talks about the redesign for Saks Fifth Avenue and how the best choice was a contemporary version of an “old favorite”—a design from back in the 1970s that was still in use in some parts of the country and was still familiar among Saks customers. He and his design team leveraged the fame of the old logo to gain a head-start with the new.

As I said earlier, brand identity is an investment. The ROI may seem small at first. But the best designs, created by those who know how to make a logo and accompanying brand identity memorable, will endure. When the design becomes memorable, it becomes extremely valuable. So it’s the perceived longevity of the brand identity design that accounts for the majority of its cost. And beyond that, how aggressively the identity is applied so that the company in consideration is made most visible, also affects the ROI.

So, despite the “ease” of logo design when looking at the finished product, I can see the point Michael is making. In short, he’s stating that the fullest value is created when a proper brand strategy is implemented. Not, “Here’s a nice design that’s going to carry the brand image”, but, “How are we going to use this design or collection of designs to bolster our image and maximize profits?” including thoughts such as,

  • How can the identity be expanded to provide maximum exposure?
  • What’s the best possible way to present the identity?
  • On what mediums?
  • How can we create ownership across all such mediums?
  • How can we set the entire visual identity of the brand apart from the competition, down to the smallest detail?
  • What tone can we set to best resonate with the intended clientele?

Graphic design is definitely complementary. It’s the milk to cereal. The greatest potential is realized when the products, services and other key elements of the brand are just as strong as the design that promotes it. It’s notable that Mr. Bierut mentioned the value Nike created by building the brand in other ways around the logo. While graphic design is the most direct way of projecting a brand’s image to the masses, it’s not the only way to make an impression. The tone of every line of text, the arrangement of elements on the website, each blog post—these things play a valuable role in forming a brand mood or image. Everything matters.

The idea, then, is that the logo, the most simplistic and widely recognized visual facet, becomes the quickest and easiest connection to the overall mood of the brand.

Always insightful to consider other viewpoints in the industry.

The No-Brand Brand

Recently a number of companies have successfully pursued “no-brand” strategies by creating packaging that imitates generic brand simplicity. Examples include the Japanese company Muji, which means “No label” in English (from 無印良品 – “Mujirushi Ryohin” – literally, “No brand quality goods”), and the Florida company No-Ad Sunscreen. Although there is a distinct Muji brand, Muji products are not branded. This no-brand strategy means that little is spent on advertisement or classical marketing and Muji’s success is attributed to the word-of-mouth, a simple shopping experience and the anti-brand movement. “No brand” branding may be construed as a type of branding as the product is made conspicuous through the absence of a brand name. “Tapa Amarilla” or “Yellow Cap” in Venezuela during the 1980s is another good example of no-brand strategy. It was simply recognized by the color of the cap of this cleaning products company.


The sentence in bold above is an astute observation from the author of the article and reflects my sentiments exactly when it comes to “anti-branding” brands.

When you’re your own company, with your own services, your own products; you become a brand, whether you go to all the effort to promote it or not. Consumers will have an image in their mind of you, whether you give them one or not.

I can agree with these brands with regard to their “no-fluff” attitude where they attempt to distance themselves from both excesses of design and advertising, relying rather on customer loyalty and word-of-mouth. I’ve written in the past about the superfluous when it comes to design, and why only precisely what is needed for effective communication should be kept and the rest discarded.

I also appreciate the stance of NO-AD sunscreen in that it took the investment most brands put toward advertising, and allocated it to doubling the size of its products at no extra cost (compared to other brands).

The only problem is in having an issue with “branding” in general, if such companies claim to. Yes, redefine advertising and marketing; save money on packaging and put it into better products, etc. But don’t pretend that you’re not part of the branding world. As I said above, when you’re your own company, you become branded as a distinct commercial entity regardless of the effort or lack thereof that you put into doing so. In fact, “no-brand” branding can attract more attention than “conventional” branding, just because it’s unique.

Although aspirations of the companies herein discussed may be noble to some degree, we know that businesses exist to make money; and those on the no-brand bandwagon definitely saw an opportunity to make more money through the differentiation their brand strategies afforded. In addition, people like to purchase from companies who claim to be fighting for some cause; in this case it’s the fight against the conventional brand, and it definitely sells.

The point is, brand is inescapable; promoting ethics, quality of product and even “anti-branding” bolsters a brand in the minds of consumers.

And not only is brand inescapable, good branding is also a proven way to increase profits—as long as the message you’re sending resonates with the people you’re sending it to.

There are many tactics that can be used to leverage a company image; companies like Muji have simply chosen to capitalize on ways that differ from the norm.

It’s because of these things that I would be hesitant to state (although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility) that a brand which employed no-brand tactics is more ethical than any other. But I have to give them some credit for a smart strategy, because:

Amidst the crowd of those saying, “Look at me”, it’s often those who seem to be saying nothing at all who capture the most attention.