Strategy AND Identity – You Need Both

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I do a lot of talking about brand identity, but seldom do I discuss brand strategy so I’m eager to delve into that topic today.

To be frank, a graphic element that serves to identify a brand is essentially worthless if the brand has no value in itself.  A brand identity’s job is to point to the brand.  But using a well-crafted design to point to a business which has no real goals for success is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound; it’s just not enough.

Identity and strategy go hand-in-hand in that both require a great deal of creativity—creativity that leads to the common goal of standing out from the crowd.  Just as hours and hours of labor are poured into the creation of a business’s visual identity, the brand itself must be developed in such a way that the good design is associated with good business.

I very much enjoy inventing.  While designing, I’m often thinking of ways a new invention could make this or that task easier.

One of the most important things to consider after coming up with an idea is, “Has this been thought of before?”

Chances are it has, but the next question is, “Has this been implemented before?”  Sometimes I’ll find someone has discussed the idea of the invention somewhere on the internet, but has not seen the invention process through and marketed it as a product.

Then there’s the third question: “If it has been implemented before, how can I make it different and how can I make it better?”

Literally every facet of business should be thought of this way.

Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves constantly if what they’re doing has been done, and what can they be doing better than their competitors.  Differentiation is the number one advantage any business has over its competitors.

Branding specialist David Brier wrote about this very thing in a recent post:

Every brand, before it does anything else, must ask, “Why should anyone care about my brand?”

Seriously.

Your competition is just as convinced of their greatness as you are of yours. Really, they are. Even the inferior ones.

Then he asked the most relevant question possible:

It becomes a question of “How do we convey our differentiation instantaneously?” and drive a wedge between any apparent (or assumed) sameness in the marketplace.

That is very simple, but near-infinitely thought-provoking.  How many entrepreneurs would either abandon a business direction that’s doomed to fail, or find a way to cause their startup to thrive if they’d sat down and pondered those brief principles awhile?

In my review of the Nivea rebrand of 2013, I noted how Nivea made a smart move in its new identity’s direction because it differentiated from the competition in both its logo and product design.  Nivea dropped the shiny, metallic appearance that nearly all the competition employs in its design.  While I can’t speak for the brand as a whole, I can tell that Nivea’s rebranding decision was definitely a step in the right direction toward standing.

In closing, the main goal of this post is to inspire any who have their own brand to take some time to consider 1) if your brand is different from the rest, and 2) what can be done to ensure that it is.

This is a challenging prospect, one I struggle with as well, as it’s basically a call for certain minds to “out-think” the rest.  But thankfully, so far thinking is free and non-taxable, so it’s well-worth the investment of time.

The Hourly Wage Doesn’t Fit the Creative Process

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Creativity involves pause: time to think, contemplate current ideas and be active with the aim of generating new ones.

If you were to give your client an itemized invoice that showed “12 hours of contemplative thought”, for which they are certainly paying you, most people tend to see that as not working.  (Certainly the brainstorming process is chargeable, since you wouldn’t be spending long hours thinking about a particular client’s project unless he or she hired you.)

Working at a job where most employees had an hourly wage, I knew there was no such thing as downtime unless you were off the clock.  An employee’s worst fear was being caught not doing something when you’re being paid by the hour to do something!  Thus, this is usually the mentality with wages, and therefore doesn’t transfer well into the creative realm where even if it looks like you’re not doing anything, you are.  Ideas are flowing while you’re taking a walk, looking at good photography, taking a drive in the car.  You’ve heard the saying that goes something like, “A lot of great ideas started on the toilet” (maybe it was in the shower, but it’s in the bathroom either way).

Ideas come when you least expect them, for sure.  So, just as it’s difficult for clients to swallow paying for what they might see as down time, it’s also tricky for designers to gauge hours of creative work when ideas come and go at irregular intervals.

It’s my conclusion, looking only at this aspect of creative work that it’s best to forgo charging an hourly rate, and instead estimate about how long a project will take and how much labor is required, deciding the figure that’s worth it to you as a designer.  This takes practice and a solid understanding of your workflow.  But provided the design brief is as thorough as it should be, pricing the work shouldn’t be an issue once the designer is aware of what’s involved.

Does time play a role in the price of an identity project?  Of course: a huge part.  But so does the number of items to be delivered, consultation throughout and following the project and quantity of alterations and revisions, among other things.

I suppose for some this could be boxed into a nice, neat hourly rate, but I just don’t see it personally.

Subjectivity: What’s Good and Bad When it Comes to Design?

making-your-subjective-mind-work-for-youAs I examine portfolios across the web, I often wonder: at what point does critique of art become subjective?  To put it another way, is there a definitive point at which critique stops being good advice and becomes simply one’s own opinion of another’s work?

Now, first off, there are definitely more factors that go into getting clients than just a generally good portfolio.  Building quality business relationships with a wide audience is important; proving oneself trustworthy through a transparent and frequent online presence; having an established website; proof of good work.  So obviously a portfolio deemed “good” by a general audience isn’t a complete sell.

But to put the initial question into perspective, I want to consider something else in which valuable critique cannot be subjective; it must be objective.

Let’s say you’re building a house, and you’re laying the floor joists.  If the floor joists aren’t level, the sub-floor on top won’t be level and the subsequent studs for the walls will not be perpendicular to the floor.  There is nothing subjective about a ninety-degree angle.  If you don’t have that angle, you’re compromising a structure’s integrity.

With facts, there is only objectivity.  Opinions ultimately do not matter.

But building a house and painting a picture can be two entirely different things.  On one hand, the more “real” you’re trying to be with your art, the more you must submit to critique about how things look in the real world.  But on the other hand, the more abstract your art is, the less objectivity plays a role.  Eventually, you come to the point where there is no objectivity and every glance at your work of art can only be met with words of pure, personal opinion.  One would think, then, that it’s “safest” to be abstract so that critics can’t criticize.  This is, however, not the case.  That’s because art that exists in the realm of complete subjectivity (assuming that’s possible) is usually not appreciated by the masses.  So it is in fact oftentimes much more difficult to gain recognition while exhibiting your abstract art.

Then there’s that weird middle ground—somewhere in between reality and abstract—and I think that’s where most creatives are found.  And that returns us to the initial question: how is this “middle ground” judged?  And further, what is the value of this judgment?

When we get into the realm of creating things that resemble what’s real but aren’t supposed to entirely replicate what’s real, valid critique seems hard to come by.  For example, take a look at the Firefox logo:

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Can you tell it’s a fox?  Sure you can.  Does it look exactly like a real fox?  No.  Then what makes it good?  Since it’s not supposed to look like a real fox, but must resemble a fox, who’s to say anyone’s rendition of a “faux fox” is good or bad?  What standard is there?  Yet there is overwhelming critique in this area of art.

There seems to be a common sense of recognition that we all have when it comes to what’s “good” and what’s “bad” in the creative world.  The human eye is constantly making calculations about a thing called “aesthetics”—a term that describes the recognition of what is beautiful in appearance.  Whenever you see a logo, you make an instant judgment about its appearance, and sometimes there is a general consensus that it’s just, plain bad.  This may be because the composition is all wrong: too much space in some areas, not enough in others; bad kerning of the typeface; generic appearance giving the logo the look of clip art.  Human beings seem to have a common understanding of aesthetic.  And if we’re going to have good work (to coin a term, work that exhibits “hirability”) in the realm of half-real, half-abstract, we must meet that established standard.

With that standard, there are those who make the grade, fall slightly short of it and excel above it.  Sometimes people view a graphic element and say, “That’s okay”; sometimes, “It’s really good”; sometimes, “I’m blown away!”  But at least making the grade is what’s necessary for hirability: one’s ability to be considered worthy of hire.

My conclusion to the initial question is that critique of graphic design is valuable at all times because it’s always good to get others’ considerations of your work.  When you get feedback, you need to be very honest with yourself about your own work to test if what others are saying about your stuff is valuable.  Sometimes it’s mindless tripe from the overly cynical; sometimes it’s hard to hear initially, but winds up being a solid gold nugget of wisdom.

If you don’t make the grade of general aesthetic, critique is needful for you.  If you reach the grade, critique becomes helpful to you.  And if you’ve excelled above that grade, you could argue that critique is trivial to you—just kidding.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.