Forward-Thinking

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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.

Surround Yourself with Creative Stimuli

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Creativity doesn’t ever have to go to sleep so don’t try to make it.

The “work” of creativity is usually that which is enjoyable so it’s not taxing to be a 24 hour creative.  An influx of ideas isn’t burdensome, so don’t make it be.

There are a lot of jobs that require no creativity whatsoever.  But there are a lot of other jobs that do.  So, what do you do when your income depends upon your creativity?  The natural tendency would be to try to make it happen.  But here’s the problem:

Creativity is something that can’t be forced—and that’s by its definition.  It has to do with imaginative, original ideas.  If I said, “Think of the next million dollar idea; you’ve got until 3:00” you wouldn’t be able to make it happen;  as the deadline got closer, you’d start to panic and more of your time would be spent telling yourself, “I HAVE to think of something” than actually thinking of something.  Sort of like trying to go to sleep when you keep informing yourself how late it is.  Doesn’t work.  So being creative means taking pressure out of the equation.

You’ll probably be able to think of something completely random under obligation to do so, but it won’t be your best idea.  It might not even be worth pursuing.  It’s probably not going to be profitable as a business.  It most likely won’t make your boss happy.

The best ideas happen when you’re as John Cleese states, “in the open mode.”  According to Cleese, backed by a great deal of psychological research, the open mode is where ideas are allowed to flow freely.  The obvious alternative is the “closed mode” where you’re ready to execute the ideas you’ve come up with.  The open mode is all about freedom of thought; the closed is obviously quite the opposite.  When we’re devoting time to open thought we can’t focus on executing anything.  When we’re executing ideas we’re too preoccupied to think of new ones.  His lecture on creativity is definitely worth a look.

With open and closed modes realized, I’ll submit that it’s also possible to find yourself halfway in between.  Hovering in limbo means you may be thinking of a lot of ideas but none or only a few are working.  But if you’re completely in the open mode, it’s very possible to come up with the best solution within a very short period of time.

Graphic designers often press the issue of time involved in a project.  But usually the length of time is due to two independent minds (creative and client) trying to reach consensus on the best design.  Whatever time is spent actually coming up with ideas can be shortened significantly if a designer surrounds him or herself with creative stimuli at all times, being open to any and all ideas, shunning none initially, no pressure whatsoever.

In 1998, Citigroup merged with Travelers—the largest merger in the world at the time—and eventually adopted the logo design Paula Scher came up with; the thing is, she created it in just a few seconds, literally scribbling it on a napkin.  According to Pentagram, it took Citi nearly nine years to implement the design; but ultimately that’s irrelevant.  The winning idea was realized in just a few seconds.

Thinking of creative ideas should be like observational comedy.  It doesn’t take much to notice the hilarity of everyday life.  Observational comedians are essentially just clever life commentators; and in my opinion, they’re the funniest.  Really all they do is look at the world around them with an eye for the humorous.  If they want material, they just go about living life and watching others do the same.  If something’s funny, add it to the list and use it as material for the next gig.

I am convinced that the more time we spend, day or night, just existing in a state of open-mindedness, ready to simply consider and use anything that we experience throughout the day,  the more quickly and efficiently we’ll arrive at the best creative solutions when it’s time to deliver.  When you decide to be creative in the way I’m sharing with you here, it becomes more of a lifestyle than a business practice.  And the full-time creative is going to be much more adept than the 9-5 creative.