Written on Friday,
October 7th, 2011
Graphic design is as much a commodity as it is an elite institution. There are “famous” and heralded celebrities of the design world (David Carson, Paul Rand, Michael Beruit), who can do no design wrong; there are those highly respected, academically minded designers (Katherine McCoy, Steven Heller, Wolfgang Weingart) who challenge our concepts; and there are the “firms” of renown who automatically win the awards and the multi-million dollar contracts. But each “form” of designer has a language — that of our little design world. A vernacular (which is in itself apart of this world). A language now so void of meaning, that it must reinvent itself — back to the basics.
As many irksome and overused terminologies as we have in the graphic design realm, my personal (least) favorite is the term : brand. A “brand” in our designer vernacular, might be defined as an identifiable imprint or symbol that specifies a company or product. Overall a harmless and true definition. Another, more precise definition might be that a brand is a unique, permanent, cultural icon — so much so that the imprint itself is what it represents. In other words, a brand is not only a strong visual symbol but also a strong verbal symbol; it is what it represents.
Our (and by “our”, I mean designers in general) rambling and grand-standing about “creating brands” or “brand strategies” or “brand recognition” or “brand research and development” are really nothing more than logo and logotype corporate collateral. Perhaps unique, but not always easily identifiable (nor the product or company it represents).
A brand is not made or created. There is no secret brand committee that stamps their approval in an executive board room. A brand is cultivated. Born though decades of service, commercial success, marketing saturation and cultural awareness. A brand has an earned, and merited reputation, which can’t be accelerated by telling everyone that it must be so.
There are several types of brands. Global brands, national brands and local brands. And several methods of brands — namely verbal, visual and verbal visual recognition. Coke. Nike. McDonald’s. Honda. These are global names with immediate understood meaning — what they represent (the products, logos, look, colors, commercials, spokespeople, etc). These are global visual verbal brands. Not only are the visually know (the swoosh, the golden arches, the red can) but verbally known. Kleenex. QTip. Band Aid. There are examples of national verbal brands. So entrenched in the cultural lexicon that the brand replaces the proper name of what they promote (at least in the US). When someone asks for a Kleenex, we pass a tissue. When we need a QTip, we grab for a cotton swab. A Band-Aid is an adhesive bandage. In Cincinnati when you hear someone say they want Skyline, usually you know that means (Cincinnati style) Chili. When you go to Kroger, everyone (locally) knows that means a grocery store (not clothes or a restaurant or hardware).
As hard as we try to distinguish ourselves and conform to the ideal of “fitting” into the graphic design culture, designers can only offer a road or path to a brand, but culture determines who passes and who fails.