Good branding has always given its viewer a moment of delight that transcends a design from one that’s interesting to one that’s memorable. A brand that offers something a little deeper than surface level beauty will encourage viewers, users, customers, or clients to come back and continually interact with it. In this post I’ll discuss how the very idea of graphic design as a profession was born out of this concept, how it’s evolved through the years and what’s next for offering our audiences something extra.
In the beginning
When designers in the late 19th century first started discovering what would eventually become branding, they were immediately challenging their audiences. Lucian Bernhard was one of the first designers to explore branding when he entered a poster competition for Preister Matches with the design pictured above. He had initially painted the poster with a cigar, ashtray, and matches on a tablecloth, but felt that it was too complicated (and traditional). So he instead reduced the poster to its most basic and essential elements. At the time this was a very new kind of idea, and initially the panel rejected it-- but a juror that arrived late declared it a triumph and convinced the rest of the group proclaiming “Here is a genius”. Bernhard repeated this sort of reductionist style (which became known as Plakatsill or poster style) many times throughout his career – challenging his audience to look at a brand for the essence of what it represents while also offering a delightful snapshot into its product.
Working around the same time, Peter Behrens, delighted his audience in a different kind of way when he designed the first logo for AEG (pictured above). This identity was steeped with symbolism, again giving his audience moments of delight as they began to recognize that the overall construct of the logo was derived from the shape of AEG’s factories and that the outlines containing the company's initial represented both mathematical complexity and the hard working nature of its staff through a beehive.
When Branding was a Logo
Part of our job as a company is to continually educate our clients about design, development, and digital marketing, and one of the most common early questions that comes up in the design process is whether branding means a logo, an identity, or a mark (or something completely different). This is something that’s constantly debated amongst designers but I like to think that there’s been an evolution of its definition throughout design history. In my definition, branding was once just a Logo. In perhaps the golden age of Logo design, masters like Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Chermayeff & Geismar created some of the most memorable logos we’ll ever see: from IBM to NBC to AT&T.
This era also saw many moments of delight. When Paul Rand was designing the third iteration of the UPS logo in 1961 (pictured above) he showed a sketch to his young daughter. He knew it was right when he heard her response: “It’s a present Daddy!”.
In many cases the work of these masters was just that: iconic. But therein lies a problem.
Branding beyond the Logo
I’m not about to say that the work of design’s mid-century masters was anything short of beautiful, however, the world has changed and designers need to grow with the times. Paula Scher is a designer that often takes a lot of criticism of her work when it’s first unveiled. I find this criticism unfair because the true genius of her work lies in how it initially challenges and then delights its audience.
Time and time again, her work for institutions like the New York City Ballet, The New York Philharmonic, or (more recently) the New School has been written off as elementary, only for critics to later turn around and understand the true beauty. Her work has continually pushed branding as a profession to go beyond simply a logo and challenge audiences in new ways across an entire system of elements.
Your UX is your Brand
So where does that leave us today? In its history, branding has transformed from celebrating product, to creating iconic symbolism, and into full systems and executions. In my opinion, branding has now fully evolved into user experience. What do I mean by that? The way users interact with your website, app, or product has actually become the brand itself. Particularly with the explosion of start-ups over the past few years, details of interaction like how a menu opens or closes, how a user browses your product, or even how a user interacts with a form have become defining features of a brand. One of my favorite websites and resources for finding fun, simple interactions is SIX UX which simply records Vines of interesting UX transitions or functions.
When we were designing and developing a website for Tim Walker Photography we took an approach to focus on Tim’s beautiful photography and let the site’s interface recede when not needed by the user. We painstakingly refined the appearance, movement, and timing of interface elements to create a brand around the photography but also the simplicity and purity of the environment in which it’s viewed.
What may seem like icing on the cake can actually challenge, delight, and inform our users about the kind of brand they’re experiencing. At Vector we seek to deeply understand our clients’ goals and aspirations before we put “pen to paper,” so we can identify areas within a design where we can delight our audiences. A website is now the front door of a brand. Logo, color, typography, animation, messaging, and form are all tools within a user experience of your brand.