Are you a design studio or a branding business?

Brand in Process founder Paul Bailey looks at the definition of branding and explores how and why designers can become branding experts.


It seems to have become a prerequisite in recent years for a design studio to call themselves a brand consultancy, or at least to tag the word “brand” on to the studio offering. But do design studios have the expertise to consult on what “brand” now encompasses?

Throughout the industrial era brands were used to identify and differentiate, and in this company-centric market they acted as a conduit to send messages from the business to passive consumers. This one-way, linear model put graphic design in prime position as the method by which companies could communicate their brand.

Brands are increasingly complex to symbols

However, in the last couple of decades branding has become ever more central to the strategic organisation and practice of companies. Brands are given “human” attributes such as “values” and “feelings” in order to shape and evolve relationships, and in so doing have become increasingly complex symbols representing “ideas and attributes” as well as the “things” such as logos and products.

As such, brands have become, in the words of academic Adam Arvidsson, “a premise for communication, interaction and experience”.

In an economy and society that is increasingly emergent and iterative, the productive role of consumers in the creation of brand value has seen the brand increasingly be considered “shared cultural property”. People are now well-connected, widely networked, and have a voice that can be heard all around the world via social media.

A brand is a work in progress

Rather than objects of exchange, brands might now be viewed as dynamic objects in movement that continually develop through time from the relations of multiple agents. We might say that a brand is a work in process that we mistakenly think is finished.

Rather than intermediaries, brands can increasingly be considered environments, moving from persuader to platform, from instructional to invitational, from one-way message to multi-way conversations.

What is a branding consultancy?

So what does this mean for the design studio as the “creator” of brand?

To consult on brand we have to embrace the myriad of factors that are in play in the strategic organisation and practice of companies, and therefore the requisite knowledge to work in this area.

There are many skills – such as qualitative and quantitative research, informed analysis, understanding social theories, psychological and behavioural studies, awareness of economic models – that may not be high on the list of skills or education that a designer might have, and are more reminiscent of the skill sets of management consultants or sociologists.

Why designers understand branding

However, designers are in a great place to appreciate the challenges involved in the wider area of brand. They are very often empathetic, can communicate visually and verbally, are culturally-aware, and have keen analytical and problem-solving skills.

When designing a visual brand identity that successfully, coherently, and engagingly reflects a brand and the strategy for it, all of these “soft” skills come into play.

In working with brand today, design studios must be honest about whether they can offer knowledgable consultancy on the myriad of aspects that brand influences and is influenced by, or whether they collaborate with other experts in brand and focus on the visual communication of the brand through design.

Paul Bailey is founder of Brand in Process and 1977 Design.

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