I was struck by a thought recently while judging the ISTD International Typographic Awards. The creation of most corporate identities was fairly surface design the logo, select a typeface (Helvetica for awards-driven entries), apply your chosen colour liberally and bundle it up into a high-res PDF.
The raw disciplines of design were the visual touchstones. The quality of the design was enough to form the world in which users interacted with the brand. This was before you raise the heady topic of brand or, more specifically, brand tone of voice. We have all cajoled and poked developing language to express a brand to bring it alive, to create personality.
Innocent smoothies helped a lot. It liberated us and created a whole new playing field. Before long, a rigid design system was not enough to represent a company. The products or services we used needed to build lasting relationships.
Often the rigour of design and the potential purity of its effect was lost under a sea of frothy platitudes, one-liners and fake sentiment. Of course, when handled with deftness the voice of a brand is magical, it elevates and captures the imagination, but it is sometimes at the cost of design, function, interaction and information.
Suddenly though, a new wave of superbrands blossomed with design at the heart of how they interact with their audience. Apple, Google, Twitter, Nokia, Sky, BBC Interactive, Facebook and their like have swept both the virtual and physical worlds.
Design and typography has come full circle. Layout, type, colour, pictograms. The simplest of design forms deliver massively complex streams of data, communication and content in an instantly changing landscape. It shapes the buttons we touch, the screens we swipe, how we buy and how we chat.
Yes, there are highly charged marketing and brand teams behind these companies, but the actual interaction is often through pure design. This had liberated the practice in a new way, putting it front and centre of the choices people make. It puts design back at the heart of a brand, but it also puts people back at the heart of design thinking, which in turn creates the brand experience.
This is more than website or user-interface design. This is design that drives a brand. Designers are communicating messages, but also framing the world that conversations and content play out. They are creating design that reacts and develops based on the users’ interaction not just clicking a button, but saying what they feel, desire or want to share.
Colour, font, position, scale and form all have a radical effect, both positively and negatively, on the success of a brand. The wrong font or a misstep with an icon’s position can drastically effect the number of connections a brand makes.
The design is directly connected to the emotional needs of the user in ways that push it to the forefront of the way a brand works. This is design that motivates conversations and connections. Design that builds huge audiences loyal to the brand. Design that creates commercial avatars.
In the case of companies such as Google, it is rarified to data analytics determining colour shades, so it falls closer to function than form as a brand driver. It changes how we view design and its application. Of course, brands are still personalities, consumer promises, things to love. However, there is an opportunity to truly push the core traditions of design further into entirely uncharted territory.
Simon Dixon is a director of Dixon Baxi