How to Succeed with Identities Without Really Trying

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In this episode, Sean Adams, an internationally recognized graphic designer, and the chair of undergraduate and graduate graphic design at Art Center College of Design in California  tells  us to succeed with identities without really trying.

Show Notes

Sean Adams is the author of multiple best selling books, including  The Designer’s Dictionary of Color.

Brand Identity is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It's a toolkit, an approach to solving problems, an equation. It's not a thing that you can just slap onto your business and hope for the best. You have to understand it and use it correctly in order to succeed with brand identities without really trying.

If you're just starting out, the process can seem overwhelming at first. Where do you even begin? What kind of logo is best for your business? How do you go about creating an identity that speaks to your customers and attracts new clients?

There’s no one right answer, but there are three kinds of identities that you need to understand to start with: word mark, monogram, and symbol. Your branding strategy may use one of these approaches, so it’s good to explore them all and know what they mean.

One of the trickiest aspects of branding is building equity over time. If you think about the Apple identity, it has that little bite out of it, which forces you to think a little bit, the more you think, the more it sticks in your head. 

Design is an important part of branding. You can't just have a nice logo and expect people to buy your product. You have to make it appealing in other ways too, Branding isn't just about beauty and aesthetic, but it should be how we can make it unique. 

We focus on certain colors because they've become emotionally loaded with meaning for us. How do we get those emotional meanings etched into our brand image?

This episode discusses:

  • Three kinds of identities
  • Building equity with symbols
  • Choosing your branding fonts
  • Visual attributes
  • How to know you have a great designer/ designers sensibilities
  • The cultural impact of color choices
  • Semiotics
  • Current challenges facing designers
Resources mentioned on the podcast
The Designer’s Dictionary of Color 
How Design Makes Us Think
Debbie Millman books
Sean Adams' LinkedIn leaning course on branding

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Shireen: Hello and welcome to Brand Tuned, a podcast for people like you, marketers, designers, and founders looking to build a great brand that's differentiated and distinctive. It's hosted by me, Shireen Smith, an intellectual property lawyer, author, and marketer.

My guest today on the Brand Tuned podcast is Sean Adams, who is an internationally recognized graphic designer, and the chair of undergraduate and graduate graphic design at Art Center College of Design in California. He is the author of multiple best selling books, including The Designer's Dictionary of Color, and How Design Makes Us Think. Adams is an onscreen instructor for LinkedIn Learning and contributor to Design Observer. He is the only two-term National President of the American Institute of Graphic Arts AIGA, which is 100 year old professional organization for design. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA medal, which is the highest honor in the profession. Previously, Adams was a founding partner of AdamsMorioka, a design agency.

Sean, welcome to the Brand Tuned Podcast. I'm delighted that you agreed to start this interview by delivering a 10-minute mini-masterclass. I understand it's on how to succeed with identities without really trying.

Sean: Yes, absolutely, Shireen. And thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. I wish I could be there in person with you, it'd be a far more fun trip. But yes, I actually thought I'd start off with just a really brief overview of identity design, and not only for us as designers, but for those of us that are working as clients understand sort of the process and what works and what doesn't, and why we sometimes make the choices that we do. So it's less of a fuzzy, magical, mystical trip that we're on. And something more realistic.

Shireen: Yeah, it would be lovely to demystify it.

Sean: Yeah. So let me share my screen.

Shireen: Let me enable you to do that. Sorry.

Sean: No problem. You're far ahead of me, if you can figure out how to do it.

Shireen: You should be able to share your screen now.

Sean: Okay, perfect. So now theoretically, you should have the correct slide, right? How to Succeed with Identities. Good. Okay. Now, let me go through this briefly. And of course, you know, in in, in real life, this would take 14 weeks at a normal course, with us at Art Center.

We're going to pretend, as you'd mentioned, let's presume the research and strategy are all done, that we've done this part of it already, we're ready to start making form at this point. So we've already looked at the brand as a whole, we've understood like, all of the pieces come together, it's not just the identity that is enforcing and reinforcing the message. We've looked at all of the points of contact, so that we know that whatever we make is going to have to work in print, or in a tiny pixel on social media, that we understand the the issues that are involved with just the technical part of this. And we know who are called our audiences, you know, clients tend to love to say, my audiences, everybody, which is a rather broad statement, and tends to, you know, include people, probably not part of your audience. So it's good to really know like, who's my core audience and work out from there? Because I know who I'm talking to, and, and how to communicate to them. Yeah, we've also looked at the competition, so we understand who is our direct competition and who's the primary and secondary and maybe in five years, who's going to be really what's making our brand unique. Now, one thing I always do with all my clients is, is really make them button down several attributes, so that it's not just this fuzzy, I think we're about X. Tell me, you know, boil this down. And sometimes this takes a good month of back and forth and back and forth, because everyone starts off with our activities, quality and excellence. Okay, who isn't? Could we please, you know, just find something a little bit more specific. So once we've gotten there, we have something to work with. I also go over my rules of identity design with my clients, I find that they, you know, it's it's, it's this is you need to be an expert to understand some of this stuff, and you'd have to explain it to them. And one of the most important things that clients typically don't understand is that good logos identify, it's their job to identify, it's like your name is like, like your name, ensuring it doesn't tell me anything about you, it just tells me who you are. When you try to describe what they do, it leads to bad things. You know, and, and that a logo isn't going to solve every problem, it has to be engaging, it should be memorable. A good logo will always pose a question, if you think about the Apple identity, it has that little bite out of it, which is forces you to think a little bit, the more you think, the more it sticks in your head. And it has been neutral enough to change, you know, adapt to changes, which is the whole point of identifying if IBM had started off with a picture of their little machine, they're adding machine, they could never be what they are today. You know, so it's good to have a sense of like, it's neutral, it can do lots of different things. I then try to go through just some basics with them as in like, well, there's, there's really three kinds of identities. And, and it's good to explore all of these, that you you know, that there's not just one solution, typically. So there's the word mark, which is the name, you know, put into some sort of letter forms or proprietary, a monogram like IBM, which is International Business Machines, or symbol, like the CDs when CBS switched from Radio Television, and wanted to make sure people understood, it's visual now we can see things, you know, a word mark can encompass a lot, you know, you know, the, just the word Mark Disney when we have, you know, emotional responses to it. And, and it does a great job of being clearly understandable, immediately, I know what that is. The downside with the word mark is that it's maybe not as universal that you know, this old Disney old sort of work everywhere. But, you know, another another, you know, a less global brand might have trouble in Korea, or, you know, somewhere where the letterforms are completely different.

There's a monogram, NASA National Aerospace Association, or whatever  the long version of it. And monograms are great when you've got one of those over-long names that you just no one's going to remember. And, you know, like, International Business Machines, it's just not that fun. So, you know, the idea with NASA is, it's a very quick, easy read. The downside with monograms is that there are a lot of them. And people tend to just like, well just make monogram on my name is a well, there's a lot of essays, so it's a little hard to own that and take some time while I'm on and there's a symbol, you know, so there's a symbol like British Rail, it's like I understand, that means something. Now, you understand that's brake rail, and I understand it's British Rail. But without repeated exposure to that symbol. It may be unclear what it is, you know, it's great, it's universal, we all get it, but does it read everybody and that takes time, that takes a lot of effort to get someone to recognize just a pure symbol.

The logo or the lockup is usually a word Mark connected with that symbol. So the CDSI with the CDSI from Adido, which is their typeface combined make the CCS logo or the Apple Computer, you know, this is the old Apple logo, and they ran with this, that word underneath that logo for a good 25 years. So for 25 years, they're pounding that connection into us. Now it's gone far enough along but they can move the word and we still know what it means. McDonald's just did the same thing. They just removed McDonald's from their golden arches. And now it's just the arches because they've got enough equity in that identity at this point, to be able to pull that off. Now the process is, is the part that I really like to take my clients along with, I don't want I don't like the idea of I'm working off on by myself doing some magic thing. And then I reveal my wonder. I want them to be part of this. It's collaborative. They're going to know their business better than I ever will. I can point out some things I might see from the outside, but it's their business. They know things intuitively I may not know. And it's good to, you know, incorporate that. Now, almost every project I've started with, someone has walked in with a cot, with a really bad logo idea. Like, they're just immediately like, hey, what if we did X? How do I get around this? Now, one of the things that I find that clients do, and a lot of designers do is they just jump immediately to what everyone else has done. So showing them that really helps clarify the issue. So for example, this was a board that I made for an identity system for a library foundation. And, you know, in these initially, they were like, Oh, well, we got books or tree, and there's a lot of books and trees out there, let's really look at that. Because if you want to stand out, gonna have to actually maybe go away from what everyone else is doing. And that is the point is to be proprietary and stand out, not blend in, in any way. And then one of my personal pet peeves are these logos with people, they drive me to madness. They're, like, 50% of the people I work with are at some point saying, What if there's a logo of people like this? And why, like, why, you know, there's so many bad logos of these strange, you know, shadow people that are out there. And so again, I try to show them, these are not logos, these are illustrations, these are really just cute drawings of something. And if you use people, you're opening yourself up to all kinds of misinterpretations. You know, this always does the job of ending that story right there. Like when you show them look, you make the one wrong choice here, and you've really gotten down a bad street without intending to, and you know, typically they're like, Oh, my, I had no idea that it could go wrong so quickly. So in exploring the word mark, and this is a very truncated version of what we do.

I'll go through the process of looking at lots and lots of different high faces. You know, to be honest with you, it's not wildly scientific. At this point, it's just looking at form. Which words that which letters fit together? Well, is there anything that doesn't work and feels weird? And typography has pictures of words? So what is this picture? What's my - How does it make me feel? What's the tone? And I might go through hundreds of these, and I share that with the client too. So someone's like, well, what did you try something like this? Yes, it's right here. What do you think? And then I can narrow it down, you know, from, okay, I've decided I like this, this letter forms the best. But how can I make that proprietary? Because I find that, you know, if you if you have a typeface or a logo, that's just a typeface, someone will try to type it in on their own, and it will be Times Roman, and you're like, that's not our logo, that's just our name and Times Roman. So getting in there and making some modifications. In this instance, the A has been modified in the art has been modified, and the ampersand, so that there, it's not just a typeface any longer. And then monograms—you know, I may try. Now, typically, people didn't make monograms that are torture, typography. They're just like, please don't do this to me. If it doesn't fit together easily, don't do it. There's a reason why. And again, it's like, how can I combine specific letterforms? Do they work? Do they not work? Is it going to look scary? Is it going to look, you know, friendly? What, what are the attributes that I'm trying to convey here? And how can I put them together? You know, and in this instance, I could look up and say, Well, this is lovely, but I have no idea what it is. It's just too broad. I don't know there's the brand name doesn't have enough equity in it. And then developing a symbol or an icon. I always go back to the original attributes, usually the attributes who agreed upon historic personal classic, these are the things this brand is about. So what are symbols that can represent these things? What are some ways I might want to talk about it? So I'm gonna develop a set of symbols based on that it's historic, does a quill pen work? You know, it's about comfortable does this for the Princess and the Pea identity kind of a concept work or it's personal. So the peacock kind of a flat, you know, what are the symbols that might have some resonance with this? Now, in this instance, with this brand Meander. it kind of boiled down to this this building structure, because it was historic. And and just, you know, I think it's always good idea to work with a little bit of structure. So this is the golden rectangle that I worked with in the building. The starting to refine the logo, just to give it some form that had some some meaning to it. And from there you're refining. You know, at that point, I'm taking all of my different icons, or the ones that I liked the best and combining them with the different typefaces that I liked the best, that seemed to convey the best message. And once again, sharing that with the client so that they see, oh, this typeface, this icon works great, this one doesn't look so good. These don't pair as well. Now, in the instance of meander, I went back to the real place that kept coming back over and over again, it's historic in, why aren't we using a replace, and eventually, you know, it just became great, we can represent the form itself with a variation of the building, it's not an illustration of the building, it's the idea of the building, which is actually a Jeffersonian structure. So you know, putting those things together were great. From there, it's fine tuning the identity itself, so that there are reasons for the spacing, and proportion is magic, the portion makes things fit together harmoniously. I look at the competition and their color systems and try to figure out how can we do something different, so that I'm not copying every other in in the neighborhood. But let's Meander, you know, stand out as being cool color, build an entire visual system. So there's a logo, there's color palette, type of typefaces that are are to be used, and sometimes images that might go along with it. And then I can apply it, then it's a matter of like, okay, showing the client, this is how it's going to work this is, and this is often the thing that sort of sells the car, like now you see this, this works, this can I can fit it on a website, I can also put it on some soap, if I have to, you know that it can reduce down to that. And it can still function, you know, as signage in in any kind of a setting that is broad enough to do that.

So that's the process very, very quickly. Just a walkthrough. And hopefully, I got that in under 10 minutes.

Shireen: Great. Thank you.

Sean: My pleasure.

Shireen: Yeah. So lots of designers nowadays tend to just create a word mark, often it's a sans serif font, I think that's what you call it, and no symbol at all. So that a brand often doesn't have very much just the color and a font by which to do lots of things, you know, on social media to try to look like itself. And it hasn't got very much. I mean, when would you decide to create a symbol as well and give a brand some extra elements to use?

Sean: That it's such a good question. And it's so relevant today, if you'd asked me that 10 years ago, I would have said, well, they don't have to have a symbol. But now if I'm stuck in situations where I have 12 pixels to deal with, and it's a Squarespace on Instagram, or you know, any other kind of a social media platform, I can't jam a word in there, right. So I'm going to need some sort of a symbol that can be a stand in in some way. And, of course, the tricky part with symbols is building equity over time, so that you can't just launch the Apple logo by itself, you've got to have that combination. But I like this idea, especially now of having detachable symbols and word marks. But I have a very clear word mark that that is proprietary. And then I have a symbol that they can come apart, like a huge one by itself or the other. It gives you a little bit more flexibility in this world where I might have have something tiny on an iPhone, or gigantic on the side of a building.

Shireen: Yeah. Well, often all these elements like colors, symbols, sounds, you know, are protectable ultimately, as intellectual property. So then I believe that you shouldn't create things without knowing how you're going to be able to protect it.

Sean: Fantastic point, yes.

Shireen: But often, designers are not trained at all in intellectual property, and they tend to create and then leave it to the client to get it to protect it. So the two are quite divorced from each other, which can cause problems sometimes, you know?

Sean: Yeah, absolutely. I find that. I mean, I always work with an intellectual property attorney to to help first do a search. Like if I'm working on identity I, I was like can I can't be alone responsible for tracking down something that may be infringing, I'd like to know what their logo there looks identical to that already. And, and one little trick and you give the sense, you know, you're a solicitor you know this already, but in my contracts, I make it very clear that the client has the final responsibility to, to determine any violations of infringement, because I do not have the enormous resources that someone like Disney might

Shireen: You don’t need to. But the point is more that there's an owner ability question, and then there's the availability. So obviously, for availability, you need somebody to do the search. But you can also do some yourself, but you can put the bonus on the client, but the ownability aspect is something maybe that I think designers would do well to learn IP to understand more. And I'm just wondering whether your college teaches IP too, as part of presumably people take an option like brand identity. Is it taught as part of that at all? No, I guess not.

Sean: But no It is actually, it's as complicated as it is. And I would love to say, oh, IP law, it's simple. No, it's not. It's obviously like, very complicated and subjective. And no, in in, in our branding courses, it's definitely part of it. Like we actually do have an IP attorney come in and do a lecture and talk about, you know, the issues involved. And then, before they graduate, every student has to go through business one on one, and in business 101. That's I think we spent a good four weeks on intellectual property issues. Mostly, strangely enough, it's, it's actually the reverse, you would think that students are infringing left and right. And of course, they do at times they have no idea. But often, they'll claim ownership of something that can't be claimed. Yeah, like, oh, I have a blue square. I did it. It's mine. Good luck with that. That's a lot. You can't forbid anyone from using blue squares for the rest of history. Right? So. So that becomes… they understand, Oh, that's not actually a copyrightable form. Or, you know, I can't own that. It's true.

Shireen: Yeah, actually, that reminds me in design, you're, you're looking for cues that are well known to symbolize something. So if you're trying to explain wheat or cereal, you might well go for yellow to denote that. But that actually means it's not going to be ownable. So there's a tension between what you're trying to do as a designer. And what you actually need to do to be able to have an ownable color, which is not to use that yellow. So how do you navigate that?

Sean: It's one of those big problems as a designer that you have to face. And there's, there's times when it's simply undeniable, you cannot get around it. For example, I did an identity for a theater as a Royan and Disney CalArts theater, the acronym was red cat. Well, have you red you know, it sort of goes without saying you're gonna have to use some shade of red. But at the same time, sometimes those rules need to be broken. So for example, Wells Fargo Bank is red and yellow. That's their the their brand colors. Before they did that red was completely verboten in any financial institution, you could not use red, it meant you're in the red. So it was like everything had to be blue or green, like that was and they rightly said, Let's challenge that and own it. And they were able to, and it was turned out well, that was sort of a silly rule. But they made that leap. But of course there are those times when you're like, it is what it is. I can't you don't want you don't want an identity ever feel forced. You know, like it's been, you're jamming some idea in there, that won't work. And in those cases, I remind people of identities that are so simple, they're almost not ownable. H&R Block, I think, for example, has a green square, that's not ownable. The world that lives in is ownable. So what kind of images I use, what kind of form and shape and colors are part of the system? Those start to actually tell the bigger story and can carry more ownership as a as a whole.

Shireen: Yeah. When do you think it's ever appropriate to completely redesign the visual identity like this design you showed? When would it be appropriate for, say, a new designer coming along, to decide, actually, I want to change everything.

Sean: The first thing that that I, you know, of course, we tell our students who also we have one class, which is identity design, and they've got to redesign it is like, you gotta learn how to make a logo from scratch. The next class in the series is actually strategy and research. And in that the big part of it is how much equity exists in the market they have, and is a good equity is it? Is it, you know, Coca Cola has, what, 120 years of equity on that identity, and it's worth something like $1.5 billion. So really changing the Coca Cola bad idea. You know, you can change the world around it. But that's something that really can't be done. Whereas there are times when an organization has completely changed. And it's not the same structure, or it's not the same goals. And it doesn't make the sense to maintain the same identity. The thing I always go back to, though, is how much equity exists, is it worth it? I was working with a major corporation recently, and their identity was truly forgettable, like, I honestly could not remember it every time I just want to mention, and they insisted everyone knows our logo. I'm like, what is it? What am designer I can't remember it. They see it every day. So they assemble everybody who sees it every day. But in reality, you know, it sort of took like, Okay, let's go ask some people. And it was really like going out on the screen saying, hey, what's the logo for so and so if you like, I don't know, what is that? They hear that three or four times? Right? Okay, I got it. We don't have any equity in our logo, we just lost it. So I think if there's, if there's a tonal shift that has to occur if something awful has happened, and there definitely needs to be an adjustment that we acknowledge something awful happened, and we are a different company, than then that has to recur. But in all of the big brand programs I've worked on, I pretty much tried to read either resurrect the original logo, which had equity, and was abandoned for some reason, or find a way to make it more stable.

Shireen: That's interesting. Yeah, I think I've been on various branding courses, and they talk a lot about differentiation and business strategy. But say absolutely nothing about what designers should actually do when creating designs, so you get incidents like the tropic honor, real time where they redesigned the packaging and got rid of all the sort of recognizable elements. I wonder if that comes from designers not being trained. And actually, that, you know, people have to recognize you still, that you know, there's a value in just them remembering that you know, your yellow or that your font is, is an italic rather than whatever, and not changing it. I mean, all these very famous brands have all changed their logos, like are on. They've all gone to this plain sans serif, is it?

Sean: Yeah, believe me, I've had some of my identities changed. And I'm like, Why did they change it? It was fine. It had equity. And then a couple of instances, they actually went back and realized it just did not work. And okay, that was a failure. Let's go back to the original.
I wish more designers spent more time actually thinking about the business goals and the audience perception. As opposed to can I make something neat? Like, can I make something really cool? And of course, that's for makers. We'd love to do that. That's great, right? But unfortunately, that's, in some ways it's like going to the doctor and the doctor tells you, okay, you know, God forbid you have cancer, right? And you just keep saying, Oh, no, no, no, I'm just gonna do nose job. That's all I need. That's forget, forget the rest. Well, the problem is systemic, and probably bigger than just the logo. And trying to make a groovy logo is not going to solve the bigger problems, understanding those and then saying, Okay, here's the biggest problem, do you have terrible customer service? How can we adjust that? And how can I communicate? And that probably has nothing to do with a logo, it's probably has to do with like, well, what's the message we're putting out there? And how do we change it?

Shireen: Yeah? And would you actually go to the customers, the target customers to see if they like the logo? I mean, with this design you showed, or do you just show it to the client? And if the client likes it, then that's, that's fine. Or how do you go about finalizing your choice?

Sean: It's, you know, a lot of that also depends on the size of the client. You know, in this instance, meander is a small inn and hotel, and, you know, there's, you know, with them, they was very specific, they were the client, they, you know, they knew the brand. And, you know, of course, you know, we we did have like a little dinner where we sort of previewed it, and just to get people's reactions, but certainly a larger identity. I did the identity, the most recent one for Disney XD, which is a television channel, network. And with that, there was focus group testing for two months of bringing in groups of like, 12 year old boys and asking them, What do you think? What do you think about this color system? What do you think about that color system and getting their responses? Now, in that instance, I actually found that the person leading the focus groups have more sway than anyone in the room, and could push things in the direction that maybe were was not as objective as it could have been. And, you know, but in the end, the focus group did actually help. For more to reinforce to the client, that is the right choice. That is the response we're looking for.

Shireen: Yeah, I find it as a client of designers very difficult to be able to know why they've actually made the choices they've made. In my very first, visual identity, they gave me all those different fonts, like, hundreds and hundreds, and I just liked one, I said, Oh, that one's good. And then they worked on that. Is it a matter of what the client's taste is? Or why Why choose one rather than another?

Sean: Well, I mean, that's, that's why I really hammer on those attributes that before anything is made visually before anyone does any sketching, before anyone tries anything. You work out, what are those six or seven words that define us? What do they what are they now? Then I can actually show you okay, here's five typefaces, if this clearly is to clinical is not one of our attributes. This one is historical. And it does that is one of our attributes. This one is too contemporary. And that's what we're trying, you know, so then at least the client has rational reasons. And you as a designer actually are making rational choices, not just like, what's the Bruery typeface du jour? It's is like, well, this is something we are trying to communicate. And I mean, I have had instances where I've shown an identity to clients, and they've said, I don't like it. And he said, Okay, we'll explain because these are the attributes that we worked on. Which one does it not hit? And they'll look at it say, Well, it does hit all of them actually. And like, Okay, well, why don't you like, is there still something inherently you just responding to? Because maybe there is something there? Like, if you're not responding, and it's your company? Is there something you're not telling me? Like, is there an attribute we have not discovered yet? And do they need to be adjusted? Or, you know, in that instance, I did look at all of them. And in the end said, Well, my husband didn't like that blue. And I'm like, Well, does that invalidate any of these? No, it doesn't. That's the right choice. Now, it became more of a logical rational choice, not a well, I took it home and it looks bad in the light.

Shireen: Yeah. That's interesting. So how can one tell whether the designer is good or not? I mean, how would you know whether you've got a designer who's talented or not

Sean: Thinking it through, you know, the first thing is, you know what you respond to, right? Like, you are going to have a specific set of ideas that you look at and say, Gee, I like that, or I don't like that. And that's important, you know, because designers are not interchangeable cogs, they are people with life experiences. And that experience creates a vision that is in their work, like it or not, they're going to have a vision of some sort. Finding someone that's like-minded is really important that you're like, yeah, that person shares my sensibilities, like, I'd like to think my sensibilities tend to be towards, I like things honest and straightforward. I like things to be legible and understandable. Someone who wants something avant-garde and oblique will hopefully never come to me. They're just going just be unhappy. So finding someone who I share that, like their stuff. And then if they're asking you the right questions, like, you know, the the time to run for the doors, when someone is like immediately sitting with you, and you're trying to explain your company and your organization, and they're like, it could be a tree, and, okay, you don't even know who I'm talking to yet. Like, you need to ask me like, What am I about? Where am I trying to go? Why am I unique? Who's my competition? It's a great opportunity for most people to actually really think about their own organization or company and separate it, because we're always in so much of the process of doing business, we don't have time to stop and think, What does make me unique? Yeah, my better than Betty down the street. You know, what do I make? What's my product better? Or different? And how can I? How can I you know, work on that?

Shireen: Yeah. And then, how do you choose the color? Different to compare.

Sean: Color? I mean, Shireen that is such a loaded question. I would love to say, in a perfect world, we go to the attributes, and people are like, yes, this, that equals red, you know, or that equals orange, or whatever it is. Color is so subjective. For all I know, you were locked in an orange closet as a child, and you're never going to accept orange no matter what. There's just, you know, so in some ways, that's where it's designed, you have to be a little flexible, and you can provide people with here's the rational reasons, here's the competition. Here's all the logic. And that may still fail. Someone may still say, I absolutely hate orange. And in that case, okay, we can work with that. Let's move on to the next one. It's, I had one client, and he insisted his identity had to be the color of the Green was the choice. In the end, it made perfect sense for the brand. But he wanted it to be the color of his Jaguar. And I was like, Okay, you save a green Jaguar. And I actually got the pink chips from that year. And did it, he was like, that's not my green. I'm like, okay, help, you know, that is exact same pink color. And it was like, Well, no, it doesn't look like that. And of course, he's seeing it in different light. So in his mind, there was a different green entirely, and it was like, Paramount, but he get that green. And, you know, in the end, it was like, here's a swatch book. You tell me which green is your green? Yeah.

Shireen: So doesn't it signify something? The choice of color? I mean.

Sean: Absolutely. Yeah. Understanding what colors mean, culturally is, is I don't I, it's part of your job. As a designer, I need to know, I'm working in a Western country, and the white probably means purity, or, you know, cleanliness. Or if I'm working in an Asian company, country, it might mean death, you know, I need to be aware of those differences. I had a friend who was working on Japan Airlines. And she said, at one point, they made a presentation of the latest identity and everyone in the room stood up and left angrily and later on so it's a battered Chinese red, that's not the Japanese Red. And it was so understanding culturally, what fociations? Yeah, they need to they have to that is it's important, as you know, we respond to color, you know, in different ways. And I mean, I'm one of things I mentioned in my last book, of course, is that people respond to bright happy colors because they're easy to understand and easy to articulate. And typically they meant good things that we wouldn't die from eating that bad brown thing. You know, it doesn't look like rotten meat, it's probably good. But, but there are times when something more complex does make better sense. You know, I think a Landrover in bright red is, I'm sure someone might like that, but it seems you know, rather than going against the brand, where something like a more complex avocado green is probably a better choice that I would expect that it would feel more like, Oh, I could take that on safari, it'd be perfect.

Shireen: So semiotics is that taught in your college?

Sean: It is. I don't know if anyone who pays attention, frankly, is your hope it is. And as I often tell people, it may not seem like they're getting it right now. But five years out, they will like It's like we're not training them for their first job. We're training them for their second and third. Because so much, they're just being firehose with so much information. But just getting them to understand like, especially with color, if I call that avocado, someone is invariably going to say, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I hate that color. If I call it dark olive green, they're like, oh, I love that, you know, so it's just those strange associations that that can drive something. And, and definitely, you know, just in terms of language, semiotics yes, they that's, that's critical, like, what are what are the words you're using to describe something? But also visual semiotics? Like, what? What's the subtext here, when you made this identity? Is there a subtext here, like that maybe you're not aware of and, and that's, I think we're a little bit we start getting into the world of responsibility, of designers responsibility, culturally, that what we make as public, what we produce goes out there and, and has a public voice. Knowing we're doing no harm is a really good thing to know.

Shireen: So what are some challenges facing designers at the moment?

Sean: You know, the funny thing is, I was just talking to someone about this, you have such good questions, I have to say, I was talking to someone last week about this, one of my one of my students who graduated about five years ago, when has gone to work for one of the big tech companies. And he came back for a visit, and we had lunch, and he was explaining this project he was working on, which was a branding software. So basically, you would tell the software, this is the name of my company, here's the thing, my values, what it's about, and here's my competition. And it would generate a logo for you. And it would generate all the materials and a standards manual. So no human being would have to be involved at all, it would be completely artificial intelligence, making all the choices for you. And he showed me some examples. I'm like, those are absolutely good examples. That is the right solution. The thing that it missed, though, was that sometimes the wrong solution is the right solution, that it could only give you what you put into it. So it's about the software couldn't come back and say, I think your audience is wrong. Like, you know, it's just was it just sat back what it was given. And I think the challenge now for designers is to not just mechanically go through the process, but to really stop and ask those hard questions. Is that the right audience? You know, are they is you're like, I have a client, who the audience kept aging out up, like, one year, you know, for five years, it was 45. But 55 and 55-65. Like your if your audience is dying, let's just face it, like, maybe we need to transition to a younger audience. So I think it's a designer's job when you ask those hard questions that no one really wants to be asked, like, Is that the right product that you're making? I mean, a great example of that, that I give to, to our graduate students is there's an amazing case study from Harvard Marketing Myopia. And Marketing Myopia talked about the railroad industry in the 1800s. And the railroad industry was King, you know, like, obviously, you know, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, they made their fortune. By the 1930s, they were basically out of business, because air travel had taken over. Now, if the railroad companies have not defined themselves as railroad companies, but as travel or transportation companies, they could have made that transition. But they were so singularly focused. So often, I think it's our job as designers to say, okay, are you more than what you say you are, let's really dig into this and get to the bigger picture and solve that and artificial intelligence can't do that. It's not lots of now I mean, until it becomes sentient I imagine, but you know that I think that's our biggest challenge is not knowing how to make things lovely. But to ask the right questions and how to challenge when, when when needs to be challenged?

Shireen: Yeah. Well, I think also designers could differentiate themselves by properly understanding intellectual property. Because, yeah, I've got a course that I'm teaching at the moment. And I'm getting some really positive feedback from people who were just not aware how deeply IP impacts branding. It's not are we infringing or not, you know, it's, you know, what can be protected as a differentiator. For example, if you've got a patent, you have protection for your differentiation for a while, but you have to use your distinctiveness, you know, your name, colors, whatever, to become known by them during that period, while you've got that protection. A lot of companies that have patterns, make the mistake of just using a name like windsurfer for their, instead of giving themselves a brand name as well, as well as a description of that. You know, so it's, I think, if a designer understood all this, when they're helping such a company to create the brand, then they'd be different to a lot of other designers who don't take account of the IP dimension may be so critical.

Sean: It's just such a big part of it, and understanding. Am I making forms that are copyrightable? Am I not? Are they not? If they're not, what else can I do? What are their levels of protection? Can I vote because it's at least the United States? I'm sure it's based on British law. So is there's just levels of protection? Now that's like, yeah, I need it. I only copyright to it now. Do I register it as a trademark is like, you know, what are the different levels and you need a really good IP attorney to navigate that is not something for the faint of heart.

Shireen: Well, I think you don't necessarily just need an IP attorney, you need to know what you're creating when you're creating it. And then yes, you get an IP attorney, like what you said, you know, description isn't what you're trying to do when you're naming something. So many branding people actually go for description, naming something

Sean: leaving. And the finding is that the SEO, the search engine optimization value of something unique is so much better than windsurfing company, which will bring up 1000. But if I've got a very specific if I've got, you know, I'm Adams windsurfing company, I've got a better chance of optimization moving that forward. Yeah. And I mean, we have been on webpages name every page individually. And specifically.

Shireen: It's good to know that but so many designers don't. Because they come they come and ask me, can I protect this? And it's just just a very blatant description. I think. The fact that they even asked makes me think you need training and in terms of what is ownable as the name, yeah.

Sean: Yeah, what's ownable and what's not in there, there's just understanding like, well, it's important to create something proprietary, there's, that's, that's what you're being paid for something that's that client can then own it. And some things, like we discussed, are maybe not as proprietary as others, but there's ways of working on that to make it even more so. Even if it's so slight things that we talked about, like okay, I'm making some modifications to that letter form, so that it stands out, like the tail on the RR Okay, that's gonna, that's memorable. That's going to be a little different. And now granted, if push comes to shove, I put that in front of a judge. They'd say, no, absolutely. I don't see any difference at all. But, you know, at least you're starting to make that attempt that along with the rest of the identity system, it starts becoming unique.

Shireen: Yeah. Great. Well, thank you very much. Before we stop, can I just ask, are there some resources like books or conferences, podcasts that you'd recommend to delve more into this topic that you spoke about today?

Sean: The Design Management Institute is a great organization that deals with a lot of these more critical issues as opposed to just for making DMI good, they do a great job. AIGA American Institute Graphic Arts also Is has a really good arm that deals with the business side of this and intellectual property. The British design and there's British DNAD is fantastic. At the same thing as an organization and understanding that it's not just about making things look a certain way, but understanding how do we protect things. You know, all of these different organizations, basically, you know, many of them were formed at the beginning of the 19th century, when, when it was sort of a copyright festival, a free for all of things being imitated and copied as a way to really say, Look, we need to set some standards. So I think they're fantastic. One of my good friends Debbie Millman is an amazing writer. And I always think any of Debbie's books are are totally worth worth digging into.

Shireen: And your own book?

Sean: Oh yeah my book. Thank you. Yeah. So yeah, and I do actually have a course on LinkedIn learning on branding. Yeah, and so that's that was that was strangely enough. It's, it's the only LinkedIn Learning we it's like a rating system. Like you have different courses. For a long time. A few of the courses were always just game, they're going gangbusters. And lately, that branding one's just done nuts by assume there's a lot of interest out there. And I'm hoping people are actually getting the nine How do I make this pretty? But how do I ask the real questions and create something that's unique?

Shireen: Yeah. I'll put this in the show notes. And how can people contact you or learn from you where's the best place for them to look out for you?

Sean: You can find my own website. is a good place to go art is another place where you can find me. And Amazon? Of course I have, you know, I think I have something like eight books at this point. So they're still in print. And, you know, I do like the one that we talked about, I think that would be really relevant as the designers dictionary of color. Not when I really did try to tackle okay, what are some of the emotional issues connected with color, and the cultural issues? And how do we work with those?

Shireen: Okay, we'll write it in the shownotes. Great, thank you very much indeed.

Sean: My pleasure. And someday, I hope to hope to visit I like I told you my email. It's one of my places I've always wanted to go.

Shireen: So look me up. If you do come

Sean: I will. I will come to Hastings to do my historical tour and come to see you do.

Shireen: Thank you very much.

Sean: My pleasure. Thank you, Shireen. Thank you.

Shireen: That's it for this week. Do subscribe to the Brand Tuned newsletter to get weekly updates. I'd also love to get your feedback, just send me an email to info at brand Finally, if you liked the episode, please do share it with your friends and colleagues and review it on iTunes or whichever platform you use to listen to podcasts. If you leave us a five star review, it means more people will listen and we can spread the word much more quickly about the podcast. Thank you and bye for now.