Takeaway lessons from Sean Adams' Masterclass on Identity Design

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This is a quick follow up episode to stocktake on last week’s podcast with Sean Adams. Sean is an internationally recognized graphic designer, and chair of graphic design at Art Center College of Design in California. 

Show Notes

In this episode I discuss some thoughts following the recent podcast with Sean Adams, an internationally recognized graphic designer, and the chair of undergraduate and graduate graphic design at Art Center College of Design in California.

I found Sean's approach refreshingly client focused and empathetic. For example, Sean takes clients on the design journey and explains what he is doing and why.

This collaborative approach, and avoiding a big reveal at the end of the process, is more likely to result in an identity that the client finds acceptable.

I think if the designer can also talk about the IP dimension they would be the ideal adviser to clients. While the word ‘design’ is commonly associated with graphic designers, in truth it includes anyone who advises on business structure. They can help plan how a business should work in all respects, not just visually.

Given that visual identity needs to be permanent I’m often baffled that designers radically change the visual identity of established businesses just because the business’ strategy changes.

Surely tweaks to the identity is all that's needed, unless there is something radically transformed about the business. It’s vital to leave the identifying elements so you don’t disturb memory structures.

This episode tackles:

  • Importance of taking clients on the design journey
  • What makes a good logo?
  • When is it the right time to radically change a visual identity?
  • Drawbacks of changing your identity
  • Measuring brand equity to make identity design decisions 

Resources mentioned on the podcast
The Designer’s Dictionary of Color

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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, intellectual property lawyer, author, and marketer.

Hi, this is a quick follow up episode to stocktake on last week's podcast with Sean Adams. Sean is an internationally recognized graphic designer and Chair of graphic design at Art Center College of Design in California.

He has a wealth of experience in identity design and has written several books.

Sean’s ideas gave me some new insights that I want to share with you.

Firstly, I found it interesting that Sean recommends taking clients on the design journey, showing them iterations of the work as it progresses, explaining decisions and so on, rather than doing a big reveal at the end of the design process.

I’ve been through a few branding experiences in my time, and never received the sort of explanations about design decisions that, in hindsight, I wish I had received. I’d have been less likely to make changes to my designs if I properly understood why the designer made those choices in the first place.

The drawback to having a big reveal at the end of the process is that it’s more likely that the client won’t like the designs. I gather this is something designers find upsetting and can take personally. If the client rejects the designs, it feels like a rejection of the designer because the designs are an extension of them.

While I myself have usually accepted the designs I’ve been given on the assumption that the designer knows best, that doesn’t mean I’ve not been baffled by the design decisions. For example, I was using turquoise, brown, and gold as my colours for 8 years when the designer I’d engaged for a brand refresh decided that the brand colours I should use instead should be a maroon/purple shade with a splash of orange. No reasons were given and to this day I don’t understand why she thought it was necessary for me to abandon the colours I was previously using.

So, I really liked the importance Sean placed on clients understanding design decisions. His refreshingly client focused approach shows real empathy for clients. At the end of the day, it’s the client’s business. So, if the client wants a particular colour, then Sean will accommodate the request and work with that colour instead of imposing a colour the client dislikes.

As Sean’s approach is so collaborative, it means the client gets explanations as to why the designer is making the choices they’re making. There are no surprises, which there would be if you did a big reveal at the end. So, you’re much more likely to get buy in from the client using Sean’s approach.

Creating an identity necessarily involves educating the client. People often have questions after all. I believe that if a designer can communicate well and talk about the IP dimension too, they’d be the ideal adviser for their clients, especially their early-stage clients who, in my experience, often have many questions that involve IP primarily.

If we pause to consider what the word designer means, it’s clear that it’s a person who plans the look or workings of something before it’s made. As Steve Jobs put it, design isn’t just about how something looks, it’s about how it works.

So, while the word is commonly associated with graphic designers, in truth it includes anyone who understands and advises on business structure. They can help plan how a business should work in all respects, not just visually. I often help my clients to create their identities and bring in a graphic designer to implement the visual aspects of the identity.

While in theory founders can outsource the visual identity designs to a designer on Upwork, as they’re often unaware what works and what doesn't when it comes to identity design it’s best that they work with a designer who has a proper understanding of brand identity. For example, while meaningful imagery, such as a picture of books in a logo for a library, may seem appropriate to a client, they need to be educated to realise why it’s not a good approach to identity design.

Had IBM used a picture of an adding machine in its logo how suitable would its visual identity have been by now?

Such a descriptive identity design would need a complete overhaul a few years down the line. It isn’t the right approach to brand identity design, because it will have too short a shelf life. You’re creating the face of the business after all. It shouldn’t limit the business. It should allow room for it to grow beyond its early manifestation.

This was a revelation to me because I hadn’t realised that people make this same mistake about visual elements as they do with names and taglines where the tendency is to opt for descriptive, meaningful names, rather than distinctive ones.

Just as descriptive designs are not the right approach to identifiers, so descriptive names are the wrong approach to naming because you can’t uniquely own generic names. The law leaves such names free for all to use.

Given that visual identity needs to be permanent I’m often baffled that designers radically change the visual identity of established businesses just because the business’ strategy changes.

Tweaks to the identity should be all that’s done, unless there is something radically transformed about the business. For example, say a business decides to be a premium luxury brand instead of low cost, then clearly a complete change of identity might be appropriate. Beyond a few exceptional cases, I doubt a totally new identity is ever desirable for an established business.

Branding as a concept originates from the days when livestock had numbers burnt onto their skin to identify who they belonged to. The branding of the livestock was permanent. So, by analogy, when a business is designed its identifying marks should surely be treated as permanent once a business gets off the ground and is beyond its early stages.

From an IP perspective, it isn’t a good idea to radically change the identity just for change’s sake because a business would have trademark registrations in place. Changes to its identifying elements would necessitate new trademark registrations worldwide – which can be an expensive exercise.

I sometimes come across businesses that managed to secure a trademark term using a logo that they then change. They either don’t update their registration with the new logo or find that they can’t secure registration of the mark with their new logo because it’s a stylised word mark that is not sufficiently distinctive. The upshot in both cases is that they don’t have a unique identifier. They will discover that they can’t stop a competitor using a similar mark even though the business is losing sales.

I suspect more companies would have memorable visual identities if it wasn’t so common for them to chop and change their identity every few years.

However, whether because business owners get bored with their identity designs and actively look to change them every so often, or because their designers change their identity to reflect a new brand strategy, identities are rarely permanent.

Yet it’s best to leave designs unchanged. Designers want to put their own stamp on the identity, while the business owner who sees the designs day in and day out gets bored and wants a change. This overlooks the fact that customers only occasionally see the branding. The visual identity is what makes it easier for customers to remember and recognise a brand.

People may recognise brands by their name or an identifier that’s lodged itself in their memory, even though they don't know a lot about the brand. So, it’s important to leave the identifying elements that characterise a business unchanged, so you don’t disturb memory structures.

In the early years of a business, it’s fair enough to make radical changes to the identity, but once a business is established it should regard its identifiers as permanent fixtures.

Changing the identity radically is the equivalent of a person having extensive plastic surgery and becoming unrecognisable to people who know them. Designers should exercise their creativity in other ways than changing the brand identity. For example, they could suggest novel ways in which to signify the brand in advertisements or on social media so it looks identifiably like itself using its various identifiers in different configurations.

As the question whether it’s a good idea for the branding to change fascinates me I broached the subject with Sean during the interview.

His starting point is to consider how much equity there is in an existing identity, and whether it’s good equity. Also, if an organisation has completely changed so that its structure and goals are quite different to what it started out with, then it’s acceptable to change the identity. And if the identity was poorly designed in the first place, perhaps it makes sense to make a complete change.

Sean mentioned that in the big brand programs he’s worked on, he’s either tried to resurrect the old logo which had equity and was abandoned for some reason or find a way to make it more stable. He’d like designers to focus more on the business goals rather than on whether they can make something look cool.

An interesting insight I got from the interview is that a good logo will always pose a question. For example, the Apple identity 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.

It takes time for companies to stick in the mind and to be associated with an identifying element. For example, McDonalds can now use its golden arches M symbol on its own without the McDonalds name and be recognised. A brand can only do that once it has enough brand equity in its identifiers to be able to pull that off.

So repeated exposure is essential, as is a strategy that focuses on the steps to take to own its identifiers. That's necessary because it's important to prevent competitors using similar identifiers. It's only by ensuring that identifiers you're using are unique to the brand that you can hope to be identifiable through those identifiers down the line. So Coca Cola had a long term strategy that took 15 years also, before it became uniquely associated with its bottle shape. That's when it could trademark the shape. It's absolutely essential to think about ownership and protection. If you want to emulate the likes of McDonald's, Coca Cola, Nike, and other well known brands that have built up brand equity in their visual identifiers. The Brand Tuned Program that we've created is a 101 on branding that includes much needed education in intellectual property. The next cohort starts in January 2023. There's going to be a webinar on the 23rd of November. So just register your interest by visiting the Brand Tuned accreditation page and scroll down and you'll see a section to register your interest. And we'll send you details of the webinar near the time. Or if it's easier, just register to receive the newsletter. And I'll be notifying the list about the upcoming webinars soon. In conclusion, make sure your visual identity is different to what everyone else is doing. So you stand out rather than blending in. And IP is essential to that exercise.

That 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 brandtuned.com. 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.