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An introduction to Branding and Design

08 July 2012

In this article I talk with Sydney based Graphic Designer, Michael Johnson (www.michaeljohnsondesign.com.au) to uncover how design ideas are generated, some common pitfalls in branding design, and tips for small businesses when choosing and working with a Graphic Designer. 

Alison (AC): How do designers come up with their ideas? 

Michael (MJ): Any idea must come from some sort of foundation. Ideas plucked from thin air sometimes work but it's rare. Generally I like to get to know the client or company as best I can. Who are they? What do they represent? Who are their customers? Is there a company philosophy? In the case of larger companies or corporations, such knowledge comes from market research or statistics. In the case of smaller companies (down to the single person; often the business owner) a simple chat over coffee can do the trick (and is quicker as well as much more fun).

AC: What’s the difference between branding and a logo?

MJ: A logo is a part of an overall branding strategy but always ends up being the most recognisable part and the focus. A brand can encompass a wide variety of elements – concrete ones such as language, colour and graphics, but a good brand may also encompass emotion, thought, even a political standpoint. A good logo is the standard bearer for this. You might start with the logo and then build a brand from it, or vice-versa, but the logo should be the lynchpin around which your brand revolves.

AC: What are some of the common pitfalls in branding and design?

MJ: For design there are so many pitfalls it's hard to know where to begin. Every designer has been guilty of at least some of them during their career. Designing in a vacuum is a bad one, and design without any thought or data to back it up, aside from considerations of mere aesthetics. Plagiarism or at least imitation, is common and extremely embarrassing for both designer and client. Hackneyed design from the overuse of fashionable elements or clichés is also bad. How many logos have you seen with swooshes on them? Bad design is everywhere.

With branding the pitfalls are different. Contradicting brand values; rebrands that are expensive, unnecessary and achieve little or, even worse, backfire on the company (New Coke, anyone?). Branding that is out of step in the world it operates in – thereby bringing unwanted attention, is one to watch out for particularly in the digital age. Branding missteps or stumbles are splashed all over Twitter or the internet in no time flat.

AC: What should a small business owner look for in choosing a designer to work with?

MJ: The same thing anybody should look for in a business partner – talent, an alignment in values, flexibility if the need arises, and a good interpersonal relationship. There will be disagreements at times and possibly even stress. It's important to like the person you work with. Another important factor is respect - which must go both ways. You may work in a field far removed from design and branding but never underestimate its importance. It's your public face to the world. It's how people will perceive you. Good designers have an understanding of that from years of work in the field. Trust their judgement.

AC: How often should a small business review and update their branding?

MJ: For mine there is no set period. Only revisit your branding should the need arise. This is sometimes decided for you when new companies form, merge or undergo a name change. It's also decided for you, sometimes, by the public. If the public's perception of you is out of step with how you see yourself, then you have a problem. If your company's reputation is damaged for whatever reason, then you have a problem. A rebrand may help.

However it is definitely not always external factors that drive a rebrand. Internal factors can prompt it as well. New directions, new focus, growth, a drive into new markets or simply the natural evolution of companies, can also prompt a rethink. A brand is your message. If the message you wish to convey changes, then change your brand.

It's a decision not be taken lightly.

AC: What are some examples of brands that you admire and why?

MJ: Good brands express a myriad of emotions concisely, simply and confidently. It's all too easy to namecheck the Nikes, Apples or McDonalds of this world – brands that have reached some level of instant recognition nirvana. Brands may not necessarily be a product or a company… but a person. 

I really admired the branding behind the Barrack Obama campaign for the US presidency in 2008. Leaving aside the politics, the branding exercise behind him was faultless. A strong brand was created from scratch, which is extremely difficult to do. A beautifully designed logo was created, i.e. the \"O\" rising over a red striped field suggesting a rising sun over America, with associated emotions of optimism and confidence. The branding, graphics and language used were simple, direct and tugged on the heartstrings (remember the posters of Obama's graphically stylised face looking skyward with just the word \"Hope\" underneath?). It even used typography that is still being copied today. It was branding that held tremendous emotional resonance. 

AC: Which brands have cleverly evolved over time?

MJ: BP has created a strong new brand in response to changing public opinion on the environment. Their \"sunflower\" branding is strong, recognisable and aims to deflect public criticism. It's a successful attempt to make a multinational oil corporation appear softer and more environmentally aware, which is about the most difficult rebrand as you can possibly think of.

AC: What are some of the significant shifts you’ve seen in design over the last few years?

MJ: The shift to digital is the most obvious one. Design now must work not only on a billboard, the side of a truck or the printed page but now also in a tiny square of pixels that people do their best to ignore and scan past in no time flat. The requirements for clarity, focus and simplicity are now even more sharply defined. A message or design must be simple and clear or it's lost in the background static. It's a challenge to strip things away to their bare essentials but ultimately vital. Logos must work in a wide range of sizes in various digital formats without losing their identity. The eye must now be drawn to your design instead of being confronted by it.

AC: What are your predictions for branding trends in the next 1 – 3 years?

MJ: Change is accelerating so rapidly that most predictions usually end up wrong, mine probably no exception! My blind punt is that our branding has been a victim of us trying to modify the digital world to suit it, instead of us fundamentally changing what branding is to suit the new medium. Brands may be modified into viral fragments of ideas or memes that emerge with startling speed and fade away just as rapidly. Branding must be expressed creatively (having a Facebook page is not enough), and must have the flexibility to modify itself wildly, according to the context it finds itself in. A good strong brand should be able to take such digital abuse and we should have the confidence that it can survive it!

What are some of your favourite brands? And what do you think have been branding disasters? Feel free to leave a comment below. 

To see examples of Michael Johnson’s work and read his blog, head to: www.michaeljohnsondesign.com.au

Alison Clinch is the Director and Owner of Equanimity Services (www.equanimityservices.com.au), a boutique Marketing Communications consultancy. With more than 20 years experience in Marketing Communications, it’s fair to say that she’s found her niche and loves that what she does is described as ‘work’. 

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    Ann Margulis 6 years ago

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