A little over a year ago I spoke at the Sex, Drugs and Helvetica conference in Brisbane. The guys got back in touch with me recently to write about my theories for how to build brands to evolve over time, rather than be replaced after five years.
The full article appears online here, but here it is in full for your reading pleasure.
How to Create a Timeless Brand
Here’s the conundrum. Brands needs to be relevant to customers and in order to be relevant, they need to be current. But if we design brand identities for ‘the now’, with changing trends, they’ll be facing a redesign in five years time. So how do you make your design stand the test of time?
Evolve or die
A good approach is to design brand identities to evolve – to move with the changing needs of customers, business and culture. This way brands can remain both relevant and timeless. But it takes a bit of careful thinking about how to build brands to evolve.
It’s important to understand that today brands are living, breathing entities that need to engage with their audiences in relevant ways. The interactions and relationships we have with brands today are not too dissimilar to the interactions we have with each other as human beings. In this way brands are a bit like people and brand identity is how they express themselves and interact with their customers. Think about a person. They have a core personality which stays fairly consistent in adulthood, but their identity changes as the tastes and fashions of the day change – their appearance evolves with culture. The same is true of brand identities that evolve to keep up with the times and stay relevant to their audiences.
Let’s talk about flex
The key to building a system to evolve is flex – allowing the identity room to flex and stretch in order to adapt and stay relevant. The designer determines which identity elements (logo, colour, type, image, etc.) are locked down and which are flexible. Some ideas will stay true forever and some elements will be free to express the brand in new and unexpected ways, pushing the identity in new directions as time passes, whilst staying true to a core idea.
When we designed the identity for Darling Harbour at Interbrand, we built it to flex for every event. The big idea is ‘inflatables’, which nicely captures the personality of Darling Harbour and allows the brand to scale to enormous sizes. This is the core idea and stays constant throughout every execution. As long as it’s inflatable, it’s on brand. Balloons, rubber duckies and beach balls are all fair game. The system is based on an inflatable typeface which we allow to flex by colour, pattern and a variety of finishes from matte to metallic. Even more latitude is granted to imagery which is completely free for creative expression. The only non-moving part is the typographic system which designers must follow, albeit with many options for play. Apart from that, designers are free to express the brand in new and relevant ways for every event at Darling Harbour, albeit carefully managed by the client.
Freedom of expression
Designers need to build expression into their brand identities in order to express their personalities and better connect with their customers. The majority of the time the job of the brand identity designer is to build systems for other designers to use, so a designer with flex in mind needs to leave room for the system to be played with and expressed in new ways. Some components of the identity system will be undefined and free for other designers to add their spin without damaging the core idea and elements. The brand identity should be a playground for expression so the brand can continue to surprise and delight its audience.
Some large brands have tightly controlled identity systems in order to control consistency across multiple design and advertising agencies. It can be a necessity in some instances in order to avoid the brand becoming schizophrenic. If every agency expresses the brand in new ways concurrently, the brand can suffer inconsistency and lose strength.
To build these brands to evolve, designers can consider different timelines for different elements and subsystems within the identity, such as literature systems, promotional advertising and retail environments. Some elements, such as the logo and other core identity components, will stay constant but other elements will have expected lifespans, and hence will be replaced over time with updated systems.
Think of a list of identity elements (logo, colour, typography, etc.) and draw a timeline for each of them. For instance, typography might be important visual glue for the system so will stay constant. At the top of the list of identity elements should be the big idea – something big enough to transcend time, that won’t date. This is the core of the brand identity and has the longest timeline. The logo probably has the next longest timeline. Designers dealing with existing brands should consider whether years of equity built up in the logo is worth keeping, polishing up or discarding. New logos should be designed with a timeline in mind. How long it should last will determine how able it must be to transcend fashions.
This way the brand doesn’t need to change entirety every five years, rather elements get replaced on different timelines. The transition can be gradual, or collections of elements can be updated at the same time to produce a noticeable update to the identity. When a designer chooses to consciously design a system to evolve they can make notional estimates about how a brand will evolve, but ultimately evolution will find its own path shaped by the needs of culture and business.
In order for brand identities to have a prolonged life, designers must engineer their identities to adapt to their surroundings from their very conception. Brands must be granted freedom to express themselves in new and exciting ways that help them stay relevant to their customers’ worlds.
Identities should allow other designers the freedom to take brands to new places. But most importantly brand identity designers must release control. They should set the core ideas and conditions for evolution to occur and embrace the inevitable change their identity will go through on its exciting journey through life.