October 8, 2020

Brand Identity Origination

Gone are the days when design was a catch-all for creativity in branding. Even in its heyday, design was perplexing and not at all what it seemed. As a junior designer two decades ago I wondered why consultants – or 'suits' as we called them – were valued so much more than designers. Surely design ought to be equally rewarded? Surely design demonstrates value in an immediate and totalising way?

It's not just the low barrier to entry that helps explain why designers 'at the Mac' don't command a premium. It's usually only when designers move up the career ladder that earnings improve considerably. Typically, that career ladder is junior, middle-weight and Senior Designer, Design Director and then the myriad Creative Director roles: MCD, ACD, ECD et al. Counter-intuitively, it's usually when designers are no longer at the Mac that they are properly renumerated

It's also not just the fact that – as it turns out – most of the heavy-lifting creative work is done by strategists. Almost all the value of a brand identity is embodied in the strategy i.e. the name, positioning, brand architecture and the numerous business-led creative ideas about the offer such as reframing the category, developing the narrative, identifying a purpose, vision, mission and brand essence. After all, have you not heard it said that the brand identity is the brand strategy made experiential? Yes, there's an element of creativity in this translation; in the parsing of brand strategy through the filter of design. But, and this is a big 'but', the business imperative is captured almost entirely by the brand strategy. The extent to which the brand identity is creative is the extent to which the creatives handling the design are strategic thinkers and understand how to set up organising principles and handle branded content. In this context design merely becomes the vehicle, the tool, the medium, the default setting. The capacity to generate original content is the champion, not design

While these two insights are important in understanding the dedicated branding business, they pale in comparison to a more profound realisation about design. It appears that a design super-structure within culture, business and academia needs to be dismantled before these insights will get a chance to take hold. There's a lot invested in this superstructure. It's built on what can now be identified as clay feet, and is broadly embodied in what's called 'Design Thinking'. The following insights have the potential to create the first cracks in the design superstructure. In short, there are two main aspects to design. The first will remain relevant in perpetuity and the other is now defunct and many practice design, including Design Thinking, under a persistent delusion

1. Design as form-giving

Within the origin of the word lies the cornerstone of this definition: the Italian word 'disegno', which means 'to draw'. While we now draw digitally the principle remains the same as taking pencil to paper. Crucially, this is limited to the literal and direct handling of material both physical and virtual. The shaping of a physical or virtual object that has a specific form in two or three dimensions, and is part of the world as a discretely drawn thing

2. Design as configuration

This involves configuring and re-configuring designed things in relation to each other. Things that have already been drawn and shaped. This is undoubtably a creative act but it does not require design. A designer may configure things in a creative way but it is the extent to which the designer is creative, not the extent to which the designer is practising design, that accounts for the value added. Given that design tools have become thoroughly democratised this creative act of configuration is no longer the preserve of professional designers

All the value added to a brand lies in configuring original content across three experience types: physical material, language and gesture. While design as form-giving remains relevant, it is now a tightly constrained activity and commands value within an extremely narrow range of experience. Without design as configuration, design doesn't carry much value. On this basis it's possible to argue that, in commercial terms, effectively, design is dead

As a result of this loss of creative force within design, the capability to generate branding solutions is now far better captured by 'origination'. Origination spans the entire gamut of creativity and is responsible for original content. In branding this is enhanced and made possible by design as a medium rather than design as a locus of value. The value that design has still to offer can often be quite easily added, under direction, by entry level designers