The pain and misery of accent colours
The careful selection of a primary color is an effective tool for brand recognition. Yet, remarkably few brand owners actually do this. Sooner or later, every brand owner finds himself saying: “We need more colors!”
It seems like a small favor to ask. Maybe you need more colors in PowerPoint diagrams, color-coding categories, products or services. That is when trouble starts. Within a few months, your brand will lose control of the colors and all the potential equity will be lost.
Look instead at the primary color as a rich and flexible palette, even though you may be the lucky owner of a monocolor identity. First of all, expand the roles of black and white. Let us suppose your primary color is Pantone 032 red. Create four extra “colors” by defining when to use red on black, black on red, red on white and white on red. This will be enough to handle most layout challenges. Then add three shades of a neutral, warm or cool grey. Still not convinced? Then add three shades of the red. Still not convinced? Then add outlined, striped or dotted versions of the red and the greys. Still not convinced? Then do not blame the colors — most likely you have typography issues. Create information hierarchies with type sizes, weights, placement and case and there will be no need for accents.
Coca-Cola is the most iconic monocolor owner in the world. Still, they recently made an overhaul of their packaging range. Guess what? They increased the amount of primary red and decreased the accents. There are 16,777,216 possible RGB color values, but I dare you to pick just one.
On strategic design
When practising mindfulness, you can learn how to take a deep breath, enhance the moment and fully become who you are. The same approach could benefit your business. In our fast-paced world, where consultants are offering their services ever more speedily to avoid lagging behind, it’s even more important to stop and ask the right questions.
Digital brands can always update their primary visual assets in a cost-effective way, but a side effect of this is that they all look and feel the same. They tend to follow either established leaders or rising stars. They look anxiously at new trends and technologies, and the questions they ask themselves are too simple — which colours and typefaces are used by competitors? Which UX style is currently on trend? How can we avoid making any mistakes? How can we look like a digital start-up? (The worst one…)
Using design in this way is fine, but it will probably remain at the level of decoration or wayfinding. You then get a sign by the road, and your consumers will maybe find out that you exist and where to find you. But it won’t tell anyone why you exist, who you exist for and what your unique offering is. These are the kind of questions strategic design should answer. A kind of design that serves a purpose and creates real business value. A kind of design that is impossible to copy, showing fully who you are. That is strategic design.
The unofficial award show
Every year agencies spend money and hours on sending their work to national and international award shows. The crescendo is held at sponsored venues with plastic spoons and chicken served cold, watching hundreds of categories on big screens. Like the children’s fishing pond everyone gets at least a nomination.
The real award show is running outside the venue. There’s no commission to participate, no rules on how to enter, no limitations whatsoever. It’s the greatest show on earth.
With only two categories, ’sprint’ and ‘marathon’, this award show is about creating real brand value. The sprint winners set the trends, resulting in a head start of the competition. They will gain followers and media space for free. The marathon winner is the lifetime achievement award, which sums up several years of competing at the highest level.
Everyone knows who the winners are, and even the runners-up. We enjoy them in the streets, and refer to them in new pitches and projects. They stand the test of time for decades. After all, who remembers the Epica Silver winner in the FMCG plastic beverages 1998?
When competing in branding, there is no such thing as preparing for the annual world cup or olympics every 4th year. Brands compete every day.
Boost your ethics with your aesthetics
Many successful brands miss out when it comes to ethics, and they could easily be asked: Do we really need these trendy clothes, accessories and furniture? Is it acceptable to use underpaid workers? Is it a good idea to produce your goods in one part of the world and then ship them to another? Probably not, but we easily forget this since these brands are so good at dressing up their business in such an aesthetic-looking exterior.
If you want to be a bad boy or a girl, it is to your advantage if you are cute. If you are cute enough, you can avoid getting busted altogether. And grown-ups have great advantages, too, if they are good-looking. Even mosquitoes would manage to seem valuable if they could improve their looks and sounds – even if their bad habits stayed the same.
I hear a lot of proud marketing directors who take pains to defend their awful direct marketing – colorful splash tags with XXL prices. They justify their looks by citing their price fighter position. But what if your marketing still looks great even though you don’t have a premium brand? The result is that we the consumers will feel good spending time with your brand. We’ll feel that we’re doing good.
If you’re selling products or services and sometimes miss out on ethics, at least do it with style. Or what I would recommend, improve both. As a brand owner you could sleep better at night – and even get a place on the Fortune 500 list as a tiny spinoff.
Can you make the edges rounder?
Modernist typography is often accused of being cold, inhuman and ineffectual in broad mass communication. That’s wrong. The modernist idea, starting with the Bauhaus movement and followed by the Swiss Style, was all about functionality. Readability and objectivity were accomplished through bold sans serifs composed in rational grid systems. Modernists have always started off with the needs of their users in mind and never let trends replace the communicative goal. Many visual identities launched in the 1960s and 1970s are still vivid and effective today thanks to modernist principles.
Typefaces like Akzidenz and Neue Haas can come across as being a bit harsh and unfriendly, but let’s ask ourselves — is a less sharp typeface more human? Do soft shapes reach out to more people? Would Comic Sans turn the world into a warmer place? No, a sharp simplified typeface treated by professionals can be a true friend – a friend who is solely focused on functionality while at the same time being based upon human behaviour – and honestly, who wants a friend without edges?
When we developed Stockholm Type at Essen International together with B+P Swiss Typefaces, our ambition was to communicate activity, trustworthiness and accessibility to one million Stockholmers. Did we make the edges rounder? Hell no.
Type on wheels
A custom-made typeface is almost an industrial standard for car brands. The understanding of good consistent typography within the car industry started back in the 60s with Bill Bernbach’s Volkswagen ads. Futura stayed in the same game until just recently. Volvo has been loyal to its own bespoke typeface Volvo Broad(seen above) since the early 90s. A more recent success is Audi Type, launched in 2009.
When you have a generic product, to stand out you must use all the tools in your visual toolbox. A custom-made typeface is a good start. Let the letter shapes alone convey the message. Nobody is likely to be reading your headlines anyway. If Audi wrote “Slow Asian budget” in their typeface, the complete image would still communicate “Dynamic German quality.” An image will always be stronger than words, and characteristic typography creates images rather than words.
Another reason why car brands enjoy their bespoke typefaces is their overload of sub-brands (vehicles). Especially when there is no naming strategy. The Toyota Display font ensures instant recognition of the brand when the sender is Yaris, Corolla, IQ, Aygo, Avensis or Verso. The same goes for Skoda and their typeface Skoda Pro, when connecting Fabia, Citigo, Octavia and Yeti to their master brand.
Heritage is something car brands want to push in their marketing, and the best way to incorporate this into the identity is also through the typeface. Toyota Display is Japanese and Opel Sans is European. Even my mother can recognize that. And that is a good thing. So learn from the car brands and put your typeface on wheels. Your brand will have a smooth ride.