Always following the herd – How Simplicity is creating indistinguishable brands
In the design world solving a problem through clear communication is a pillar in the definition of success – form following function. Is this always the case and does it come at the expense of too little craft? I think that the current race to reduce everything down to its simplest form is running out of steam and perhaps, something more interesting and adventurous is just around the corner.
This thought piece reviews how the ‘simple aesthetic’ has been overly exploited and associated with success in modern times. It also analyses the reasons why I think minimalism in branding is losing its edge – in particular, how certain brands are missing out on the opportunity to better translate their offer visually by just following the simple aesthetic movement.
What is simplicity?
Simplicity by definition is:
‘the quality or condition of being plain or uncomplicated in form or design.’
Simplicity isn’t really a style, if it is to be referenced as a style it would be minimalism, although the lines have been blurred as to what it actually means. It is more of a philosophy that is interpreted through design and the streamlining of processes to offer an efficient solution.
Whether it be a product or service, the communication is key to how likely consumers are to investigate further or even notice it in the first place. Brands are looking to create design concepts that have longevity and that means appealing to millennials. This means developing a brand that caters to the digitally-savvy, the digital-natives, consumers that were raised amongst the improvements of the internet revolution. Even baby boomers have grown to adapt and therefore expect a level of efficiency in the ways they engage with brands.
“Simply put, the simpler the communication or product, the higher chance of successful engagement.”
John Maeda, Laws of Simplicity (2006)
The target audience is now primarily digitally savvy, so brands must make important investments in their digital and online presence. Digital needs have subsequently affected design. Putting this into context, all visual identities need to be formatted for digital-purposes, and often many brands think of their visual assets for online platforms first. In other words, branding is nowadays being approached primarily for how it looks from a website, app and digital point of view.
That is why iconography has become such an essential part of design and why logos have oversimplified themselves to fit into the tiny box that is the app icon. Above all, it is websites which have become the necessary platform and have fuelled the notion of simplicity specifically due to UX design.
Why is simplicity so sought after?
In today’s multichannel world we are all too busy, so seek comfort in brands that do the thinking for us; brands that engage efficiently to make our lives easier. This simplification of the format of choice and offering relies on the delivery. In other words, the quality of the design and communication of the offer is key.
The Impression that Simplicity Sells in a Complex World
As humans we are tuned to respond quicker to images than text, our brains crave visual stimulation with over 50% of the brain dedicated to processing colour, shapes, movement, patterns and images. (The Wiley Network, 2016) We can see the impact of visual content with platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, which reflect how Millennials put emphasis on the importance of visual graphics.
While we are responsive to imagery, we are in a world of sensory over load, where we are constantly surrounded by sounds and images. Spaces whether physical or digital are being occupied by brands competing to earn our loyalty and engagement. This ‘brand occupation of space’ is above all translated by advertising taking over our senses.
“91% of people say ads are more intrusive today than 2-3 years ago
and 87% say there are more ads in general than 2-3 years ago”.
Between the rise of advertising, digital marketing and the likes of Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook that have encouraged us to take over 380 billion photos a year – logically, the notion of simple and minimalist design would be a go-to solution and seemingly cut through the noise. In addition to this logic, I’ve seen how companies and clients are influenced by power brands which have for the most part jumped on the bandwagon of ‘simplicity’ – consequently, creating an association between success and so called ‘simple design’.
The problem with this association is that we tend to forget that many of these big brands began with a more sophisticated (heritage) brand mark; once they had gained popularity and consumers, they evolved and stripped down their logo. A perfect example of that journey is Starbucks.
Fair enough, Starbucks have adapted to the times, so you could say new brands should start with a simple logo to begin with. But if Starbucks was a new brand and the first thing you ever saw was the 2011 logo would you think coffee?
A recent instance of logo evolution is Mastercard, which focuses on moving towards more digital simplicity. This makes sense because of the increasing importance of digital banking, the ‘social icons’ era we live in and how established the logo is. Other brands that have done the same in the past, include Apple and Shell – the key to this process is always the brand recognition. Such brands can afford to ignore individualism in the logos, because their recognizability is based on other factors. For instance, Google sells information and Amazon pretty much sells everything else, they don’t need to advertise and barely need branding anymore as they have become the default choice. Their functionality is everything so as long as they keep delivering on the promise design aesthetics can take a back seat.
Many disruptor brands fly the flag for simplicity, using it to break into a cluttered marketplace. Think of Netflix, Paypal and Spotify with their clean branding and uncomplicated product. They challenged the established players making them look dated and overly complex. However, oversimplifying a brandmark should not be led by fitting into the ‘simple design’ movement, but whether it fits with you brand values, the story of your business and if it is representative of what you’re offering.
Simplicity Is Now Mainstream
Simplicity cuts through the noise, sure, but what happens when the noise is actually every brand taking on the same minimalist aesthetic?
Flat minimalism has become the design approach that has achieved mainstream appeal. This change is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it comes to simplifying the user-experience but it’s questionable design-wise, when screen design has now the potential of being almost pixel-free.
How do brands begin to stand out when their own content is just another part of the overcrowded media show? This is where the role of design communication comes into play and the importance of a tone of voice, an original brand message is amplified even further.
The old adage says ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. This is more accurate today than ever before. Online marketing never sleeps, and the sheer weight of content is immeasurable. We respond quicker to visuals than written articles or audio. Social content is now the new billboard, able to reach and engage with more people quicker than any poster ever could. Branded content and commercial campaigns are fighting against each other for attention. Design clearly has an important role to play here just to be noticed above the din.
‘Simple and minimal’ is expressed today by stripping back to a maximum, which ends up depriving design of any interesting embellishments and colours. I feel this has left quite a sterile landscape in branding, visual content and creative identity. It has also produced a repetitive pattern and approach to design, which takes away the uniqueness and tone of voice of many brands.
When Minimal is too Minimal: When it Lacks Emotion.
A brand’s visual identity should illustrate the brand story. A brand story is designed as a narrative with the aim of inducing an emotional reaction from its audience. This strategic approach is founded on the idea of going beyond functionality and utility and into framing your brand values and identity.
65% of consumers buy on the basis of their beliefs and that 57% are buying or boycotting brands based on the brand position on a social or political issue. (Edelman, 2017)
The logo is the initial key to unlocking the first part of the consumer journey, attracting contact and interaction from the audience. Once they have made the first step to engage with your brand, millennials in particular are searching for a credible back story or a cause to believe in. The logo design should aim to channel this story.
It is becoming clearer that brands which establish purpose into their branding see more quality consumer engagement, those that neglect to do so risk becoming obsolete or ignored in an oversaturated market.
Rebranding – Which way now?
Wanting to be recognised is nothing new but the motivations have altered slightly. The Victorians wanted us to believe that they could do it better than anybody else; they wanted their brands to carry the same level of gravitas and effort that went into their products, complication was a good thing as it associated with quality and sophistication. Today the goal posts have moved so the elaborate approach seems counter-productive. I do believe that some of the craft and storytelling has been pushed aside in an effort to fit into the ‘less is more’ philosophy. Although, for some brands more is more, it’s about how you want your brand to be interpreted and the simplification trend isn’t meant for all brands.
History and heritage cannot be faked, and it is no coincidence that some of the older brands that still vie for our attention are probably the ones with the best story to tell. With the likes of Twinning’s, one of the oldest marks still in use. The logo matches its industry, product and communicates its historical background.
Bacardi is another brand that has not followed the over simplistic route. For its last logo refresh it looked to the past and took inspiration from hand-drawn bat designs from the early 1900s. This new-old aesthetic makes Bacardi look more sophisticated, a touch quirky and above all recognisable, which is key when selling not just a product but a brand in its own right.
Other similar examples include Coca Cola, BMW, Stella Artois, Levi’s and Bass Ale amongst others. Many argue that a logo needs to freshen up every decade or so, what people fail to address when having that mindset, is that those tactics are often a quick response considered to lure new consumers to a brand. Whilst actually looking into a brands’ past can re-engage a whole new audience with the history and heritage, as well as staying true to the integrity of the original symbol.
For everyone else a well-branded experience is still a must. With some big retailers suffering and disappearing from the high streets, newcomers need to have a well thought out strategy which includes branding. And the old guard need to remember theirs and remind people why they are still relevant. I believe the story is the key, new brands need to find theirs and shout it from the rooftops.
Design is the facilitator or narrator if you like. Good design can deliver a consistent voice and visual identity but there is more than one way to tell a story and if it is stripped bare it becomes more of a manual, functional yes, but cold and disposable when something better comes along. A great story functions as emotional context and that is what will continue to enthral and engage audiences.
The role of design is to solve a problem which implies that the form should follow the function, but not at the expense of creativity. Wherever possible the resulting brand should surely be as crafted as possible whilst retaining its aesthetic integrity.
- BRING YOUR PURPOSE TO LIFE
Define exactly what your brand stands for and its USP. Then make this the common thread that runs throughout the business.
- SELL YOUR STORY WITH AN EXCITING VISUAL IDENTITY
If you are all about speed then you need to look fast as well as being fast. Your visual language must evoke this emotion from the outset.
- TELL YOUR STORY THROUGH AN ENGAGING TONE OF VOICE
Strike an emotional chord with your audience by talking to them with added personality and do it consistently across everything you do. Demonstrate a competitive edge or advantage, if you have a great offer make sure people know about it.
- CLEARLY COMMUNICATE YOUR VALUES
Consistency is key from the logo to the terms and conditions, use the same visual handwriting across all channels. Expressing your brand values can empower your offer further. Speed may be the number one driver but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about sustainability or efficiency with the same passion.
ABOUT BEN RUSSELL
I-AM, BRANDING DIRECTOR, LONDON
Ben has been building brands and creating identities across the world for over 20 years. With a wealth of experience in many sectors he has been fortunate to work with numerous leading businesses from retail brands, fashion stores and restaurants to financial institutions and museums Developing successful brand identities and retail strategies for the likes of Nationwide, Garanti Bank, Adidas, Whitbread and The Post Office. As head of the graphic design team he oversees the realisation of brand stories to bring them alive in both digital and physical environments. Launching new brands and helping established ones to evolve and grow, ultimately driving customer loyalty and advocacy.