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Design As A Business Practice

November 11, 2014


After thinking about the subject for many years, I discovered
that we’re not as unimportant as we think we are. The value
of a designer to a businessman is that he can add a great deal
of value to the businessman’s product. He can improve the
quality by making it look better, and a lot of times designers
have ideas that can even improve the product itself.
—Paul Rand


9:45 AM. Behind a desk sits a well-dressed 20-something reading a colorful design blog. He/she stares blankly as the screen, head cocked sideways, face melting into left palm, right index finger tracking endlessly—bringing the bright shapes across the screen in assembly-line fashion.

He/she blinks and realizes the wetness in his/her eyes has gone away from all the staring. A Google Doc is clicked open (or maybe a smallish, monotone sketchpad is unfolded)—it says something like “Le Carnet De Notes” on the front and has his/her name on the inside flap. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Zeke. Typed or written: Today’s date, the words “To Do,” and the number 1.

Here’s what it probably won’t say:

Branding company X:

  1. Create a design system that is primarily practical, secondarily beautiful.
  2. Change how brand X is perceived.
  3. Influence how much brand X succeeds.
  4. Win lots of awards with brand X.
  5. Get rich together.

But it should.

What, are you unconvinced that this pseudo-intellectual know-it-all, working at The Hardly Known Agency, maybe wearing suspenders, definitely wearing stylishly-rimmed glasses, has the ability to make your brand famous? To put your brand on the map that your contemporaries have geographically dominated for so long? To put a martini in your hand—at an award show—a foreign one—not saying it’s France—but it’s France—where your hotel overlooks the beaches of Cannes?

Well, they Cannes (sorry…I had to). This is because no brand in the entire world can escape the stark reality of these two words:

Words & images.

The consumer is harsh. The consumer has no attention span. The consumer has a sword. They run around the world flailing their arms (+sword), looking for the words & images that interest them, and if you do not convince them that your product has The Stuff they desire—extremely quickly, mind you—the consumer will surely run you through.


Creating a brand language.

The fundamental approach to words & images of every successful brand is simple: Use words you believe in. Use images that are practical. Use these things consistently.

Belief. Practicality. Consistency.

If you do not believe in your own message, why should anybody else? Speak about your brand in a way that everyone in your company will stand behind. These should be the words you are willing to die for. Your rallying cry. Your credo. They’ll go on your headstone. And if you’re lucky, someone else’s too.

If your images are not practical, they will not be interpreted the way you intend. Your message will not be understood—or worse yet, misunderstood. The purpose of imagery in the realm of branding is not to illustrate exactly what the brand does or stands for. The image is used as a product—a product that creates an association between the image and the brand itself. The association—NOT the image—is what the consumer comes to recognize as the brand.

The penultimate example of this association is a brand’s logo. The success of a logo is not measured by the time it takes between viewing it and understanding exactly what the business does. The success can only be measured by the potency of the association between the logo and the brand. That is to say, recognition. And recognition can only be attained using consistency.


There’s nothing about the IBM symbol that suggests
computer except what the viewer reads into it. Stripes
are now associated with computers because the initials
of a great computer company happened to be striped.
A logo becomes meaningful only after it’s used.
—Paul Rand


Language works most efficiently as a means of communication when the sounds and gestures remain consistent. If we were to alter the sounds and gestures of our languages each week, we’d all degenerate into earthworms and be replaced by the Bonobo in the food chain. Why should it be any different for brand languages? In branding, sounds are words and gestures are images. When you choose words you believe in, and imagery that is practical, unless you want to garner a following of earthworms you must employ steadfast consistency. Consistency of words & images help compound the brand language in the hearts and minds of the masses.


Prettiness, pettiness, and the idea.


When I am working on a problem I never think
about beauty. I only think about how to solve the
problem. But when I have finished, if the solution
is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
—Buckminster Fuller


Prettiness, in the realm of branding, is craft. Craft should function practically—as a means to add credibility to a brand language. Prettiness beyond the ends of credibility-building is surely petty—in most cases. And in today’s realm of branding, there is certainly no shortage of petty prettiness.

But what about the idea? The holy, sacred idea? The thing David Ogilvy was always going on about—the thing clients will sell the farm to discover. Isn’t it what dreams are made of? Didn’t it result in the assembly line and the iPod and stuff like that?


Sometimes, beautiful is the idea.
—Brian Collins


There is nothing wrong with a visual language that simply glorifies the brand. Not every idea needs to be spelled out verbally & visually. A celebratory design language can demonstrate that a brand knows how to be deliberate in its craft. And make no mistake—the greatest brands in the world are always crafted to the nines. Though, often, the level of craft that goes into the brand languages you’ve come to know and love cannot easily be seen with the naked eye.

Of course, many brands have their own ideas that they want conveyed through a brand language. Many of these ideas take the form of logos, slogans, and/or promises. But it’s not enough to simply have the idea. Everyone has an idea. The object is for the idea to manifest in the hearts and minds of the consumer—when they want it to, and in the way they want it to. If the brand language is consistent, the idea will manifest. If the idea is good, it will stick.


We imbue the logos and physical appearance of a brand
with the values that we want. In other words, business and
institutions have to earn brand value—it simply cannot be
imposed by a logo, a slogan or a promise. It has to be real.
—Adrian Shaughnessy



Make. Make. Make.

The greatest challenge for a brand is over-thinking. While choosing words & images to represent your brand must be done wisely and strategically, something must eventually be made. Consumers don’t learn according to your roll-out plan or your corporate cadence. They learn through repetition and consistency.

You must make things.

A brand language is learned over time. You must hold fast to your ideals. You must trust your words & images. You must make. And make, and make. This keeps your brand language available to be learned. The craft of what you make adds credibility to the language. The content of what you make shows the consumer that you give a damn about what they want.

Design must be treated as a primary business practice. Words and images are just as integral to building your stake in the market as any facet of your business plan. They will come to define your business more than you know, and often times more than you’d hope.

Choose them wisely. Use design to execute them flawlessly.