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Leave the logo alone

‘Evolution, not revolution’ is one of the most annoying and overused phrases in client branding briefs. But I do wonder if we (as design professionals) too often recommend brand redesigns as a means of creating more work (and better portfolios) for ourselves at the expense of what is right, or necessary for the brand? And do we shoot ourselves (and our industry) in the foot by inventing long-winded reasons for why this work is important?


A Design Assembly post from earlier this year defends the ANZ bank brand redesign against the backlash it has received in Australia. Actually, not defending the redesign itself, so much as the right of the agency to have done it. Without having seen the research, my guess is that the agency was right in their conclusion that the brand needed to be ‘consolidated’. I would also guess that the price tag (15m AU$) was largely defensible – knowing the amount of work in research, client handling, sell-in, iteration and roll-out that goes into a corporate rebrand of this scale.


The problem is that all the public sees or recognises is the logo so they think that this marque alone is what costs millions of dollars.


I would argue that the agency would have done better for the brand, themselves and the design community in general, by doing very little to

the logo but working on consolidating and modernising its usage and all the elements around it. I say this not just because the new logo is pretty shit (which it is) or because I have a fondness for the old one (which I do) but because consumers feel an ownership of logos in a way that we have to be careful not to mess with. 


Some of the most important changes graphic design can bring to the world are very subtle and nuanced. The successful application of these nuances relies on a care and understanding of the consumer position and sometimes bowing to what is right for the brand over what we think will fill a niche in our portfolio.


I learnt a useful brand term recently from Rob Walker’s fascinating book “Selling in – the secret conversation between who we are and what we buy.” ‘Projectability’ as Walker explains it, is the space within a brand that allows consumers to invent their own story. He sees this as a very powerful part of what makes us love the brands we love.


We tend to overlook the roll of projectability in graphic design. We like to think we can control the way the world looks without taking into account that we can’t control how it will be seen. This is an important distinction because projectability is what gives great logos their power and creates the nuanced relationship with the brand that we want consumers to have.


I’m not saying we shouldn’t use meaning to develop our ideas or that logos shouldn’t have ideas in them. A subtle idea in a logo (not a hit you over the head with a hammer, geddit? idea) can be a powerful trigger for memory

and recognition.


But too much time spent developing meaning (justification?) may be being done at the expense of more important practical issues such as how to deal with multiple iterations, brand architecture, scalability, cross media use, longevity, legibility and consistency that good logos really live and die by.


Anyone who has seen the ‘pepsi gravitational field’ PDF will know how bad this stuff can get. This document is as hilarious as it is offensive. Thankfully its viral spread around the internet gave the design industry as much opportunity to mock ourselves as it did others to mock us. (Hard to take seriously any document that uses the phrase “dimentionalize exponentially” as if it actually means something.)


Hoax or not, it stands as a warning of the potential to veer toward this kind of pretentiousness in all of us. Particularly during our enthusiasm to sell-in to clients. I’m not adverse to a bit of post-rationalised story-telling to engage a client with a great solution. For godssake just don’t start believing it yourself or, even worse, expecting your real audience (consumers) to even give a toss.


Part of what made the London 2012 logo debacle so butt-clenchingly awful was the very public attempts to justify it by telling the audience (ie the whole of the UK) that they were going to ‘feel part of it’ because that was what Wolf Olins intended. 


Attempts such as these to over inflate the meaning of our work as a way of justifying our fees does damage to our industry and probably contributes to the rise of scary concepts like and design crowd.


A brand is much more than just its graphic representation. This much we all know. But the logo does, over time, come to represent much of what people know about the brand. It’s a shorthand that needs to be allowed to gather meaning in the context of many other things which we can’t necessarily control. 


It’s a tough call because we all need to earn a living and a highly visible corporate logo design is a mainstay of the professional designer’s portfolio. But more often than not what brands need is just a good old tidy up. Our fees are well and truly justified by complex and very important (although maybe less sexy) parts of our work such as solving intricate problems of usability, implementation and consistency.


Logos will always need to be tweaked and modernised as usage evolves but unless a client comes to you with a brand that really requires a break from the past, don’t mess with the logo just for the sake of it. You will never be able to fully recreate what the audience will have invested in it for themselves and you may be throwing out some babies with your bath water. 

Kate Leury Nielsen, for Design Assembly 2011

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