Tales of trouble when a “good” design deviates too far from its parent branding.

Anything you design — a website, app, brochure, game, video, booklet, card, etc. — they all have foundations rooted in their branding.

Branding isn’t just a logo and colour scheme, it’s the entire ecosystem of touchpoints that affect a customer’s experience of acompany. Branding is personality and tone of voice. Branding is customer service and experience. Branding is a logo, fonts, colours, imagery, patterns, and style guidelines. A is a culmination of every interaction someone has with your company: it’s “what other say about you when you leave the room”.

Good design must be true to its brand. It must support and enrich it, never undermine it. But what if you come across a brand identity that feels “average” (or worse!) yet you don’t want to produce equally average work? What if you think you can create a design that will elevate that brand to something better?

I was in this situation last month. Let me share my story.

I was recently subcontracted by a web dev agency to design a gift-guide micro-site for a large multinational electronics retailer. Their brand is what I’d call cheap and loud. “Sale sale sale, buy buy buy”. Bright colours, crude fonts, not an element of class or refinement in sight.

They sell heaps of products. There’s no doubt that brand messaging works in a crowded retail market. Who doesn’t like a bargain, after all?

But…

I’m a designer who naturally tends towards a more minimal aesthetic. I like whitespace, clean typography, and meaningful use of colour. Looking through their previous material, all my initial design thoughts were along the lines of “how can I make this look more elegant?”.

Dropping most of the loud brand fonts in favour of a more minimal font pairing was a start. Minimising the in-your-face brand colours for a more sparse and meaningful colour use was an obvious option. But how far could I stretch it? How much deviation from their brand look and feel could we get away with?

The subject matter leant some weight to this goal. A holiday gift guide probably deserves to look a more special and classy than your everyday retail store or ecommerce site. However, I made the mistake of fighting the branding, rather than embracing it right from the start, and it got me in a bit of trouble. I was too fixated on making the brand what I believed to be “better”, when I should have been learning how to embrace it and coming up with a more hybrid solution.

My first design iterations got the structure and on point, but I couldn’t break free from fighting the brand identity. All the client feedback centred around bringing back more of the crazy fonts, more of the loud colour, more consistency with their existing brand applications — even when I believed those things were severely detrimental to the experience of this website.

Then half way through the project a switch flipped in my brain.

I began completely embracing the “ugly” parts of their branding that I had been struggling with. It was a style I didn’t use frequently, and I was glad for the chance to flex some different designs muscles.

Suddenly the design started to fall in place and we reached a happy medium that pleased the client stakeholders, and remained something I wasn’t embarrassed to have produced. It felt like a win. Everyone was happy. Or so I thought.

The final lap. The project was all but done. Finish line in sight with only a few responsive design details to iron out.

Little did we know, that the big bosses overseas needed to approve the design. Apparently there were a few more important stakeholders that hadn’t, until this point, had any involvement in the process, but they had the final word.

I’m sure you can guess what they came back with:

  • More bright colour
  • More crazy fonts
  • Bigger logo!

Yep, I fought the brand, and the brand fought back. I managed to convince the commoners, the knights, and even the prince and princesses that what we had come up with was a good solution. But the brand is , and they all answer to the brand.

So I did just what they asked for, even if I hated it.

The funny thing is, some people need to see their bad ideas fail before they know they’re bad. Not everyone is a designer. They can’t picture design concepts in their head and dismiss the bad ones before they’ve materialised.

Yet once they see them, it’s not uncommon for them to agree that “yeah, that looks a bit shit, aye?”. And then we work together to find a middle ground that incorporates the underlying purpose of their request in a way that’s more harmonious to the overall design.

I won some decisions, and lost others. The least offensive client requests made it through, while the one I simply couldn’t live with got pushed back hard, and some compromises where made from both sides.

I learned a lesson to demand earlier engagement from all stakeholders, so big design decisions don’t try to get pushed through right before the finish line.

Design always has compromises.

You may have to compromise quality for speed or cost. You may have to compromise a cool UI effect for a better UX. You may even, god forbid, have to compromise aesthetics or usability due to overwhelming personal preferences of a picky client. (Learning how to push back on these and justify your design decisions is huge!).

But don’t ever turn the application of the brand into a compromise. A good king doesn’t compromise. Because once you’re compromised, you’ve set a precedent and it’s all down hill from there. Branding is nothing, if not consistent.

Despite doing this job for 17 years, I still stumble now and then, and I re-learned this lesson the hard way on my last project. I doubt I’ll make the same mistake again. Next time I’m embracing that brand to the fullest, even when it’s ugly.



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