Why Should Design Get Off Easy?

It has been a source of frequent frustration here at Stokefire.  Our job is to develop compelling identities and brand strategies, but we’re forced to develop these while hamstrung.  We (almost literally) have our hands tied behind our backs since we don’t actively manage design.  We provide guidance and advice, but except on rare occasions our clients retain designers from other firms.  This is mostly our fault since we don’t actively sell design.

Let me clarify – I’m not wishing that we got more design clients.  I’m wishing that the designers we encounter in the wild were better able to understand what goes into creating a powerful identity.  I can point to hundreds (or thousands) of designers who can create aesthetically pleasing logos, can write up a comprehensive style guide, and can make Adobe Illustrator sing Ode To Joy.  The science of what makes something pleasing to the eye may be a bit soft, but there’s plenty of talent out there that can get the job done.

What I’m wishing for is that graphic design be held to the same standards that brand strategy is held to.  Graphic design is truly a part of brand strategy and should be treated as such.  Rather than asking if a client likes the way a design looks, or focusing on the inner harmony of a piece (making sure the shapes and/or colors work together) there should be a higher purpose.  The design should help to tell the brand story.

The colors need to do more than look good on the page.  The logo needs to do more than just act as a restatement of the name.  The font choice should be made for reasons other than readability and novelty.

Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up.

The sad truth is that most designers are just using their skills to paraphrase.  If there’s a company that operates in the recycling or renewable energy space a designer will provide lovely logo options in hues of green, brown, and yellow.  It is highly likely that we’ll see leaves, trees, roots, or the sun coming over a hill.

I can just picture a potential consumer saying “Oh!  I get it now” after seeing a renewable energy store’s logo of a tree with a plug in it.  Invariably the thing will be green, of course.

I did a one minute search on renewable logos and here’s a small portion of what I found:

How do these add to the story?  How do these help anything at all?  The fact that there’s a company selling a default logo for this thing should indicate that it is entirely unsuitable for actual use, shouldn’t it?  The sun coming over the hills has jumped the shark.

Or is it… “The shark has jumped over the sun coming over the hills…”?


Our clients deserve more than something that they like – they deserve something that works. Part of our responsibility as people who work in the branding industry is to help our clients understand what branding is supposed to do.  It is supposed to set us apart from alternatives and perhaps even make our own offering more compelling.

Show me a designer who can do that and I’ll show you a designer who:

  1. Doesn’t draw logos with suns rising over hills
  2. I want to work with.

I think the problem may be with the fact that graphic design is rooted in artistic principles.  There’s so much attention paid to the aesthetics that designers may feel their art shouldn’t have to be measured by anything else.

Perhaps they’re right.  But I’m getting quite tired of responses that reference visual balance and saturation values when trying to tell the story of the designs they propose.  It’s great that they work aesthetically.  I just need to know how they help the client establish a real and meaningful relationship with their audience.  If saturation can’t get me there then I don’t want to know about it.  (And though saturation may be fascinating to a designer it ain’t going to be enough to carry a narrative that sells anything other than paint.)

So, Designers… are you with me?

How can we create graphic design processes that do more than look good on the page?  Perhaps someone can take it up with the AIGA?

10 Responses to “Why Should Design Get Off Easy?”

  1. kyle steed says:

    Personally, I think we have more to “take up with” AIGA. But that’s another post all together.
    First, let me see if I understand what you’re trying to say by summarizing what I just read.
    You and/or your company is looking for graphic designers with more moral/ethical/aesthetic standards and processes in place that will help their client’s brand be more timeless rather than stuck in a certain time (i.e. – web 2.0, 2.5, etc.). And also what they create will not just “sum up” the brand name, but rather be an extension of the brand (like an arm is to the body).
    Does that sound about right?
    Next, let me comment on a few things that I feel are important.
    As I have been working over the past 14 months as the lead in-house designer I have gained a small amount of experience. But I think I have learned some valuable lessons when it comes to designing a brand’s new identity and how my own aesthetic approach is sometimes polar opposite of what the client was looking for. And then sometimes, and this is really annoying, the client would take my design and then change only a few things around on their old version of photoshop (or corel draw) and muck it all up and then say that’s how it should look.
    But regardless, at the end of the day, there has to be some give and take, some compromise between you/I the designer and the client. I hope some of this makes sense.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Eileen says:

    Didn’t you post a link to that “If a marketing team designed the Stop sign” video? Where the lady says to the designer, “We’re primarily targeting women, who are 50% of all drivers! But as a secondary audience, we’re also targeting men.”
    Clients are at least as much to blame as designers — precisely *because* design is aesthetic, most clients think they know A) what looks nice, B) what fits with their brand, and C) what their audience wants to see. There are non-sun-rising-over-a-plant designers out there, but for most people it is not worth it to argue with a client when they insist that they really want something *earthy* and *green* and *growing* in their logos.

  3. Tate Linden says:

    Very well reasoned response, Kyle. Makes me realize how disjointed my post was.
    I think you understand my post well – though I’m not specifically looking for a designer right now that can do this. I’ve just been frustrated quite frequently that we’re paired with design teams that are content to deliver “pretty.”
    Your comments are spot on. Agreed that there has to be give and take – but it seems we’re very close to all give at this point from a brand standpoint. We’re letting designers get by without adding real business value. Eye-candy, yes. But compelling story is absent.

  4. Tate Linden says:

    Good memory, Eileen.
    You too are right. I guess it comes down to whether or not designers go for what the client says they want or what will actually get the job done. Most designers don’t have the confidence or clout to contradict the swoosh-loving client.
    I suppose this is why there are designers who will make a logo for $50 and some that charge hundreds of thousands. It still pains me that the big guys are almost as likely to deliver crap, though….

  5. Nancy says:

    Tate, I need to introduce you to some new designers! The ones I work with would be embarrassed to present anything as trite as those shark-jumping sun logos.

  6. Tate Linden says:

    I’m not sure your designer friends want to meet me, Nancy. I’ve been told I’m “unreasonably demanding” by a few.
    All I ask of designers is that they be able to tell me the story behind their work and defend it against invented criticism. (My logic is that if they can answer the questions that will be thrown at the client – like “What’s with having a purple tree in the logo?” they’ll be able to prepare the client better. Okay, that, and that they do moodboards for about ten identities…
    Yeah. I pretty much suck big-time.

  7. I think this is the place where the line between design and marketing tend to get fuzzy.
    Tate, I am interested in how you would help us designers create better logos (seriously, not being cheeky). What kinds of questions should we ask the client so we can extend the company story into the logo?
    For my own logo design process, I like to do word associations and in the brief, I ask the client about their company or the product/service we are creating a logo for: What words/phrases do they want the audience to think of when they see the logo? How can we say that a different way? What should we avoid associating with? What is the USP?
    And re: “unreasonably demanding”, that only makes us better designers and communicators! It can be frustrating for us designers, but how are we supposed to improve if we never run into challenges and opposition?

  8. Tate Linden says:

    Hold on Lauren… Allow me to screw in my fire-hose. (I tend to write a lot about stuff I’m passionate about.)
    Thanks for stopping in and challenging me to clarify my words. I hope I’m up to it.
    I think the problem stems from the level of contact designers typically have with the client. Brand strategists typically won’t take a job unless the client CEO (or at least a VP) is involved in the project. Designers are typically stuck with well meaning and often talented managers who really don’t have access to the information that is needed to develop the brand or extend the story. The manager is empowered to “slap a logo on this thing” since their bosses usually don’t understand the value a savvy designer can bring. On rare occasions when designers DO get access to the CXOs they may think that they have to play nice so they don’t lose a gig.
    So, the issue isn’t necessarily that you need to ask better questions – it’s that you need a different audience to answer them. The manager across the table doesn’t know the five year plan for the organization, probably can’t confidently express the personality of the organization (if they know it at all), and won’t be impacted by the types of results that a strong integrated design can bring.
    But back to the questions. We usually try to actively force the design to pull its own weight. We have this luxury most of the time because we’ll have just established the brand strategy and name and we’ll know what these have to offer. Instead of asking about colors or words we look for the areas that the brand as it exists so far might be deficient (or where it is strongest.) We look to maximize strengths or cover weaknesses. So we look back at the goals for the identity to see which ones aren’t hit as strongly as the rest and look to the visual brand to help us hit them bit harder. Missing a certain level of gravitas in the name? We’d look to the designer to emphasize typography that lends weight. Are we trying to give a connotation of nature and open space? How can we do it without resorting to cliche? The designer should think beyond the traditional tools. Seed-infused paper that you can use to not only recycle but beautify the planet… Packaging that converts into useful objects… Seeing the brand beyond the logo and through full execution.
    So. To reiterate… Ask questions to the people who both know the answers and to whom the resulting benefits of your work matter. And make sure that you can quantify or at least clarify why or how your work matters.
    I think my fire-hose is about to burst. Signing off.

  9. Tate, I think you’re so right about the level of contact designers typically have and that we do get a little scared to stand up to clients sometimes because we don’t want to lose the job.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain more. I’m going to stick around here and see what else you can teach me about better integrating brand and design (not just logos, I think) 🙂

  10. Tate Linden says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Lauren. I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations.

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