When I worked at the Salvation Army, a new branding system was introduced. The NGO's workers welcomed the new branding well. So soon, we saw all the little flyers, presentations, posters with the new look. When people start to use a new system they also start to hack it. So, it wasn’t long before you could see hacks. For example, advertising with another type or with the logo position a bit «improved». In such moments, you have two solutions. First, you can play the police and explain why doing such things is no good. Or you can be happy that at least people try to put in place the new branding.
Branding guidelines are dead
From rules to systems
We transmit branding concepts usually to the workers with branding guidelines. Or if you like to make it more complicated with «corporate identity guidelines». These guidelines were usually more seen and lived as being dogmatic rules. When you do something a bit different than the guidelines it was dangerous. There could be someone upper in the hierarchy telling you that this wasn’t correct. Branding rules are good to keep uniformity. But they suck when they used by large communities and systems. Before the new branding, the Salvation Army was sometimes like this. You had rules to follow, but these rules didn’t fit all the little exceptions. And even if you could prove it was wrong to follow the rule, you had to.
I think that today major brand is shifting from a rule-based branding to systems. This kind of system branding defines some guiding helping points. These systems work with strong concepts easily translatable on any other medium if necessary. You don’t need to formalize everything because the core idea is clear. If you get the core idea right, smart people will know how they can adapt it. They will adapt it to their particular exception that you didn’t imagine. Companies like Swisscom or Netflix have such branding systems. The core idea is so strong that the little guidelines can evolve over time. Then, the brand still stays true and unique. In such case, the discussion is not about how the grid should be. It’s not about the type, the level of yellow in the CMYK color. It’s about the big picture, the story that the visual system has to tell.
Why we still need them
Guidelines for the repetitive and standard
Branding guidelines are dangerous when used to play the police. They stop innovation. They created weird artifacts when they used in too particular situations. But for the usual, the boring and the standard guidelines should are helpful. That means that the letterhead of the company should have clear guidelines. It’s something simple that we use again and again. And let’s be honest. There are two types of designers in the world. The innovative ones who need to play with the rules. And there are the other ones: the technicians. These designers, are amazing in the details. But you have to give them something to where they can work on details. These designers produce the mass of the little things that you see daily. And they need branding guidelines to do so. But still, don't try to describe everything from your brand with super detailed guidelines.
A mix of both worlds
Progressive reduction for branding guidelines
So, now that we have laid out the basics let’s dig a bit deeper. While I was at the Salvation Army, I came out with the idea of «progressive reduction». The idea is to define how you reduce branding systematically. With what can we play first? What is the last core element that makes your brand? If I show you, the Coca-Coca red you recognize the brand even if there isn’t any logo on it. The same goes in Switzerland with the Post. It uses such a specific Yellow that you always know it’s the Post that is speaking. That works too with other elements like forms, types, sound or animations. The point here is that there are key elements that make your brand recognizable. And there are other elements that are much less important. So next time you work on a branding thinks about the importance of the elements. Think about what are the first elements people could hack.
For the Salvation Army, I sketched it out like this. The first thing you could play with was the square that builds the « Window » of the poster. You can make it longer when the format is long. The second thing you could hack are the colors. Then the type. The proportions. Then you could remove the logo. At the end when you remove the white frame, you removed the brand.
Type designer Erik Spiekermann developed a similar idea but with a focus on type. He said that on mobile devices, the typeface can be the last branding element. It’s the text setting that shows the brand values because there isn’t space for logos or other anything else.
So, the idea of Progressive Branding Reduction is applicable also to a device-centric approach.