Presented by Brandpad: how to make a brand not boring, with thoughts from Heydays and Wedge
Hello, and welcome back to The Finishing Line, presented in collaboration with the digital brand guidelines platform Brandpad. Over the course of six articles, we are talking to the creative industry’s finest about what is often seen as one of the most challenging, fiddly, frustrating and complicated elements of brand design: getting it over the line. For part five, we’ve spoken to Montreal-based creative studio Wedge and Oslo-based design agency Heydays to tackle something so simple in theory: how do you make a brand NOT boring? Characterful vs concise, systemised vs spontaneous, there is much to consider, and it’s certainly easier said than done. So let’s get into it, shall we?
“Some people think a Broadway show is the ultimate thing,” Wedge’s Founder, Justin Lortie, tells us, “I’m personally not into musicals, but that’s me!” Lortie adds, “it’s subjective,” setting the scene for what he believes makes a brand boring or not. “Ultimately, it’s about connection,” Lortie continues, noting the significance and interest of a person connecting with something – no matter what it may be. “It has an intangible quality that’s hard to describe with words alone,” he remarks, “so in the context of a brand, making people feel something doesn’t mean you have to be loud,” in an effort to counteract being ‘boring.’ To be unboring is to show up as the truest expression of who you are,” Lortie poetically puts, “in other words ‘be yourself’ with a strong and distinct point of view.”
You have to be willing to do something that will put someone off, that others might love.
Likewise, Heydays’ Design Director Lars Kjelsnes tells us, “a boring brand has no attitude and doesn’t manage to surprise or captivate its audience or users in any way,” raising the notion of uncertain opportunity in making something stand out. “You have to risk something if you want to be an interesting brand,” Kjelsnes explains, “you have to be willing to do something that will put someone off, that others might love,” ultimately challenging the status quo in all aspects of its creation. “All the way from the brand strategy and onto each surface its present,” he suggests, “with passion and confidence, be it on a pen or in an app.” Through this, as Lortie proposes, not only do you get something that’s not boring, but you create something actually interesting. “When it falls flat, it’s a matter of craft,” he suggests, resulting in a generic, missable product we’ve seen before. “To hit something special requires digging beyond the surface to untap ownable truths,” Lortie details, “and using them as a guide to thoughtfully craft the truest most authentic version of oneself,” challenging not only its visual identity but its concept, aesthetic, narrative and strategy. “Without that point of view,” he notes, “enter boring.”
Practically, it could be argued that what makes something not boring is its visual playfulness, designed in a way that we can’t ignore and are set to enjoy. Similarly, for many, the over-systematisation of a brand can tighten its aesthetic output into boredom. But is it really that simple? “When’s the last time someone complained that Oprah’s too deep, Marie Kondo too organised or Seinfeld too funny?!” Lortie puts forward. “Brands like the Whitney Museum have the best complex grid system,” he suggests, ideally suited to fit the organisation’s needs, mirroring its architecture and the physical experience of the brand. “While others like Ganni bring their own brand of playful Danish vibes to the table,” he continues, “simplexity is the striking of distinct balance that feels natural,” Lortie caveats, “but you can go over the edge when it’s unauthentic or trying too hard,” creating a sense of excitement at the detriment of one’s authenticity.
I do think an identity can be too much, too exciting and too playful.
“I’m going out on a limb here,” Kjelsnes remarks, “and say that an identity can never be too systemised,” raising not only the quality they offer but the flexibility, suggesting Massimo Vignelli’s ‘unigrid’ for the National Park Service as a prime example. “Great, thought-through systems are a great backbone to almost any identity,” he explains, “however, not being able to handle that system correctly, or not seeing the opportunity in those constraints can be problematic,” proposing that systemised greatness has been lost in recent times. “From responsive websites to ads in every thinkable channel,” he contextualises, “the system has been neglected and mainly been replaced with centred text and Google Fonts,” labelling such approaches as “a very lazy and unexciting replacement” for proper systemisation.
That being said, Kjelsnes does forewarn of over-indulgent design becoming detrimental to a brand and the experience of it. “I do think an identity can be too much, too exciting and too playful,” he details, “the main reason for that is you’ll always have to top the excitement,” noting its snowball-like effect, making it hard to pare down later along the line. “You also see a lot of brands going crazy on the excitement scale,” he continues, “but have a hard time keeping it consistent on ‘boring’ surfaces,” or when applied in situ. “Who wants to use an app or any other product every day that’s always screaming for attention,” Kjelsnes asks, bewildering an audience with over-the-top playfulness. “Paring down leaves more room for surprise in those situations,” he notes, “as it becomes more unexpected.”
In this debate between systemisation and spontaneity, Lortie suggests that the two are an interesting contrast to consider. “It happened to be the right tension for the Canadian furniture company EQ3,” Lortie explains, a project of Wedge’s positioned as ‘Made in Consideration,’ focusing on its dedication to ‘people, planet and your space.’ “EQ3 stands for ‘emotional quotient in the third dimension’,” he continues, encapsulating the enquiry of how a space can make you feel. “The intention of space as a brand truth is seen in the pragmatic grid system,” Lortie recalls, “which became the foundation of a complex universe that exists,” set within a strict graphic, typographic and chromatic system. “It was strict to the point where we came to the conclusion that margins could only be 5% or 10% width,” Lortie regales, based purely on the context of the application. “In contrast to this, the photography and tone of voice are very human and expressive,” instead focusing on the customers and their delightful experience of the brand. “That’s less expected,” Lortie concludes, “that brings calm and thought in the furniture industry, which is very authentic to who EQ3 is.”
This tension between systematisation and spontaneity was also explored in Heydays’ brand for poké restaurant Limón, designed in collaboration with their sister studio, Goods. “It’s quite simple in its assets,” Kjelsnes remarks, “using only two colours and a single typeface in one weight only,” as a result leaning with a slightly stricter, pragmatic edge. “But the spontaneity lies in how you’re allowed to let each word in a headline float freely on any surface,” he notes, creating a playful graphic space that allowed the brand freedom to challenge its identity through layout and reflect its verbal identity. “The tone-of-voice is cheeky and humorous,” Kjelsnes adds, “a place for the employees to have fun,” concluding, “as long as there’s a fish or water reference in there practically anything goes.”
Our conversation with Kjelsnes and Lortie doesn’t end there. Together, we continue to explore how to make branding not boring, asking of consistency, creating for ‘dull’ industries, and what ‘boring’ actually means.
It’s a question of: what values do you keep? And bringing them to life.
HB Is there value in a brand being ‘boring’?
JL According to my assistant ChatGPT, “Being ‘boring’ in the context of a brand refers to a lack of excitement, interest, or uniqueness in the brand’s offerings, messaging, and overall identity.” Another way we can think of ‘boring’ would be in terms of ‘functional’ or ‘practical’, which is the case with so many companies in the world. For example, most law firms out there don’t need an exciting brand, unless design is part of their core values. That being said – at Wedge, we believe inspiration is necessary for the human spirit, for positivity, and for beauty to thrive, so we believe that everything has the potential to be done in a way to connect better with people, almost as if this was a societal value. Think of the design culture in Scandinavia, for example, where the most basic things can be well designed and thoughtfully offered. The train in Helsinki feels joyful, the hospital is inspiring, the library is this incredible architecture and hub of aliveness and discovery democratised, etc. It’s a question of: what values do you keep? And bringing them to life through a brand experience.
LK That’s a tough one. What is boring? I think designers get excited by a lot of things that are perceived as boring. I think there’s value in a brand being minimal and mystic rather than all crazy, all the time. Lately, we’ve been exploring making calmer brands that lean on confidence rather than scream. We’ve been seeking inspiration in natural aesthetics and visuals or movement that resonates as beautiful or peaceful. Hopefully, they’re not perceived as boring, but if they are we do see value in it. If a brand is boring as in it has no attitude and just wants to fit in, however, I find it hard to see value in that. Usually, you’d want to push the envelope in some way or another–aiming for boring isn’t the way.
It’s a matter of imagination and going beyond the obvious.
HB How do you keep a brand consistently systematic whilst simultaneously characterful or spontaneous?
JL Everything is about contrast, so if that’s the right one, find the right elements that hit both sides. For example, if you need to build a brand that needs a rigid systematic foundation for any functional purpose, simply layer in character through colour, language, photography, typography…! It reminds me of the former DTC brand Entireworld where they had developed a simple and rigid grid system in which was placed with colourful photography and unique creative direction. It’s a matter of imagination and going beyond the obvious.
LK I think of brands and their identities kind of like languages. A rigorous system of letters and words – and ways of putting them together. You have to learn the language, understand the culture where the language is used – and then you can start talking, tell stories, crack jokes etc. The system you should avoid bending, or you have to understand it well enough to bend it right. Character and playfulness can come from knowing the brand at heart, and daring to play with it with confidence.
HB How do you avoid falling into the trap of following trends and making work that looks the same as everyone else?
JL Be aware of trends. Don’t choose an aesthetic based on trends.
Broaden your references. Try Google Image Search instead of are.na for research. It’s a way to say – go deeper for what you’re really searching, not in the same place as everyone else.
Forage outside the category for inspiration.
LK I guess it’s an easy answer that’s quite hard to follow. Seek knowledge and inspiration outside of the screen, outside of design. Go outside!
HB How do you approach the challenge of creating identities for industries that are generally considered ‘boring’?
JL I think the problem lies in how people may approach seemingly dry industries, which is, with judgement or bias, that they are boring. It ultimately depends on their internal culture, the spirit of leadership, the values inside – what’s invisible until you ask questions and learn. For example, we are currently working in the traditional world of seafood, and let me tell you, we (and the client) have untapped something very not boring in there! Mailchimp is another perfect example of what could’ve been dismissed as ‘dry email marketing’ that tapped into the soul of an organisation. Have you read the story about them? Read it. Textbook. We believe everything can be special. It’s a matter of people and mindset.
LK I’ve loved that challenge as long as I’ve worked in design. If you can convince the client that they shouldn’t just ‘fit in’ (which they shouldn’t) – it’s so much easier to create something truly special in a ‘boring’ industry. They usually don’t have competitors that think about this stuff. In my eyes, there’s tonnes of inspiration to find in the boring or mundane. I love this quote from Bob Gill on creating a logo for a dry cleaner (perhaps seen as a boring industry): “Instead of sitting in my studio looking through design books to get inspiration, surprise surprise, I thought it made sense to go to a dry cleaner and to sit there. […] I just knew I should stay there until I had something interesting to say about dry cleaning.’’
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