Presented by Brandpad: how to systemise a brand, featuring Pentagram, How&How and Studio Blackburn
Welcome back to The Finishing Line, presented in collaboration with the digital brand guidelines platform Brandpad. Over the course of six articles, we’ll be talking to creative industry leaders about what is often seen as one of the most challenging, fiddly, frustrating and complicated elements of brand design: getting it over the line. In this second entry into the series, we’ll be exploring a notion that brand designers are faced with time and time again: systemisation. Identity systems can make or break a brand, decisively bound to themes of consistency, accessibility and, inevitably, longevity.
“Before we design anything we need to understand how the brand is experienced by customers,” Pentagram Partner Luke Powell tells us, “where it lives, how it functions and what its future is,” asking the necessary questions to find a project’s true context. “Answers to these questions enable us to map out and identify where consistency will create the most impact,” he adds, discussing how his team at Pentagram ensure consistency across a brand’s identity system. “This also shows us how to build the system so that consistency is not only embedded in the work we produce but is also easy for the client to maintain,” Powell continues, cementing a bullet-proof strategic and conceptual base before even touching the aesthetic attributes. That being said, when it comes to systemised brand visuals, the questions don’t stop there.
The key to consistency is to make compliance the path of least resistance.
“When our team builds brand systems,” Design Director at How&How Luke Scott tells us, “we’re constantly asking the question: how do we make sure that following this system is easier than not following it?” detailing the thinking that takes place at the London, LA and Lisbon-based creative agency. “If a brand system or set of brand guidelines presents a barrier to creating work,” he suggests, “chances are it’ll get thrown out and teams will just revert to going off script,” as a result opting to follow limited, set key principles to ensure building or implementing the system is as effortless as possible. “For us, the key to consistency is to make compliance the path of least resistance,” he notes, “all humans are the same and we all want to achieve the maximum amount with the least amount of effort,” naturally leaning towards aesthetics, procedures and processes that maximise efficiency.
In approaching the handover of systemised guidelines, the necessity and importance of efficiency and accessibility only increase; however, as suggested by Mark Jones, Design Director at Studio Blackburn, this doesn’t necessarily imply a minimalist attitude to explanation – far from it, in fact. “We tend to expand the guidelines as much as we can to make them a celebration of all the hard work we’ve done beforehand,” Jones details, “and to showcase the best execution of the brand,” highlighting the importance of “going further than the basics.” Jones adds, “hopefully, you’ve been on a journey with the client,” leading to a collective, deep understanding of the brand and what it stands for. “We also have to consider how the organisation is going to be using their brand now and in the future,” he adds, “and who else is going to be using it,” leading to the London-based studio typically including a broad range of applications beyond the contractual touchpoints. “This shows its flexibility and provides examples on a variety of formats,” Jones explains, caveating, “one thing that it is important to remember is that the people we’ve been working with might not be at the company five years later,” hence the handover needs to be as straightforward as possible. “Make it a brand guideline for dummies,” Jones suggests, a sentiment shared by Scott, whose approach is equally pragmatic.
“No grid porn, please,” Scott states, “focus on useful information and leave out your graphic flexes,” stressing the importance of not wasting client time on waffle or unnecessary visuals. “Show me, don’t tell me – demonstrate visually as much as possible,” he continues, keeping written documentation to a minimum, with visual examples more favourable than text. “We are not building layouts or compositions; we are building a toolkit of atomic parts that can be used to create infinite designs,” he expands, “with not only consistency, but adaptability,” considering every part of a brand’s system interchangeable, priming it for unforeseen use cases. “Think like Eliel Saarinen,” Scott adds, championing the quote below from the Finnish-American architect.
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.
However, going too far down this path of systematisation can lead to significant slip-ups, as Powell details, describing the common mistakes made when attempting to systemise a brand identity. “Systemising for systemisation’s sake,” Powell frankly remarks. “As designers, it’s incredibly satisfying to come up with neat and tidy solutions that on the surface are very clever,” he continues, “but on closer inspection are either too complex to work with, or are systemised in the wrong places,” leading one to leave some questions unanswered and new questions made. “Without proper planning and consideration for how the brand will be used,” Powell remarks, “it’s very easy to create something that looks beautiful in your case study but doesn’t really suit the brand when they come to using it on a daily basis,” installing a terminal half-life on the identity’s longevity. Similarly, Scott tells us, “I think another mistake is thinking that systems are something that happens at the end of a project,” adding, “you’ll never create great brand systems if you’re not working in a systems-oriented way,” considering systems integral and never an afterthought.
“We believe a well-systemised brand identity should be allowed to grow over time,” Jones agrees, “so we provide guidance and avoid anything strict or overcomplicated,” in reality producing something that’s easily followed and understood. “There are a lot of brand guidelines in the world ranging from the good, the bad and the ugly,” he adds, suggesting that the “ugly” guidelines in question typically come from an ultimately unattractive identity. “Bad guidelines usually look like they’ve been put together in ten minutes with no consideration,” Jones continues, disregarding layout and hierarchy. “Good guidelines should be engaging and educational with considered layouts,” he declares, “with well-crafted applications and succinct key information” – a feat achieved innately by a proper understanding of the brand, beginning with the basics. “If you start with the basics you can figure out the other elements of the system that need to be expanded upon,” Jones tells us, starting the systemisation of a brand simply. “Although a brand is more than a logo,” he adds, “it’s often a good place to begin.”
“I think we as brand designers have a lot we can learn from our product design counterparts,” Scott remarks, taking a broad view on the issues that can arise in brand systemisation. “There is a difference between design for audiences and design for users,” he continues, “yes, brands are largely built with audiences in mind, but when it comes to brand systems, these are designed for users,” suggesting we reconfigure our perception to view the latter as projects whilst continuing to be user-centred and empathetic. “You have to switch from communication mode – which is natural for branding designers,” he expands, “to usability mode,” setting yourself the task of creating something efficient and joyful to use. “Remember you are making a toolkit,” Scott concludes, “not a sales pitch for your brand.”
Speaking more with our trio, Powell, Scott and Jones, we dive into measuring the effectiveness of systems over time, keeping an eye on scalability and working with in-house teams.
HB How do you measure the effectiveness of an identity system over time?
LS For us, beyond the obvious of a brand showing up in the world in a consistent way, we look at cross-functional adoption as a real marker of success. First and foremost, are the design teams adopting and using it successfully? But beyond that, are the marketing teams using it? Are product teams getting what they need from it? Is the system reducing friction across teams and helping everybody deliver a better product or service? Of course, a brand system can’t solve all of a business’s problems, but if done well, it can allow design teams to have an outsized impact on business goals, which increases the value perception of what we do, and that is good for all of us. It’s all about that ROI, baby.
Another unsung measure of success when it comes to brand systems is summed up in the old adage: teams don’t know what they know. So often, mission-critical knowledge lives in but one place: a single person’s mind. We know that no one person can effectively hold all the information required to run a brand. But a brand system creates a repository of ideas and collective knowledge that can be commonly understood, accessed by everyone, infinitely adaptable and effectively deployed. It’s amazing how having this central source of truth can liberate teams to do their best work. After all, our minds are for creating ideas, not storing them.
MJ It’s always nice to see an identity that is working for the client and looks the way we intended it to a few years down the line. Seeing the way some of our past clients are using the brands we’ve given them brings a tear to my eye (a happy one). We do like to maintain relationships with our clients – the ones that we like – and stay on as brand guardians: reviewing output, ensuring the identity is understood, boldly going where no one has gone before.
An effective identity system has to have started its life from a good core brand idea and is ultimately one that is well crafted and does the job that it was intended for. A bit of good press never hurts, either.
LP One simple gauge is whether it’s being replicated well over time. This shows that the guidelines you created or the tools you built were usable and correctly suited the client’s needs. Another gauge is whether it still functions on new platforms, sub-brands and implementations that are created by the brand post-launch. This shows that you built in the right amount of flexibility and asked the correct questions about how the brand was planned to evolve over time. At the end of the day, all brands inevitably get built upon over time, but a good one will have the necessary flex and elements within its toolkit to allow for on-brand development and evolution.
We are always considering how the brand can be future-proof.
HB How do you ensure that an identity system is scalable as the company grows and evolves?
LP By repeatedly asking the client, their teams, departments and all stakeholders what the three, five, and ten-year plan for the business is. That’s all we can do. If a client pivots or changes their mind about what the company’s future is, it can’t be guaranteed that the solution will work. Making this point clear to the client is fundamentally important to ensuring the work we create is able to grow as the brand does.
LS Create principles before parts. A brand is more than typography, colour and logos. It is a collective set of associations in the minds of your audience. Therefore a sophisticated system needs to capture the essence of a brand through core principles, not just a list of assets and rules. This is where strategy and design meet; a brand system needs to convey the sensibilities that make the brand what it is. Its behaviours, its voice, its personality. It’s an amorphous thing to try and tie down, but it’s about equipping design teams to become genuine brand ambassadors who know intuitively what’s right for the brand and don’t just follow rote-learned rules.
MJ As designers, when creating a brand, we’re often in the headspace of the now, coming up with ideas on how we can make this company/person look good. It’s important to not just focus on current trends and do what is best for the brand. Fundamentally it needs to look great and speak to the people it needs to.
Some briefs do ask us to consider the next ten years or more, and we are always considering how the brand can be future-proof at the connecting stage. We understand where the client is now and where they want to be in the future and include a breadth of application types, leaving space and flexibility for growth and change.
HB What’s the key to ensuring that an identity system is easily understandable and accessible to another agency or in-house team?
MJ When we’re handing over all the assets, as much as we try to control everything, we have to let go sometimes. We’d hope the brands that we create do excite other agencies or in-house teams, and we try to ensure that they are inspiring and compatible, and we include all the assets that they will need. We like to make sure that movement comes across at the delivery phase; all brands we create nowadays move more and more into… moving. We ensure our work is all packaged up correctly and organised in a way that people can easily use.
LP The first thing is to understand who’ll be working with the identity and what their design capabilities are – this enables us to assess the necessary level of automation (for brands with little or no in-house team) vs freedom to play and create within the boundaries of the system (for brands with strong internal teams and/or budgets to employ freelancers and agencies). Another important aspect of ensuring accessibility and consistency is making sure guidelines and assets are easy to access, find and are prepared in formats that the teams are comfortable using. This means clearly signposted digital guidelines that can be iteratively updated and (sometimes) presentation templates in PowerPoint :( etc.
LS Establishing a shared vocabulary. If a brand system is the set of metaphorical nouns and verbs we use to express our intent, then it needs a shared language; this means having a clearly defined vocabulary that is simple and commonly understood – the difference between an icon and a pictogram or a module and a component. It might sound like petty semantics, but it is important that terminology is consistently defined if a system is to be adopted and used by multiple teams. In some instances, we will introduce proprietary terminology, so we’re essentially making up names for parts of a brand system. While this requires teams to learn these new terms, it can lead to clearer communication in the long run as you’re able to define things in a memorable way rather than confusion setting in over simple terminology.
The first thing is to understand who’ll be working with the identity.
HB When it comes to updating or refreshing a brand you’ve already worked on, how do you approach making those changes without losing its core elements, tone and character?
LS Design for the possibility – plant gardens. Architecture, arguably the oldest form of design, can tend to define a lot of the ways we think about aspects of design; usability, timelessness, environment, form and counter-form. When it comes to brand systems, however, we think about them not in terms of architecture but more like gardens. A gardener plants seeds and tends to them. She knows what she planted, but ultimately, she doesn’t know what the garden will look like. A brand system needs to lay the groundwork but ultimately be dynamic, adaptable and conceived in a way that can be constantly reconfigured for the ever-changing needs of a creative team. This is what we mean by designing for the possibility. As brand designers, we need to be able to design for the unknown unknowns, the circumstances we couldn’t have predicted. We are not designing things; we are designing tools for other people to design things. Once you nail this way of thinking about systems, the idea of revisiting or adapting existing brand work becomes not only easy but a natural part of growing a brand – just like pulling out weeds or pruning roses.
MJ When a brand comes to us for a refresh, it is usually based on a new strategic position or a change or growth in the company. We’ve got to ask ourselves how the current brand can be improved to better represent where the company is now. And also, what does it look like if we throw everything away? Do we need it to keep its core, or is there a new way of thinking?
Not too long ago, we worked at refreshing The Greater Good Fresh Brewing Company, a client we’d worked with a few years prior. They came to us with a question on whether we thought they should ditch their current name. It was a tough one for us as we had a connection with the name, but after a lot of conversations and thought, we provided them with a refreshed strategy and brand that centred around the idea of ‘Fresh is Best.’ We kept the character, core elements and tone of The Greater Good Fresh Brewing Company, but running with their new name allowed us to focus more on all these elements. It was a nice opportunity to revisit all the brand assets/packaging/website. The company now leads with its products name: Pinter, both as company and product – having just launched the Pinter 3, it is working very well for them.
LP We start with updated strategic work. What’s the purpose of the refresh? What parts of the brand are and aren’t performing? And what are the proposed strategic changes to achieve this? This gives us a set of practical objectives to respond to so that we understand what assets need to be completely rethought vs refreshed. We also do an audit of brands they share space with to better understand the landscape they exist in and do interviews – these are primarily with key stakeholders but can often be with customers and suppliers the brand works with. All of this helps us ensure our new designs retain the value that’s been built by the brand over time whilst updating anything that’s become outdated and is no longer fit for purpose.
Brandpad is a brand identity cloud-based design software. From guidelines to rollout, Brandpad is stacked with features, making all brands easily manageable, with precision and control.