Blurring the line

This is an adaptation of an article written for the December edition of Computer Arts magazine

When we first started to take on major branding projects, clients would ask to see our ‘process’ so we dutifully wrote down what we thought it should be. And, bar a few tweaks, those initial steps of Research, Strategy, Design, and Implementation still hold today.

But more recently, I’ve made two additions to those core stages. After the implementation stage, the manner in which you ‘embed’ a project (or reboot it) has become increasingly important.

Also, the interface between strategy and design, the ‘blur’ between steps two and three, has come into sharper focus. It’s this intersection that often causes the most difficulty, discussion and disagreement within branding projects – and has caused me to add a ‘half-step’ to the process outlined in my book.

Once it was clear: the strategy and narrative provided an irrefutable verbal basis for what was to come next. The ‘thump’ of the strategist’s PowerPoint slides – printed out and dropped onto a designer’s desk – was both audible and intentional. These vast documents had been signed-off, they oozed gravitas. And the takeout was clear - ‘don’t mess with me, or else…’

For a while, we tried to follow the rules. If a visual idea came up that improved on the pre-agreed narrative, we left well alone. If we felt the narrative supplied was a bit ho-hum, we concentrated on visual solutions that would bring it to life.

But increasingly, as we started to do the verbal work ourselves, some key issues began to unfold. We wanted to allow the ideas from the design stage to ‘loop’ back and allow a redraft of what had come before. As we tackled some very tricky brand architecture problems, we realised that ‘creative’ solutions here could provide invaluable strategic glue as well. As we embarked on naming projects, it became clear that agreeing just one strategy, one name and one design was pretty risky, especially if global name-checking could rule out an entire route at any time.

So to cope with this, we began to amend our way of working. Yes, we would get the verbal work broadly agreed, but we would leave the door ajar, just in case the visual ideas provided another direction. As an example, the idea of ‘bringing the cosmos down to earth’ as a central idea for a Japanese space observatory actually came up in the design stage – but we were able to move it ‘backwards’ into the narrative stage.

Several times we tackled brand architecture within a design stage, which in turn suggested completely new ways to solve structural problems (such as our scheme for the Pew Centre). As we worked more and more on naming, we began to treat each shortlisted name as its own entity, so whilst legal checks were ongoing, a client could see how contrasting types of name could take them in different strategic directions.

Most recently, often due to condensed time-frames, we’ve had to collapse design, naming, brand architecture and design into one über-stage – whilst pursuing multiple routes in parallel. This creates a more nimble and agile process that better suits certain clients. Done well, this means we can all see worked up narrative and design scenarios in parallel, rather than one-after-another, as before. More stressful, difficult and often more expensive – but a lot of fun AND extremely useful.

But don’t get the impression that this inter-step can only be carried out by a company like johnson banks that merges strategy and design in-house. Other companies are just as agile at the ‘translation’ of one side into another - take the consultancy Circus, seamlessly facilitating the merger of Cathedral group and Development Securities, co-creating the U+I (United and Industrious) name and working with North on its new identity.

The Salt brand - developed by JWA and Project Projects

Another example is Jane Wentworth Associates – now masters at agreeing brand strategies, bringing in design companies and then collaborating to create some of the most groundbreaking work in the cultural sector.

One day, strategy and design may have merged into one big stage, and the need for any half steps will be negated. But, just for little longer, and especially whilst very different personalities work on either side of the divide, step 2.5 can help us all to bridge the gap.

By Michael Johnson

Branding. In Five and a Half Steps:
The Definitive Guide to the Strategy and Design of Brand Identities

By Michael Johnson
Thames and Hudson 2016 | c. 1,000 illustrations
Size: 24.5 x 21 cm | Hardback £29.95 | Extent: 320pp | ISBN: 978 0 500 51896

Released this week in the USA

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