This is a creative call to arms

Ed Bolton - Principal, Creative

Do you see it too? The same repetitive approach to brand design. Safety embedded in every new visual identity. The lack of danger.

A risk-averse approach to creativity has spawned generic design. It’s most clearly seen in the ‘start-up look’. You know the one – a basic typographic logo, clean sans-serif typeface and solid blocks of colour. Have a quick google for… um, Google. Or Airbnb, Pinterest, Slack. Basically, any tech company that’s undergone a rebrand.

Last year, creative directors Thierry Brunfaut and Tom Greenwood coined the term “blanding”. It’s deservedly derisive, railing against this paint-by-numbers approach that’s been driven by the simple, digital-friendly design of the big techs firms who have created “a formula for countless tech hopefuls to copy.” And recently the brilliant ‘Bland Book’ popped into our inbox, a witty parody of this trend.

Blanding is being churned out in the luxury space too (the latest logos at Balmain, Burberry and Saint Laurent for starters). These brand identities are basically interchangeable. Safe, but boring.

But today, we have unprecedented access to information, cultures, points of view and curiosities. Why aren’t we doing more with that?

Respect trends, don’t follow them

There are some megatrends shaping the current climate and influencing the future of brands, like personalisation and authenticity. Paying attention to this stuff matters, but the response to these shifts has become completely uniform. Brands imploring us to find our ‘tribe’ or insert our name into something have become so ubiquitous they’re invisible. When we consider that creativity is genuinely limitless, that’s a borderline tragedy. Where’s the fun in copying everyone else? Or the return?

An op-ed in The Business of Fashion last July describes “a new cultural moment we call The Big Flat Now.” This concept essentially captures a new outlook on the entire creative industry in which it is borderless and fluid. There are no more rules. Art, design, music, fashion and film have all fused, borrowing from and inspiring one another, generating innovation in all disciplines.

This is particularly evident in the fashion industry, known as it is for being at the forefront of creative expression, adopting and defining new ideas and influences. But within graphic design, specifically brand design, things have typically been more insulated. We’ve been bound to the safety of our screens, pushing pixels and pleasing the masses to the detriment of creative progress.

Embrace the strange

When Zara’s new logo took a beating in the press, with Fast Co. stating “my mind has to struggle to make sense of what I’m reading when I see the logo”, we wondered if that was the point. We’re not convinced that it’s an aesthetically pleasing logo (and aesthetics are important) but it’s uncomfortable, and that’s what makes it great. On Twitter, users joked that the next few iterations would just be a black square. Why not!? We salute Zara for being brave.

This attitude has been described as ‘the modern awkward’, and we love that. It does what it says on the tin; let’s have more of it. Make space in your process to stand back and ask yourself “does this feel new? Does it feel awkward, too?” If it’s a hard “yes”, then stand behind it and convince your client to go for it! Because that’s where design can drive differentiation and interest in their brand.

We once had a client who looked at a logo we’d just pitched to him, paused a moment, and said “it’s weird”. We exchanged a glance. And then he elaborated: “It’s weird, so I know I haven’t seen it before. It’s different. I like it.”

In saying this, he rather neatly summed it up.

The BoF op-ed concludes, and we concur, “it is possible that we are more creatively free today than we have ever been.” This is the most exciting time to be a creative. In order to truly engage, we need to push beyond the generic; to be brave and embrace an element of risk so that we make ourselves and our clients feel more uncomfortable.

Let’s burn the brand book. Never define a minimum size for a logo again. Dream up new and innovative ways to bring brands to the people who might buy them. Don’t be afraid to break the mould.

There is always a gap in the market for the weird and wonderful. Be the one to fill it.