Watch the Edge: The Slippery Slope of Brand Standards

Watch the Edge: The Slippery Slope of Brand Standards

You’ve probably heard the famous quote that IBM Chairman and CEO Thomas J. Watson declared in 1973:

“Good design is good business.”

Under Watson, IBM was a renowned global leader in business and in brand. With IBM prioritizing good design as an effective tool, other businesses around the world were learning to value it too.

IBM’s stance was a tremendous victory for designers as well. Their work would be more widely seen as a powerful business tool, not just “pretty pictures.” Commercial art became more valuable than ever before.

Fast-forward to today, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an executive that isn’t aware of the value design brings to business. In addition, design is much more accessible than it was in Watson’s era. There are more designers than ever. Design takes less time to produce, and it costs less, too. (Whether it’s easier to find good design is a topic for another time.)

With design running rampant in the business world, there comes a need to control it. Most larger companies have some kind of “corporate brand standards” document. These documents typically provide guidelines for how a logo should be used, which color values are on brand, when and where to use the tagline, and so on, and so on. They’re rule books for how designers should interpret the brand when creating anything on behalf of it: a website, a brochure, an ad – even an email signature.

Often, brand standards documents are a key deliverable at the end of a rebranding effort. They’re great tools for getting everyone within an organization on the same page, and for quickly getting external partners and vendors up to speed.

Some brand standards guides are more robust than others, and more rigid with the “should” and “shouldn’t”s. Some are so thorough that they guarantee that everything designers produce on behalf of the brand will look identical. And therein lies the problem.

In crowded markets, marketing managers want their products to stand out. Their job is to build excitement and awareness, and to look for new ways and new channels to tell their story to their audience. They want excitement! They want new! But an overly rigid brand standards document does not want new. It wants the same. It wants the dependable, predictable, beautifully uniform same.

Designers see this conflict all the time. If a designer follows overly rigid standards, her work is deemed boring. If she strays too far from the standards, her work is inappropriate, and not “on brand.”

In the quest to remain “on brand,” and in our misinterpretation of the “good design is always good business” principle, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.

The problem with an overly rigid brand standards guide is that it limits the thinking to only “what’s been done before.” There is no room for innovation. But marketers are used to the speed and abundance of change in the world, and don’t like the idea of simply standing still.

Companies need to control their identity. It’s the way to build brand equity. So how do you ensure continuity for your brand without being too restrictive? I think the answer is to leave some breathing room for innovation. Design standards should allow for new ideas. They should serve as design frameworks, not design manuals, not a series of templates waiting to be filled.

Good design really is good for business, but in today’s market, it needs room to breathe.


Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski is Principal / Creative Director of Atomicdust and is involved with the day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

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