To grow big ideas, we need good design

A storm of sticky-notes after a brainstorming session.

A brand is not a logo

In a workshop with a new client recently, we started the morning with the not-so-small question ‘What is a brand?’ We had a variety of responses come up — from the abstract “a suit of clothes you put on to present to the world” to a very accurate yet much more formal “it is the external manifestation of the internal values of an organisation.”

The great thing about both of them?
It wasn’t the “… isn’t it just a logo?” I’ve heard so often. Ace.

Over the past few decades branding has changed significantly. It actually dates back further than you might think — brands in their original form were used to show ownership of cattle in the 1500s. It was bare bones but functional: a simple, distinctive and instantly identifiable mark, et finito.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and brands are growing closer to how we perceive them now. The Industrial Revolution brought along registered trademarks, and with that, the first instance of branding as intellectual property in 1881. That gave birth to the reality that companies could officially claim their products and services as their own. And then… the game was on.

From a simple mark of ownership, brands have evolved to represent what we’re about, what we believe in, and what we want to achieve. If that sounds like a lot to put into a mark that has to be recognisable at the size of a stamp and smaller, you’d be right. That’s where other elements come in: how we speak, what we say, colours, patterns, art direction, fonts — you name it, we’ll have discussed it. A brand is no longer just a mark; it incorporates… everything. It’s no wonder people sometimes get confused.

Putting our heads together

Digging deeper

The most exciting part isn’t usually the reveal of a new brand to a client.* I’m a big fan of the journey. It’s in taking clients — people — from the functional to the meaningful. Our clients tend to come in knowing very well what they sell, make or do, but that’s often where it stops. So what’s the opportunity, the possibility you bring to people? A good brand gives you the freedom to be expressive. The rest is ‘just’ the mechanic. It’s important, of course — but you don’t lead with it.

Think about it: Apple doesn’t sell technology, it sells possibilities. Disney isn’t about movies, but magic. And our government? It isn’t just in the business of laws. It’s in the business of trust… Or tries to be, anyway.

For our recent client Payo, the core is about people connecting, about creating memorable experiences. Shouting ‘we’re a buy-now-pay-later platform for hospitality’ isn’t going to get people that excited — but giving them a way to celebrate anything, from getting fired to getting jabbed or knocked up does. Highlighting the special occasions is expected, but if it’s about creating your occasions? Using food to make new friends? Bingo. Hello, dinner date invitations to mates of mates, upstairs-and-across neighbours, and dog-park-friends.

Finding the core of a brand is the difference between communicating what they do, and what they stand for. It’s how we grow the big ideas our planet needs. It’s what allows a science organisation to say ‘the science isn’t the point, it’s about people up in WA caring about what’s happening down in Antarctica’ — without discounting that their science is top notch. It’s what unearthed the ‘thorn on your side’ for the Sustainable Floristry Network, or even why making a kid’s book was a perfectly reasonable (if unexpected) thing to do for us as an agency.

“Finding the core of a brand is the difference between communicating what they do, and what they stand for.”

Strong foundations

All of this is not to say that the actual logo isn’t important. Or the fonts, the colours, tone of voice or art direction don’t matter. We live for those, and constantly nerd out over whether the x-height of matched typefaces works together or whether rounded terminals might work better — and that’s only scratching the surface. We often lament the use of Comic Sans for official documents, Papyrus for menus, and Lobster for anything not designed in the early 2010s. We go to galleries, performances, gardens and bars for inspiration. We read books, watch movies, watch people. We scribble down random thoughts, save references and put down underlines in books to draw from later.

It’s tempting to jump into the first creative thought, start with some fonts and colours and build a brand from there, but just like most good Italian meals start with a Soffritto, a good brand starts with deep thinking and clear understanding. First, we create a solid foundation. And then… Layer upon layer, we build.

It’s the combination of solid thinking up-front with good design and some clever touches here and there that really allows big ideas to thrive. In our experience, it’s also what allows people to bond. It aligns the team and taps into sources of inspiration. It’s evocative and reminds people why they’re involved in their projects in the first place. And of course, it ensures that you’re communicating the right thing, to the right people. It’s how we can help solve problems, inspire action and drive change. Pretty exciting stuff.


* Look, let’s be honest. We also love the reveal. ¿Por qué no los dos?

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All or Nothing

All or Nothing

Big ideas for the people and brands the planet needs