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Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

Q&A With Alina Wheeler On “Designing Brand Identity” 4th Edition

Hexanine: Alina Wheeler and Designing Brand Identity 4

Alina Wheeler wrote the book on identity design. Literally. She is the author of Designing Brand Identity, which is just about to be released in its fourth edition. It’s an excellent resource and is arguably the textbook on the discipline of overarching identity design. Over the years, we’ve found Alina’s thoughts, insight, and process to be an invaluable roadmap in developing and shaping our own identity design process, leading to greater results for us, and our clients. The book is a great 50,000 foot view, allowing readers the ability to see the design journey from beginning to end, but also allowing them to zoom in on how each part of the process contributes to overall project success.

On the eve of the book launch, we wanted to chat with our friend and colleague about this latest version, and also pick her brain about the state of identity design today.

Tim Lapetino: This might be a silly question, but since this is the fourth edition, what’s different about Designing Brand Identity this time around?
Alina Wheeler: Each new edition is smarter and more robust — a quantum leap, and a year of my life. Brands continue to grow exponentially as the global currency of success. The world changes, new innovations and insights become mainstream, and brilliant new work is done around the world. The fourth edition has 37 new case studies, more than 400 new images, more than 200 new quotes, diagrams, and checklists. All in all, more than fifty percent of the book is new content. The structure is the same as earlier editions: DBI4 organized by subject spreads in three sections (Basics, Process, and Best Practices).

The fundamentals and the disciplined process that I believe in have not changed. The tools have changed. The third edition, for example, did not feature apps, tablets, responsive design, video, or mobile. Making a difference and social networks have become even more critical to success. The mix of 120 firms featured is more geographically diverse, less NYC-centric, more global, with more nonprofits. The case studies are even more diverse in terms of the types of problems solved. Many subjects (like positioning, customer experience, and intellectual property) have been completely rewritten. I’ve reached out to more experts around the world.

Hexanine: Designing Brand Identity Cover

TL: Why do you think the book continues to be popular? Is it how you outline the process in this comprehensive way, or is there something else attractive about identity design itself?
AW: It’s easy to use as a resource, and it offers a lot of value. I believe that the book (DBI4) is the most comprehensive and accessible resource in the world for anyone who needs to understand brand fundamentals, the intersection of strategy and design, and the process to build a brand. The book appeals to leaders and managers who understand business but need insights into the benefits of branding and design. Designers who are eager to understand more about branding fundamentals, like positioning and strategy, or naming for example, refer to it regularly, and use the book to educate their clients and their staff. It helps many to write a better contract. It helps organizations understand the complexity of the decisions and commitments that need to be made to be the brand of choice. Companies use it to build a business case internally for revitalizing a brand. And I am happy that It is also used in universities for both design and business majors.

I believe that the five phase process is easy to understand, logical and helps ensure that the right decisions are made for the right reasons. It works for entrepreneurs and it works for very large consumer brands. The process to revitalize a brand is daunting if you have never done it.

Hexanine Desinging Brand Identity

TL: Why did you write this book?
AW: I wrote this book because it didn’t exist. I wanted it on my shelf. The world was filled with smart strategy books written by MBAs and eye candy books written by brilliant designers. I wanted to simplify and clarify what is, to many, a daunting process, deconstruct the process, and bridge the gap between strategy and design. I wanted to create a single resource where someone could get answers fast, and learn from other experts and best practices. As tools and technology become more provocative, it’s more important than ever to stay steadfast to brand fundamentals.

I meet a lot of smart people around the world who are confused by radically different methodologies used to ignite and revitalize brands. The book continues to be popular because it’s a single resource that is easy to understand, and easy to use.

My book is filled with smart things that others have said. Many of the processes and checklists are developed by other practitioners — my job is to find them, get their permission, edit it all down to its essence, and then weave it together in a logical framework.

TL: Since the publication of the first edition of DBI (2003), how would you say the discipline has changed?
AW: There is more C-suite consensus that brand is the most valuable asset that any organization has. Design thinking is being embraced by the business schools. As the world migrates to mobile, there is an even greater need for brevity, simplicity, radical differentiation, and coherence across platforms. There is a greater understanding of how important employees and the internal culture are to being the brand of choice. Branding is no longer about massive deployment of messages; it’s about having a conversation. There is more customer data than ever in the history of the world, armies of algorithms working hard, and more managers uncertain as to how to measure success. There are even more specialists standing in line to be the brand authority. The world continues to have people that claim they do branding, but they don’t.

TL: How would you encapsulate the state of identity design today?
AW: Heightened! Good design continues to be a great and powerful differentiator, when it evolves from putting a stake in the ground about who an organization is and what it stands for. It is an exciting time — an explosion of global talent and new tools. The possibilities are infinite. It is also the most challenging time — a crowded marketplace, fierce global competition, rapid-fire change, and an unstable economy.

Hexanine Designing Brand Identity Spread

TL: What makes a great logo? An excellent identity system?
AW: A great logo has meaning. It is the fusion of strategy (intelligence) and visual form. The best ones are radically differentiated, work effectively across media and marketing channels, are easy to protect, and are immediately recognizable at different scales. It always blows my mind that a favicon can be immediately recognizable within nanoseconds even though it is 16×16 pixels wide. An excellent identity system balances coherence (everything holds together regardless of the marketing channel) with flexibility (an ability to anticipate a new product, a new technology, or a new marketing channel).

TL: What principles cut across the decades, resulting in strong work? Or would you say the rules have changed for organizations and their visual branding?
AW: The strongest work thrives when there is leadership that has committed to protect, preserve and grow this valuable asset. The strongest work always evolves from an authentic foundation: we know who we are, we know what we do best, we understand our customers, we value and nurture our internal culture. It is harder than ever to be a player and transcend the clutter. Even when you are a local business, you now sit on a competitive global stage 24/7. More of us will need to design a brand architecture that works in new markets like China. So brand builders need to have tenacity and a good toolbox, to insure that every opportunity is seized to be the brand of choice. Have the rules changed? Customers are using a wide range of devices to be connected. Social media is an increasing part of the marketing budget. Brands are now two-way conversations are opposed to rapid deployment of one-way communications. Icons now may need to include a growing family of apps. So, the fundamentals are the same, but there are new challenges each time you wake up in the morning!

An excellent identity system balances coherence with flexibility.

TL: How did you develop the processes and steps you outline within the book? Do these come from your own design practice, or have you gleaned insights and methods from others over time? Who are those influences?
AW: Ever since I was a young child, I’ve been fascinated by how people and organizations express who they are and what they stand for. English was not my first language, and I have always valued clear, simple communications. Over the last decade, I’ve interviewed hundreds of experts — on the client side, and on the consultancy side. I have heard stories about how remarkable results were achieved, and stories I can never repeat, about major initiatives ending mid-stream. I have talked to CEOs, CMOs, SVPs of Design — in essence, everyone who is involved in a branding initiative. I’ve interviewed both happy and grumpy employees who work for companies that have been rebranded. I met with movers and shakers from some of the best branding consultancies and design firms in the world. My book is filled with smart things that others have said. Many of the processes and checklists are developed by other practitioners — my job is to find them, get their permission, edit it all down to its essence, and then weave it together in a logical framework.

I also was the managing partner of Katz Wheeler, the design firm I co-founded with Joel Katz. Joel introduced me to the rigors of symbol design and information design. Our staff was filled with super bright and talented individuals that inspired me each and every day. I was very involved in AIGA nationally and locally, and started lifelong friendships with some of the leading design thinkers in the nation. I later founded Rev Group, where I developed my process methodology, and started developing some of the tools that I write about.

Hexanine Designing Brand Identity Office

TL: What would you say is the difference between logo design and identity design?
AW: Logo design focuses on one element: a pictorial or abstract symbol, or a wordmark. Identity design looks at a whole integrated system: organizational goals, key stakeholders, key messages, brand architecture, typography, color, imagery, look and feel, sound, motion, and of course, the competitive landscape. My experience is that most designers are either good at designing symbols, or designing a whole look and feel and standards. Most clients do not understand the rigors of logo design or identity design.

TL: How do you feel about the crop of logo critique sites that have sprouted in the last handful of years?
AW: I really admire the thoughtful analysis by people like Tony Spaeth and Armin Vit. These are professionals who have been involved in complex problem solving, and who understand the fundamentals of good design and positioning, and the implications of designing larger systems that work. I prefer analysis that takes in consideration context and touchpoints, or why a change was needed. I am less enthusiastic about any kind of voting or public commentary about intrinsic design qualities or any type of competitions. There is a wealth of intelligent commentary, but unfortunately so little time.

TL: With projects like the GAP identity and the Big 10 logo redesign, it seems like redesigns are becoming big news outside of designer circles. Is this a good thing for identity design and practitioners, or does it hurt the process? How do you think social media is changing this part of the design landscape?
AW: When Starbucks launched their rebrand, I was astonished by the amount of chatter by loyal customers who either applauded or questioned the strategic move. Starbucks did a great job of posting why the change was made. It was exciting for me to see the redesigned icon in a town square in Cusco, Peru. It made me realize that the mermaid without the type was actually more respective of the local culture. Social networks get out the news faster than any press release in the history of the universe. Fiascoes like the GAP and Tropicana have a really negative influence on the perception of the profession as a whole. Clients new to the process become phobic — risk taking and change become less appealing.

TL: How can the practice of identity design grow, and where do you see the discipline going?
AW: Identity design will continue to grow because the world is a fiercely competitive, complex, and dynamic marketplace. Differentiation is survival. I am excited by more multidisciplinary collaboration to solve increasingly complex problems. Most problems involve issues of identity, and so identity design will be even more vital. I see more engineers working side-by-side with designers. I am hopeful that design thinking will even have a broader global impact. If I think way into the future, I see a lot more personalization, where private labeling will be replaced with personal labeling in holographic shopping malls. I think that there will be more designing an experience, as opposed to designing a thing.

TL: Who do you think is breaking new ground in identity design?
AW: I am drawn to dynamic identity systems: Tate by Wolff Olins (still fresh but designed 10 years ago), IBM’s 100 Icons of Progress by VSA Partners, IBM Smarter Planet icons by Ogilvy Worldwide, MIT Media Labs by TheGreenEyl, and OCAD by Bruce Mau. Each of these builds on brilliant strategy, big ideas, and good design. They all have what I call long legs, i.e. engendering infinite possibilities. It’s not for everyone and you need to determine when it’s right. I am fascinated by successful country brand identity, like Peru. There have been so many failures, that it’s good to see a country brand that is achieving what it set out to do.

TL: What is your advice for aspiring designers who are drawn to the allure of brand identity?
AW: I always ask an aspiring designer “why?” I would encourage them to work hard, look at everything, read a lot, be a sponge, live life to its fullest, and immerse themselves in the culture of their communities. Experiment a lot and determine what aspect of brand identity they can add the most value to. I would encourage them to study marketplace dynamics, psychology and organizational development in addition to design and communication.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t thank Alina again for her time with this interview, as well as her significant contribution to the field. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of the newly-updated edition of Designing Brand Identity.

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