Consistency, we’re taught, is the hallmark of quality. Whether it’s in copywriting or color, layout or lettering, consistency feels deliberate and reinforces ideas. Nowhere is this more true than for branding, where the visual identity of a company is often treated as sacrosanct. Brands go to extraordinary lengths to ensure consistency, spending millions of dollars on brand guides that specify not just a particular color and typeface, but the exact number of pixels that should be used to frame their logo, or the minimum and maximum number of words a link may contain. Brands cling to control of their identities, because we as designers told them they should. [pullquote]the more we see something, the less we notice it[/pullquote] However, the advent of responsive design has created a design community far more comfortable relinquishing control of assets. When once a designer may have insisted on a precise relationship between type and layout, now we attempt to create the same feeling but accept that designs will not look the same on all devices. This week, The Verge reported on a study by UCLA that found students had difficulty recalling the look of Apple’s logo. The conclusion drawn by the study was that the lack of recall was due to “attentional saturation”; in layman’s terms, the more we see something, the less we notice it. Our brains, it seems, may be hard-wired to focus on new experiences, relying on memory for repetition. For all intents and purposes our brains are caching experiences to free up processing power. [pullquote]consistency may actually damage a brand’s engagement[/pullquote] We are pre-disposed to tune-out a brand that we experience regularly. And so, far from being a mark of quality, consistency may actually damage a brand’s engagement. Having taken its cue from print design for so long, the direction of influence is starting to reverse as attitudes to flexible design solutions travel from the digital world back into print and branding. Companies like Lucky 21, are increasingly introducing variety into their brands in an effort to be noticed. French environmental campaigners Mlinda have a brand identity that extends into all of their display type. The direction of movement changes depending on whether the word in question is considered good or bad (except, notably, their logo). Coca-Cola’s new packaging initially appears to introduce greater, not lesser consistency. However, the key to this approach is that every product creates variation across the range. So when we see a can of Coke Life, the distinction between it and original Coke, enhances our recognition of the brand as a whole. The Advertising Association’s logo consists of a small capital ‘A’ inside a larger capital ‘A’. The exact form of the characters can vary. Originally mimicking the classic American MLB and NBA branding, both MLS and USL have adopted flexible brand schemes using a templating system to adapt the leagues’ branding for different teams. When you wear an LA Galaxy jersey, you reinforce recognition of both the MLS brand, and other teams like the San Jose EarthQuakes, or the Portland Timbers. Even within a single identity, variety enables brand assets to adapt to numerous functions. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York describes its logo as a “responsive W”; the character is redrawn, in the same minimal manner depending on its required use. More than a logo, it’s a logo system. One approach that appeals directly to web designers is Joe Harrison’s responsive logos project. It features the logos of a number of well-known brands that reduce in complexity as your browser window shrinks. Minimal purests might argue that the least complex, mobile version, should be used throughout: if the logo is recognizable without a detail, then the detail must be extraneous. However, as the UCLA study suggests, creating variety in this way increases, rather than decreases brand engagement. Inconsistency isn’t new of course: MTV famously branded itself this way; AirBnB have positioned themselves at the front of their market by embracing variety; NowTV’s approach has been similar. What’s new is the acceptance that a brand can’t retain control of its assets, and in all probability, shouldn’t attempt to. So often, when designing sites, we try to engineer designs that resemble themselves across all devices: mobile sites look like scaled down desktop sites, desktop sites use hamburger menus. This is a damaging approach not only because different devices have different limitations and advantages, but because uniformity over a brand’s output reduces brand engagement. By embracing an adaptive, perhaps even responsive, approach to all branding, from typography to color, to the logo, we maximise brand recognition and ultimately brand engagement.
Ben Moss is Senior Editor at WebdesignerDepot. He’s designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. One of these days he’ll run a sub-4hr marathon. Say hi on Twitter.