Winter 2004

Brand madness 3

Letter from Jessica Jenkins

Nick Bell’s piece on cultural branding in Eye is a valuable contribution to the branding debate. Not only culture, but also social, educational and charitable institutions, and even cities and countries, turn to the language of branding to raise their profile as they are forced to compete for resources.

A recent advertisement for the post of art director at an international environmental organisation that said the successful applicant would ‘promote and protect the brand’. Bell is right to say that institutions that are actually strong on content are in danger of doing themselves a disservice by fronting their communications with simplistic sets of values, or homogenous visuals. The Barbican posters illustrate the point well. Rather than simply grouping the Barbican’s output around a visual identity, they completely obscure the product. Unlike international corporations, institutions such as the Barbican need not depend on graphic systems for the purpose of practicable and universal diffusion.

That is not to say that a visual identity has no part to play for non-commercial organisations, rather that it is necessary to use it appropriately. Perhaps the exhortation (in these pages and elsewhere) for designers to focus on socially responsible projects is in danger of backfiring.

The call for corporate identity design to be ‘inextricably tied’ to content is more problematic. What inner truth should we deliver about training shoes or financial services? It is precisely the banality of consumption that demands invention: the ethical task is not so much to ‘tell the truth’ (though some campaigns have very self-consciously used old-fashioned product-orientated ‘truth-telling’ to great effect *) but to create stories which at least do not contradict the facts. Brand enthusiasts consciously buy into a myth. A more interesting question is this: ‘Why do we turn to brands for personal identity and reassurance?’
As a marketing strategy, over-dependence on a branded discourse may have its own safety mechanism: the loudest brands attract the greatest vitriol in anti-capitalism protests: like dictators and empires, monolithic, all controlling message builders will eventually become victims of themselves.

Creating visual identities or ‘brands’ for commercial purposes may not be socially valuable and is often banal, but it does not strike me as inherently unethical. Companies often fail to communicate their products in a way that is either interesting or comprehensible. Intelligent design helps them to project both what they offer and how they wish to be seen. The fact that this process is dressed up in a whole lot of claptrap is a reflection of the competitive pressure under which both design companies and clients find themselves.

Ultimately, whether for commercial, charitable or cultural purposes, an ‘identity’ can be useful and necessary: the point at which it becomes less of an organising principle and more of a omnipresent brand which seeks to manipulate and deceive, has more to do with the strategic thinking than the work of the designer.

Paris and Berlin

* e.g. Compuserve, 7-UP, Hans Brinker budget hotel.

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004


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