Behind Brands™: An interview with Michael Spillane from Seize Digital.

We sat down with Michael Spillane, lead designer at Seize Digital, to talk to him about his love for design and how he and Seize Digital approach a brand identity project.

First things first. How did you get into the world of brand identity design — and what made you stay?

I got my start in design working at an advertising agency that dealt with large established brands. So unfortunately at first, I didn’t get much opportunity to experience the world of brand identity design. Usually large brands weren’t willing to explore rebranding, and if they were open to it, they weren’t very adventurous. I think my time working for these larger brands helped me formulate a set of guidelines that I still stand behind when working on a visual identity today. This experience is helpful but to really put things into practice I had to work with different types of brands. When I finally got to work with smaller brands that were willing to experiment and take chances, that's when I discovered how exciting designing a visual identity can be. I think there’s a lot you can learn from established brands, but at the same time, it’s really refreshing to start with people at the ground level and work your way up.

Michael Spillane.

Is there a perfect brand identity brief? What does it look like?

I think the perfect brief is one that is thorough. The best is when there are clear objectives for a brand. If a client can include some detailed information about the brands competitors, its niche in a market, or the personality it hopes to achieve then we’re already starting off on a great foot. Instantly, our gears start turning and our research begins. If people are a little unsure of what they are trying to do, that can also be a fun project, trying to help clients figure out what could work for them.

You recently did the Creative Intent branding. How do you creatively approach a project like that — from beginning to end?

I try not to view projects like Creative Intent as something that begins and ends. I always try to build a foundation with something that we can continuously build the brand on top of. That means constantly analyzing the landscape, and trying to keep ideas fresh. With every design element, we always try to improve on things that work well and slowly move away from things that don’t. Sometimes there are things that you cannot predict will work with a brands identity. A lot of times brands are growing into different things on a daily basis. Building a visual identity takes a lot of consistency, and this can be difficult when a company is changing rapidly, or their business needs or business plan is adapting to a growing industry or niche in a market. So building strong guidelines in the early stages can really pay off years down the line.

Stationary for Creative Intent.

What is your preferred client/studio relationship or process when working on a brand identity concept?

I’m not sure if I really have a preferred process. I’ve seen several different scenarios play out when it comes to client/studio relationships. In most situations, clients have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for in their brand identity, and I’ve helped them narrow in on their ideas and see them to fruition. I’ve also seen projects where clients have no idea what they want, and you spend a lot of time exploring where the brand can go and how you can play a role in that. Both scenarios are gratifying when the client is happy with the end result. The goal is to always take someone’s ideas and help mold them into realizations and measured success. How we get there just depends on how well we can collaborate together, and see ideas all the way through to the end.

What do you or your studio do differently than others in regard to brand identities?

That’s a tough one, but I would say research. We always spend time doing research within the landscape of where your brand will live. Not just with your brand, and with your desires but researching the market that you will occupy. Like most industries, there’s been a race to the bottom when it comes to graphic design and it seems like you can get design work done at the drop of a hat. Studios will line up to bid for your job and fight over each other to do it at the lowest price. For that to be sustainable, most places have to turn around projects at an alarming rate. Typically, the concepting stage is usually the stage that suffers the most when everyone is trying to turn and burn projects. I prefer to spend most of my time researching what I think will really make a brand stand out from the rest. Understanding the landscape is a really important piece of the puzzle. What we try to do differently is study what is working and not working for other brands, and then decide if those same decisions will align with your business plan, your products, and the image of your brand. Every project is unique and deserves that time and attention.

What are your thoughts on brand guidelines? How do they fit into the process?

I think brand guidelines are so important to building a brand. Consistency is crucial. If you can prepare a brand with all the necessary items that they need to keep their brand consistent. Especially right now in the landscape of things at the moment, where it is becoming easier and easier to start a brand, make a product, create an app, sell an idea.

UI design for Tantrum.

You also never know when a company or a brand is going to grow. If there are people using inconsistent or unapproved assets, the brand can start to get away from itself. Brandpad.io makes this all really easy to manage, update and host all of a brand’s assets. It’s foolproof. And us designers know very well that not everyone is a designer. It’s best to have clear examples and guidelines on how the brand should look to make sure your brand is constantly building on the foundation that you’ve built.

Do you have a ‘truth’ you follow when working on visual identities?

Avoid sugar. A friend of mine sent me an article about visual sugar. In this article, Yuriy Oparenko a product designer explains how the food industry’s trick to better tasting food is to add sugar. He goes on to explain how a lot of designers are doing a similar thing now to their designs by adding visual sugar. There’s a lot of quality information in the article, but the core idea is that if you base your designs on flash and not functionality, you’re just sort of poisoning your designs. Visual sugar also seems to come and go with trends, so if you can avoid a lot of sugar in brand identity, then you’ll probably outlast some of the trends, and build brands that seem more timeless.

Where the magic happens.

Has brand identity design changed in recent years? What do you expect for the future?

I’m excited to see how brand identity changes in the future. I expect to see brand identity design move in the same sort of cycle that fashion and music seem to follow. I think we will re-live a lot of what has already been done, but with new requirements, or new spins on old techniques. I think in general we are moving towards a more functional/usable design, but I feel strongly that trends can influence even the smartest of design, so everything will fluctuate.

Michael Spillane is the lead designer at Seize Digital in Boston. Seize Digital is a design agency that creates memorable digital experiences that get brands noticed. You can read more about them here.
Behind Brands™️ is an interview series by Brandpad, initiated to explore the people and processes behind visual identities. See all the interviews here
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