How did you get into the world of brand identity design — and what made you stay?
Early in high school, I took a Computer Graphics course. It fulfilled both my art and computer science requirements in a single class. I thought I was being clever and cheating the system, but it ended up introducing me to the world of graphic design.
I quickly found myself designing things for friends and student organizations which lead to creating all of the collateral for my high school’s annual community Arts Expo. This culminated in designing everything from the logo, to posters, to an enormous stage backdrop. The final product ended up being my first identity system before I even knew the term. Seeing it all come to life was one of the driving forces to study Communication Design in college and eventually move to New York City to pursue a career in graphic design — particularly brand identity. So far, none of this has felt like a job, which I believe is a good reason to keep at it!
Is there a perfect brand identity brief? What does it look like?
Identity projects usually start with two scenarios; there’s a new company looking for an identity, or an existing company wanting to change their current identity. While these scenarios can be vastly different, both should prompt everyone involved to ask “why are we doing this?” Through this conversation, the perfect brief should emerge — a clear problem to solve. This problem typically goes on to serve as the guard rails during the design process. As soon as you lose sight of what you’re trying to solve, the work can quickly become self-indulging and off the mark.
You recently did the Transatlantic Film Orchestra branding. How do you creatively approach a project like that — from beginning to end?
Transatlantic Film Orchestra (TFO) originated as a group of musicians from Vancouver, Vienna, and Brooklyn composing music for a wide range of mediums from film, to art installations, to live shows. After working independently for a few years, they decided to work under one name and were in need of an identity.
The project began with a focus on the group’s unique trait of working transatlantically, which lead to looking at various themes of communication. I became fascinated by Morse code — the first form of transatlantic communication. The dash-dot system of Morse code is inherently a beautiful visual language in and of itself. I started to intermix the morse code with roman characters to create a unique typographic language. To take the travel and transportation theme one step further, I paired it with New Rail Alphabet, a revival of the British Rail alphabet released by A2 Type Foundry. Having two elements of the typographic system working in unison allowed for the brand expression to be turned up or down. This let me create multiple states of the logo using varying degrees of morse code. To round out the identity, I used founding member Edo Van Breemen’s grainy black & white travel photography throughout the system. When all used together, the identity plays out in a low-fi, analog fashion.
We immediately put the identity to use by designing their website. Rather than using a typical audio streaming platform, we built a custom site made up of audio and video modules all set in morse code — revealing the roman translation on hover.
TFO has had much success carrying out the identity. Being a small group, they don’t have robust design resources to be making new things. They can now use this simple typographic system paired with the black & white photography to create something recognizable.
What is your preferred client/studio relationship or process when working on a brand identity concept?
When possible, I prefer to have a close collaboration with clients. No one understands the client’s business better than themselves. There’s much to learn from them that will only bring invaluable insight to the design process. In the same vein, many clients can benefit from understanding the many facets of how design can help their business. At the end of the project, it’s important for a client to feel like they played a role in the process. This will result with them walking away from the whole experience being proud of their new identity — one that they can own and want to carry into the future.
What do you or your studio do differently than others in regard to brand identities?
At Order, we don’t look at current design trends for inspiration. There’s a strict no-mood-board policy that we all uphold. This is a result of the current homogenous design language you see today, especially in the start-up realm. We use extensive research to arrive at our solutions. We’re big fans of the Bob Gill quote “If you’re going to create an identity for a laundromat, you go to a laundromat. You don’t sit in front of a computer looking up images of laundromats.”
We set out to understand every part of the client’s business — their history, industry, products, and their people. This involves talking to everyone from the CEO to the interns. Through this, we arrive at a solution from within rather than project a predetermined design solution on the client. And above all, we always keep in mind who’s going to be using the things we make. We value the in-house designer who has to use our work over what a design blog will think.
What are your thoughts on brand guidelines? How do they fit into the process?
Brand guidelines are essential to every identity. No job is complete at Order without providing guidance on how to use what we’ve made. That being said, there’s no one-size-fits-all on brand guidelines. Some brands have a 3-page pdf, some have dedicated websites, while others have 400-page books. Each organization is unique in how much guidance and instruction they need to maintain and evolve their visual identity. The instruction booklet for a children’s toy is going to be vastly different than an owners manual for a car. Understanding how much guidance you need to give comes from knowing the ambitions and capabilities of your clients.
The purpose of brand guidelines is inherently in the name — a guide. They should never be designed to be rule books. While there may be some granular instruction on how to set typography, the guidelines should provide enough guidance to a designer that they understand the underlying principles of the identity while feeling empowered to go and make something awesome with them.
Do you have a ‘truth’ you follow when working on visual identities?
My goal is to always define a ‘truth’ for the identity. I’m always looking to define a single element that can serve as a thread throughout the design work. This can manifest itself in many ways, from creating a simple graphic device to utilizing a piece of the client’s history. It’s easy to throw a bunch of elements in a pot and boil it down to a great looking identity, but the most successful work communicates that single truth — and does it well. When you nail this, everything begins to come together and appear effortless.
Has brand identity design changed in recent years? What do you expect for the future?
While yes, the role brands play in our lives has become increasingly complex and the touchpoints in which they exist is ever increasing, little has changed in what makes a great brand identity: simplicity and communicating with intent. It’s easy to become consumed with talks of “disruption” from new technologies and intellectualizing the social implications of brands in our lives. Companies are now struggling to react accordingly — trying to keep up and stay relevant in both how they communicate, and how they look.
In the future, I believe brands will need to buckle down on developing and maintaining a strong, foundational core in order to communicate and perform with simplicity and intent. If they do this, they’ll be able to transcend any unforeseeable challenges the future will bring.
Nicholas Stover is a designer at Order in Brooklyn, NY. Order’s approach to design is research-based, systematic, and practical. The result is work that has utility and longevity for the people and businesses that will use it. You can read more about them here.