Designing for Safe

Gabe Ruane
Aug 14, 2019 · 5 min read

There’s nothing as pure and ripe with creative possibility as a visual identity design engagement. This is where designers get to create something from nothing — to craft a look and feel that aligns perfectly with the essence of a brand, and something that has never been seen before. For me, this is the height of graphic designerdom. Heavy on the artistry. Fertile ground for newness and design insight. Helping a brand to claim new space, come into their own, stand apart from and above the competition.

But there’s so much more going on here (sometimes less), especially from the client’s perspective. If we don’t set our design-nerd joy aside for a minute, we may not get to the heart of what the client really expects out of this engagement.

What clients say they want

“We’re ready to refresh our look — you guys do great work — we’re excited to see what you come up with!”

What we’re likely to hear

“Unleash your most excellent and groundbreaking creative energy upon our brand. We are in your hands, we trust you, make us amazing!”

But clients aren’t motivated by creative possibilities — they’re motivated by different things. Often, with visual identity redesign projects, they’re motivated by the realization that they need to catch up to their competitors, who’ve stayed fresh while they’ve languished.

How do we help an organization who’s primary concern is catching up and not looking old? We see this especially in industries with entrenched design conventions (looking at you Tech, Healthcare, Software).

Not wanting to look old is very different from wanting to boldly jump out ahead of the pack to carve out new visual territory — which is the design magic we’re able to offer them as strategists and creatives. How can we get them to be honest with themselves, and with us, as part of the brief process?

The creative brief is critical to alignment, but I’ve recently learned that there are a few key questions missing from most creative briefs. What if we asked questions like:

How comfortable are you with the notion of standing out? (Have you tried it before? Really?)

What role does design actually play in your organization? (Honesty is key here — everybody thinks design should be important, but they’re not sure how or why.)

(It’s hard to ask a client if they’re a sheep or a wolf, but that’s kind of what it comes down to…) Are you a sheep or a wolf?

Designers want to create badass wolf visual identities. Most clients are sheep — maybe a black sheep, but still sheep. And this isn’t a dig. It’s hard to justify a bold and zaggy visual identity to internal stakeholders. If they draw extra customer attention to themselves via design, but people don’t subjectively like the new flavor of bold, does it hurt their business?

The answer should be ‘no’, but they fear it’s ‘yes’.

This ultimately comes down to risk aversion. The design spectrum is broad, and tends to skew towards more bold and ambitious executions when we’re working with startups — but for those more established companies, there are a lot of people worried about green-lighting creative work that their people (above or below on the totem), and their customers, may or may not *like*.

A critical question marketers should be asking themselves — or that designers should be asking if our clients haven’t yet:

What is your visual identity supposed to DO?

At its core, it’s meant to quickly and instantly differentiate you from your competitors — whether through a logo, a pattern, a typographic system or color palette. It should trigger instant readability as YOU, whoever you are, not someone else. That’s pretty much it. Lots of branding layers sit on top of your visual identity, but in most ways the visual identity you put out into the world serves a simple purpose.

If it’s subjectively hit/miss, that’s fine — as long as it’s instantly and undeniably YOU. In some ways (most ways), a memorable visual identity is more effective than a likable, but vanilla visual identity.

Playing it safe offers perceived safety for marketing stakeholders. They’re not looking for new places to stick their necks out, understandably. But fear of standing out guarantees same-ness. #FOSO

It’d be great if all clients were bold and confident and willing to stand out. As design practitioners, strategists, creatives who get business — if we can get them there, that’s great. Maybe that’s our most important job in the service of their brand.

Everybody says they want to stand out

It’s not that they’re lying, they just likely haven’t really thought this through.

It’s so important to know on the way in to the creative work whether or not our clients are committed to standing out. Finding out during creative development that they’re actually uncomfortable with something ‘out there’, even though there was superficial alignment in the brief, can gut a project.

Most marketing directors and company founders, when asked if they’re open to something unique and different, will say yes right away. We need to try a little harder to make sure we really understand what that means to them. When we show work that looks nothing like what the rest of the industry is doing, will clients recognize the value and embrace the new, or freak out?

We have to show them what ‘different’ can look like, and convince them to override their fears and tendency towards same-ness.

Creative leadership and/vs. business realities

Realistically, we should start by expecting that our clients are reluctant to go bold with their new visual identity. We either need to embrace that and find interesting ways to inject creativity and uniqueness into something that’s otherwise expected/bland/trendy, or take them on a journey that arrives at a more adventurous destination — documented in the brief so we can point back to it when they inevitably second guess their boldness.

It’s a battle — designing what we know will serve our clients well — vs — the challenge of shaping their thinking to appreciate the value of bold and different. Powers of persuasion become the critical skill. In so many ways, design is the easy part.

Are we doing good work if we know clients are risk-averse, and then design a slightly different flavor of what everyone else in their sector is already doing? It’s too easy to play it safe and cash the checks. Clients are happy with lovely looking safe executions.

Happy clients = good business, right?

No, of course not.

Happy clients = just, happy clients. Their business may be no better off than before they engaged with your agency. They may have just invested a pile of cash in something that effectively helped them to blend in and disappear. Good business — the kind that leads to more good business for client and agency alike — can only happen when the design and strategy experts in the room lead their clients towards the best possible creative executions and outcomes.

Whether they’re happy or not. Whether it’s safe or dangerous. They don’t have to like it — it just has to work. As expert practitioners of brand, design, strategy, we have the responsibility to show them the way.

Digital x Brand

The blending, overlapping and amplification of Digital x…

Gabe Ruane

Written by

Former SF-er in Bend, OR. Brands, digital, design, start-ups, side projects & insights from the small agency perspective. Co-founder @TurnAgency

Digital x Brand

The blending, overlapping and amplification of Digital x Brand. Thoughts on creative, tech, design and strategy from Turn Agency.

Gabe Ruane

Written by

Former SF-er in Bend, OR. Brands, digital, design, start-ups, side projects & insights from the small agency perspective. Co-founder @TurnAgency

Digital x Brand

The blending, overlapping and amplification of Digital x Brand. Thoughts on creative, tech, design and strategy from Turn Agency.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store