How I learned to Stop Worrying about Logos and Love the Brand System

Nike+ Run Club Apple Messages Sticker

No one knows what your logo means. There, I said it. That poor little mark you’re commissioning has too much pressure placed on it — the weight of the world seemingly rests on its little symbolic shoulders.

As a designer, I see this happen all the time, specifically when a new company is born. A disproportionate amount of focus is placed on creating the perfect logo; a logo that embodies everything that a company represents. Yes, it’s the symbol of a brand, but that’s all: a symbol, not the brand itself. This is why it’s important to emphasize the creation of a strong brand system. It’s the system that gives the logo meaning and personality, and that takes time—time for customers to experience the brand, create meaningful memories, and connect on a personal level.

Mark + Visual Language + Consistency = Strong Brand

To create a strong brand system you must identify the key experiences that are core to a company’s values, develop a unified visual language that communicates those values, and apply it consistently across all touchpoints over long periods of time. Without this “recipe” a logo is meaningless because it has nothing to anchor to. The best way to understand what this means is to see the recipe in action, and perhaps no other company has perfected the implementation of this recipe better than Nike.

From left to right: Steve Prefontaine (Nike’s first signed star runner), Phil Knight (Co-founder), Jay “Bill” Bowerman (Co-founder and Inventor)

Once Upon a Time in Oregon

In 1971, Phil Knight was ready to create a shoe line of his own. Up until that point, his company, Blue Ribbon Sports, had been operating as a distributor of Onitsuka Tiger, a Japanese shoemaker. Knight reached out to a young design student name Carolyn Davidson who he had met at Portland State University while teaching accounting on the side. He asked her to help him create a ‘shoe stripe’ — an industry term for a logo on a shoe — that “suggested movement.”

Davidson came back with multiple options, none of which spoke to Knight. However, with a factory in Mexico standing by, he picked the first mark she presented to him and said: “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.” That’s right, the Swoosh, one of the only logos in the world with its own name barely passed the design review. Davidson then submitted her invoice for 17.5 hours, totaling $35. Shortly thereafter, Blue Ribbon Sports was renamed after the greek goddess Nike.

Note: Knight later showed Davidson his appreciation with a special ceremony, a gold and diamond encrusted ring with “the swoosh” she designed, and 500 shares of stock.

So how did a half-hearted, last minute decision about a logo lead to one of the world’s most iconic and influential brands? It was accomplished with the cultivation of meaningful experiences and application of a strong visual language across those experiences consistently over decades.

Visual Language

With a wide set of experiences ranging from online shopping to sports apps to VR, Nike has had to find a way to bring all of their touch points into one cohesive visual system in order to communicate their brand. That system has to balance consistency and flexibility, reducing unnecessary variations but also accommodating the unique needs of each experience. The set of tools they use to accomplish this task — typography, color, and imagery — their visual language.

Nike mark/logo type and brand typefaces

Typography

Typography in brand (what typeface you use and how you use it) is a powerful communication tool that can be easily overlooked. It communicates a brand’s personality across almost any experience, more so than any other visual element. From annual reports to billboards, websites to apps, and TV advertisements to virtual reality experiences. Typography has the most opportunities to visually tie all of those moments together.

In Nike’s case, they employed the letters in their wordmark, originally a variation on a Futura or Trade Gothic condensed font, and used them to develop a typeface: One Nike Currency. The result produced a subtle but strong type-based personality. The condensed italic letterforms are tall, narrow, and seem full of potential energy, like a sprinter waiting for the starting gun. The simple utilitarian quality of the shapes give a sense of all distraction being stripped away, much like the mind of an athlete preparing for competition. Because Nike built this typeface off of their word mark, the personality of their logo is now visible in almost everything they create.

Nike color palette and Nike+ Run Club App

Color

Color is often the most easily consumed visual element of a brand. You don’t have to interpret slogans or dissect imagery; a simple wash of color can evoke a powerful feeling all by itself. That superficial simplicity can be the fastest way to tie multiple experiences together.

Nike is restrained when it comes to color, reserving use for pivotal moments to capture attention or to extend a narrative. For the most part, they use black and white to allow their photography and products, which are often rich in color, to shine. When it comes time to make an impression, they use their accent color, ‘Nike Volt’. This color evokes motivation; it’s an electric yellow-green that almost appears to glow with energy. The sensation of motivation can be used to highlight core parts of their experiences. In the Nike+ Run Club app it is used for heroic moments like the start button to begin a run, a new message indicator, or for a badge you can only obtain once you’ve run 9,320 miles. The simple brilliance of this is that it ties the brand color to a substantial athletic accomplishment, a badge of honor visible every time you use the app (I’m almost to level blue).

Images from Nike.com

Imagery

The final category, Imagery, adds rich storytelling to a brand. It shows us what it’s for, who uses it, and how it will make us feel. For Nike, imagery is a way to give their products context. To do this, they use a combination of action shots of athletes (often famous ones) at play, shots of models wearing Nike gear, and heroic shots of their shoes. The first depicts aspirational figures in their most heroic moments. The second acts like a mirror for us to see how we want to look and be perceived. The last shows a powerful tool that will help us achieve greatness.

Consistency

Consistency is the final ingredient in the recipe and while it’s the most simple concept it’s also the step most likely to be neglected. It’s about repetition — using the same pieces in the same way over and over again, which is the primary way to effectively reinforce a brand. It takes restraint and finesse.

Nike.com from around the world

Unity

Unity across all experiences is key. The full effect is especially evident when you compare all of Nike’s experiences at once. Every screen, whether on a desktop, phone, or watch has the same look and feel. Type, layout, photography, and color are all treated the same. This creates an identity robust enough that no matter which experience a user engages with, they are able to easily recognize the brand. Additionally, as a global company, unity can be seen across all of Nike’s markets. Nike.com Japan has the same structure and look & feel as Nike.com Brazil.

Nike Chrome Blush Collection photography from Russia, the Middle East, and South Korea Nike.com’s

Flexibility

While unity is important, a system will die if it can’t allow for flexibility, the best systems find a way to balance both. This allows for trends to come and go, helping a company (especially one based on fashion) to stay relevant. Looking back at the various incarnations of Nike.com, you can see that the structure and typography of the site stays consistent while promotions and products bring in more trendy typographic treatments and photography. Flexibility is also evident in their approach to localization. Instead of delivering the same photography for the “Nike Chrome Blush Collection” to every country, Nike does photo shoots for each region, using local models and accessories while still keeping a unified feel for the campaign.

Nike ads over the past forty years

History

Nike has a long History, spanning over 50 years. They learned early on the importance of maintaining consistency across their brand applications. The basic recipe for a shoe ad hasn’t changed, whether it was for Cortez Running Shoe in 1977, Air Jordans in 1989, or the Nike Free Flyknit in 2017. The typography is the same: a bold, condensed, all caps header with a dramatically smaller serif tagline below. The photography is the same: the shoe(s) isolated on a white background. Even the voice of the copy is the same: brutally succinct and punctuated with a period to emphasize that nothing more need be said.

An Empty Vessel

After examining Nike’s successful brand system, we can begin to see how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When a company takes a holistic approach to their brand and executes it consistently across touchpoints and over time, brand recognition can be so powerful that even with just one piece of the system a customer is able to recognize the brand. A single color, image treatment, or piece of typography can say everything.

Still a logo is essential and while there are many different techniques and constraints to consider, this quote from Micheal Beirut—a master craftsman of brands—sums up the bigger picture beautifully:

“When we look at a well-known logo, what we perceive isn’t just a word or an image or an abstract form, but a world of associations that have accused over time. As a result, people forget that a brand-new logo seldom means a thing. It is an empty vessel awaiting the meaning that will be poured into it by history and experience. The best thing a designer can do is make that vessel the right shape for what it’s going to hold.” — Micheal Beirut


Tom is currently a creative director and storyteller at Tectonic, deep in the heart of sunny Seattle. There he designs his way through complex problems across many fields and industries. Tom loves design systems, mediocre to great coffee, remembering when he used to surf, and sharing dad jokes with his family (and coworkers if they’re lucky).

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