Can You Design a Brand From the UI Down?
Most designers, especially those born before 1990, were raised on the almost religious notion that a brand’s logo is its heart. You start by designing that first and then everything grows from there. And while I obviously don’t dispute that at the end the logo is supposed to embody the essence of the brand, some recent projects we’ve worked on have challenged that process and forced us to do “hair and makeup” (if you will), before the heart.
As is often the case with early stage start-ups, the idea can sometimes be so raw and premature that translating it to clear and coherent brand values or story is almost impossible. While entrepreneurs are usually great at explaining what their product or service does on a practical level and why people will hopefully use it, the main emotional motivation or benefit behind it is usually more allusive. Unlike most traditional consumer products and services, like a new detergent or a car, a digital product often offers either a completely new function (such as Airbnb) or a new way of using an existing one (such as Uber). So to fully and properly understand what is being sold on a deeper level, simply put, you need a more complete product and not just the idea. Think of it in a way as designing a new brand for a restaurant without knowing what type of food it serves, and that the menu will actually be determined based on the new brand. When a company’s main product or service is a digital experience, shouldn’t the interface guide you to the eventual brand the same way the food would?
Last year I came across a review of the rebrand for the team collaboration tool Asana on Brand New. They summed it up in a way that only now makes real sense to me — “The same lightness and airiness of the logo has been applied to the user interface — or, most likely, the other way around”. And though this a rebrand and not a new brand, Asana’s own post about the process confirms that the finished UI is what led to their new logo — “Brightening the app meant creating a new color palette and illustration style, but that also meant finding a way to keep those consistent with the logo… or make a new logo”.   Asana is, of course, far from an early stage startup, but they simply got to a point in their product evolution where the current branding was just irrelevant.
When it comes to younger companies though, the tricky issue about this process is usually the stage in which it is in (pre or after seed, series A, its current priorities, etc.). Ideally, a good product strategy process, leading to a good brand strategy would be the best way to approach designing the brand and its UX/UI. Unfortunately, we are not always so lucky as to have both product and brand strategies. When working lean, sometimes the product process runs almost parallel to the UX (and no brand strategy process is even done). In those cases, it makes more sense to figure out what the feel of the brand and the brand experience is by designing the interface first. A recent social app that we designed had only a few initial guidelines to work by — it was intended for live events, targeted young millennials, and, to really challenge us, needed a design that would emphasize sporting events for the MVP but would be able to work for all types of events as they grow — an issue that goes straight to the DNA of the brand. So rather than trying to design a logo that would magically work for both sporting and other live events, we started by exploring what designing for both would mean for the user interface.
We started simple, playing around with various typefaces and color palettes over rough wireframes, testing different icons and card styles, etc. But then an image from our sports mood board sparked an idea with real potential. It was four enthusiastic fans in the crowd, holding up signs that spelled out the team’s name. That visual of four simple squares ended up dramatically changing our UX and UI, from the way the user would navigate through content to the look and feel of the cards and much more. It turned into a concept that had a solid sports reference with enough flexibility to be applied to any type of event. At the end of the UI process we had so much of the visual identity already developed that the logo design was only a question of executing it — four squares with different patterns and backgrounds, each containing one letter of the brand name — MMNT (Moment).
An important issue worth addressing when designing a UI is interfaces that rely on a native look, mainly Material design. While that’s clearly a somewhat different challenge, it shouldn’t be impossible to develop a distinct enough visual identity within those constraints. Color, typography, imagery and iconography style, element treatments, etc. are all things that you can determine while complying with native guidelines. In a way, attempting to resolve the degree of branded vs. native UI issue before having a finalized brand might even simplify the process since it can allow you to find the right balance without feeling the need to include already existing brand elements. Or as Milton Glaser said in response to Mies Van Der Rohe’s famous saying — “Just enough is more”.
Now, there are instances when working with startups, where you’re not only considering the brand and digital experience. You’ve got another dimension to think about — a physical product. Let’s look at Blue Apron (or any of its competitors) as an example. It’s harder to say which experience is more important in that case, the digital or the physical, or if there is one better way than the other to approach designing a brand like that. One thing we know for sure is that every person who received a Blue Apron box had used its app. But not everyone who went online or downloaded the app had also ordered a meal, which gives the digital experience somewhat of a priority in terms of exposure to the brand. So, in these types of case, it might still make sense to start with the UI.
But before I praise this new approach for designing startup brands, it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of our latest projects are actually in the world of apps for IoT (with a smart physical product, unlike Blue Apron), and, in those instances, the approach I’m suggesting may not be ideal. For some of these products, the first interaction between the brand and the audience is still on a store shelf. And the use of an app could sometimes be only for advanced users. In these situations, you most likely would want to start with the brand first.
At the end of the day, my only clear conclusion is that fully understanding the product, what is the most common customer / user journey, and how people interact with it, should tell you how to approach designing the brand. So don’t be afraid to start with UI if that’s what seems best.