Advice from the Pros: Debbie Millman, Sterling Brands

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I think that logos and identity are not just about design anymore. There isn’t a “mass market” in which to target a product or a company anymore; there is no one demographic picture of the planet.

According to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, lifestyle typologies first expanded to 3, then 6, then 9 and then 12 typologies, there is now too much variation. We have reached categorical exhaustion. As a result, I have come to believe that the term “designing logos” or “creating identities” ultimately undermines the job we do as consultants, marketers, designers and strategists.

What we really do is holistically balance four distinct but related disciplines: cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, commerce and creativity and express this visually. The balance includes cultural anthropology because what we do in our culture—whether it is an obsession with social networks or politics or the cult of celebrity, these all have a major impact on the way we understand and interpret the world and our place in it. It includes psychology because if we don’t fundamentally understand the brain circuitry of our audience and really know what they are thinking—(and why they are thinking it!)—we will not be able to solicit imagination. It includes commerce because understanding the marketplace and the messaging impacts and influences perception. And of course, it includes creativity because if we don’t create an engaging identity, then consumers won’t even see it.

When designing brands, I believe the identity should be as simple as possible, telegraphic and single-minded.
Nevertheless, there are many logos that have become iconic despite a complicated and/or multi-dimensional expression. Starbucks is a good example of this. I would not say that the Starbucks logo is a classically beautiful logo; rather, its success is largely dependent on great marketing and a consistently great product.

Identities that fail in the mainstream are often, though not always, the front face for an organization that is badly marketed.

Other characteristics that failed identities share:


  • Global logos that do not consider global interpretations

  • Logos that need an “explanation”

  • Overly “trendy” logos

  • Logos that require complicated production techniques

  • Logos that require in-depth training in which to educate users

  • Logos with multiple taglines or messages that are not always in sync



Three steps to keep in mind when creating brand identities:

1. Courageous and Honest Strategic Focus
Creating breakthrough identity solutions that are intrinsically intertwined with a clear marketing strategy. Talking directly, passionately and as uniquely as possible to your audience. It is a relentless persistence and constant assessment of your logo’s relevance to your key constituency.

2. Single-minded Clarity
The logo must be a telegraphic expression of the company’s positioning, personality and cultural values, as well as be a symbolic link between your target consumer and the company. A great vision in isolation is easy. A great strategy in isolation is easy. It is having all three work seamlessly and clearly together that is the extraordinary and daunting challenge.

3. Understand the Need or Desire for Change
What is the dynamic for changing the logo? What is evolutionary or revolutionary change? What is “visionary”?  How far is too far? What are the constructs that you place on your own brand and how can you redefine the vision? Essentially, the identity should be the telegraphic expression of the positioning, personality and cultural values. It should fit your vision and business strategies, help characterize your organization and ultimately be a beacon for the viewer in any environment.

Every touch point the identity has with the public, internal and external constituents, every shareholder and stakeholder should adhere to the integrity of the visual system. There should be as few anomalies allowed as possible. If there is not one voice, one message, and one clear, understandable system, you’re doomed.

I think that the ultimate goal of an identity is to reflect the culture in which the brand or the product or the company participates, which evokes a unique composition of sensory perceptions. The extension of any one of these sensory perceptions impacts the way we think and act—and the way we perceive the brand or the product or the company. When these perceptions change, people change. Ultimately, I believe that the discipline of designing identities has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium.

About Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman is the president of the design division at Sterling Brands. She is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, host of the internet radio show Design Matters, and the author of the book “How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer,” now in its third printing. Her new book, “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essay on the Intersection of Life and Design,” will be published in October. Debbie will become president of the National AIGA beginning this July.

Yael Miller