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Thinking of Branding as a System

It’s easy to think about branding in isolated, stratified terms: “blue means loyalty,” “purple means trust,” or “serif fonts convey power and maturity.”

The reality is that modern branding has evolved beyond these relatively simplistic associations.

Today, branding is much more about building an interesting, robust system that captures something greater than the sum of its individual parts.

In other words, we could use the color blue within a brand system where it has nothing to do with loyalty—the same goes for typefaces or any other part of your brand.

Context matters.

Thinking strategically about branding doesn’t mean taking a bunch of things that (supposedly) signify “loyalty” and splicing them together; instead, it means understanding how the unique components of your brand complement each other and what changes you can make to better convey your brand’s central narrative.

Successful brand systems are living universes—the interactions that occur between individual components are complex and often difficult to predict.

As an example, think about the color purple. Although it traditionally signifies trust and loyalty, a certain shade paired with a playful sans-serif font and visual pattern may take on a whole different feeling and meaning. Instead of conveying loyalty, it might depict approachability with a hint of quirkiness.

If we recognize that every element in a brand is connected, then we’ll be much more intentional and tactical when we make changes in one specific area (or multiple areas).

The larger point is this: brand is a delicate system of checks and balances, and brand changes can never be made in isolation.

Design isn’t linear

With this in mind, one of the most important things we convey to our clients is that design isn’t linear.

That’s why usage examples are critical.

You could stare at a logo for 2 hours…but that’s not how your brand will look in real life. In reality, your logo never appears in isolation. Instead, it will be shown on your website, packaging, etc. where it’s paired with colors, typography, visual elements, photography, and other elements of your brand. That’s why it’s so important to think about brand systematically rather than as a set of isolated, individual components.

Branding is all about nuance, so each branding challenge differs from company to company.

It’s all about give-and-take: how do we appear authoritative without seeming unapproachable? How do we seem editorial without being luxury?

Using design and branding to create balance between these characteristics is one of the most important and difficult things about crafting a strong brand.

Start with the Logo

Since branding is oftentimes a complex and intertwined system, the natural question is where do we begin?

Although branding isn’t a linear process, design is still a craft that requires putting pen to paper—we need to start somewhere before we arrive at the end system. At Slope, we start our visual branding process with typography, specifically with the logo.

Why here?

Because working with the logo is an exercise in constraint.

Colors or graphics are worlds that present an infinite number of combinations and directions. Typography, on the other hand, contains a natural architecture and structure; we can express infinite possibilities with type, but it provides us with only a finite number of tools to explore those possibilities. Using the highly technical tools of typography brings structure to an inherently limitless, chaotic process.

This mental exercise helps us understand and identify the specific nuances that a certain brand wants to convey.

Building out the Branding

Once we clearly understand the world we’re working in, we might not necessarily land on a logo, but we know how to express certain things about the brand.

We take the information and insights from this exercise and start building out the brand: what does it look like when we combine this typeface with color? Or another visual pattern?

As we move further and further along with the design process, we’ll keep tweaking the system so that it aligns with our original “north star.”

The entire design and branding process isn’t set in stone—it isn’t a linear progression from point A to point B.

Aspects of the brand often change slightly throughout the process, but we always come back to that foundation that we set with the original typography of the brand name.