A brand is defined by all the elements of its design system, says Mads Jakob Poulsen, so leave the logo in the corner
Throughout my first years at college studying visual communication in Denmark, I was like a sponge absorbing everything that I could about the world of rules. I lived for grids, guidelines, kerning and design manuals from the 60s. Every project was about creating some delicate design elements for a brand and making damn sure nobody would mess with them, ever! After a while, my perception of the world changed. I stopped and changed direction.
I got into system-based design, which wasn’t based only on one rule, but on a combination of elements and how they behave. During a school trip to Amsterdam I heard the term ‘huisstijl’ or ‘house style’ (I think while visiting studio Lava or Solar Initiative). It might just be the Dutch word for visual identity but they used it in a new way, and this new understanding made me aspire to break out of a world confined by rules and grids and push to create designs based on a living, breathing system.
I’ve continued in this direction ever since, creating designs that open doors, instead of closing them. By designing systems that blossom instead of stagnating, my clients can actually grow with them after we’ve finished the project – maybe even redeveloping or improving them over time.
Recently I gave a talk, presenting my work, at Parsons New School of Design in New York. Next to one of my identity projects I had scribbled in my notes the phrase “not the little thing in the corner” to remind myself to talk about my approach to visual design. Identity and packaging design used to be dominated by that little thing – the logo in the corner. This is no longer the case. An identity or even a brand is defined by all the elements of the design system. The logo is no longer the shining star it once was. It has faded into the background and its supporting elements – colour scheme, typeface, graphical elements, language style and photo style – have become the stars. This even extends to the way a brand handles itself in the public domain, including the language and voice used in advertising, online and social media.
Stop just focusing on making the perfect logo. If you’re designing a logo for a beer label, make the whole system act like a logo. Create a custom typeface that can be used on the labels as well as online. Be iconic. Stand out! Instead of spending all that time creating a logotype for a client to put in the bottom corner of a poster, spend the time designing their posters, the content and the words. Make these elements have just as much an impact as the company logo, if not more – make the posters the logo.
Many designers tend to still be obsessed with the micro details of branding and identity design, “Ooh the kerning is off”, “I hate the typeface” and so on. I’m a strong believer that the micro details are still important – don’t get me wrong, they’re the foundation of our craft. But they’re not the most important elements – the idea is. Having one strong idea makes for a more powerful design. It also makes for a happy client that can actually understand what you’re trying to pull off. This in turn helps them understand your subtle design changes and what you’re trying to say. It makes it easier for you and your team to work on the project because everyone can hold up a design element and ask, “Does it go with our idea?” and the answer lets you know if that element lives or dies.
In the end, one way to test the strength of an identity is to see if the materials you’re looking at still feel like part of it, even if you put your hand over that little thing in the corner. In a day and age where everyone calls themselves designers, we have to stay ahead by not only keeping the craft alive, but also keeping our eye on the bigger picture. Our work, after all, is not just for other designers and ourselves, it’s for our clients and the world.