Why graphic designers need to embrace strategy

Should branding be in the hands of strategists or designers? Brand identity designer Andy Cogdon gives his perspective.

In the October issue of Computer Arts, design commentator Adrian Shaughnessy wrote an article - 'Why designers should give branding back its soul' - arguing that brand identity design should be taken out of the hands of strategists and returned to graphic designers.

As someone who trained as a graphic designer and who is choosing to specialise in identity design, I thought it as an opportunity to share some of my thoughts and opinions on branding and identity design.

Graphic designers need to grow up

When I decided to start specialising in identity design, it soon became clear to me that there was a massive knowledge gap that needed to be bridged. I had a decision to make; either to find a brand strategist to work with, or to learn myself.

Brand strategy is not something that was taught in design school, at least when I was studying. But understanding the relationship between design and business is central to the branding and identity process. I've since become fascinated by brands and branding; its mix of business strategy, leadership, psychology, sociology; and the role design has in influencing brand perception and human behaviour.

If graphic designers want a seat at the top table, they need to have an understanding of business. Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks talks about how if a designer wants any level of control, they must be willing to step into the boardroom.

Branding as a platform

Brand to me is an organisation's DNA, all the things that make them uniquely who they are, and what the organisation stands for in the minds of people. Branding is our attempt to frame people's experiences of that brand in a positive way; reinforcing the brand promise. Identity is the visual styles, devices and guides which govern this framing. Identity also acts as a platform, through which a brand can share its story with the world.

When I work with leaders, I see part of my task as helping them to articulate a clear vision for the future of their companies. Their brand identity becomes a platform by which they can share and reinforce their vision in both visual and verbal ways. In the same way we often hear 'Brand is not a logo', identity is not just a logo.

Brand values are important

Adrian Shaughnessy describes brand values as "smoke and mirrors" and earlier use Apple as an example… "Apple products are loved because they work efficiently and look good." And yet anyone who has spent any time studying Apple will know about its absolute obsession with simplicity. It is one of its core brand values and shapes everything it does. Simplicity has stood it out against its competitors time and again. Simplicity is deeply ingrained into every employee and influences every design decision.

Sure, there are some who seek to use values as a manipulative marketing tactic (spin). But they fail to appreciate that in this hyper-connected and transparent world, they will be found out. But values which are deeply embedded into the life of a organisation can inspire its brand on to greatness.

As Steve Jobs said, "To me, marketing is about values." Markets can change, products can change, people can change; but values should not change. When designing an identity with the intention to last; understanding the values that shape a company help to inform the work we do.

Design is strategic

"Do you make things look nice? Do you spend more time worrying about nuance and aesthetic than substance and meaning? Do you fiddle with style while ignoring the big picture? If your answers are yes, yes, or yes, you are a decorator." - Steven Heller, Design Cult

By doing graphic design, I get to do a job I love. But I'm not an artist. Graphic design is a job, working for real clients with real business challenges that need to be met.

There is a place for decorators. But when you are a multi-million pound business, or an organisation that serves thousands of people, leaders are looking for something that penetrates deeper. Creativity is not whimsy as some believe. Creativity - to me at least - is an ability to think differently and find unexpected solutions.

At the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative, Tim Brown of IDEO said, "Design at its essence is really about being intentional… about how you want the outcome to be." Design by definition is strategic, it is planning, it is intentional.


I want to see graphic design return to centre stage, I really do. But to do that, we must move beyond simply being typeface and colour selectors. I believe when it comes to branding and identity design; strategy and creativity are two sides of the same coin. They are not apposing forces, but excellent dance partners. I want designers to use both the left side and the right side of their brains.

I want to see graphic designers in the board room. I want to see graphic designers on the front cover of the Economist or Harvard Business Review. But, unless graphic designers are willing to enter the world of business and leadership, we will find ourselves relegated to the title of decorator. I now see the strategic side of branding as an opportunity to be as creative as the visual side. And when the two work together, then I think we're onto something with the potential to be remarkable!

I believe graphic design has the power to transform businesses. I believe graphic design can contribute directly to helping solve some of the world's greatest challenges. It's time to wake up and take responsibility for the potential we've had in our hands the whole time.

Words: Andy Cogdon

Andy Cogdon is a brand identity designer based in Derby, working with clients across the UK. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

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