Great Brands Are Flexible
The following are three books produced for the same company. Each one of these covers sports different colors, typefaces, and overall design language.
Can you guess what company produced all three of these? I'll let you know at the end (in the middle?) of the article.
Every day of the week, every week of the month, and every month of the year, you'll find me wearing the same thing: tan pants and a black t-shirt. If the Patriots are playing and it's winter, you might find me in a Bill Belichick hoodie. If I'm at the office (or it's cold outside), you might see me in a tan-and-black jacket that says "Hang in there!" on the back. But underneath, you will always see me in tan pants and a black shirt.
I have two weeks worth of outfits, so I'm not wearing the same exact thing I wore yesterday. I'm clean, but even when I explain this, I get dismissed as crazy. It is radically different to wear the same thing every day, and though I've experienced some harsh judgments for it, I've never heard a valid point that would make me switch back to wearing a different outfit every day.
Austin Kleon recommends being boring in your everyday life so you can be radical in your creative work. (Paraphrasing...) That's part of the reason I opt to wear the same thing every day. My choice in clothing has little bearing on the rest of my life, and I'd rather save my effort to do something different in other parts of my life. Personal preference, I suppose.
In 1925, Coco Chanel herself designed the interlinked Cs that adorn Chanel stores and products around the world to this day. This one symbol and the "CHANEL" wordmark also associated with the brand are the core elements of the visual identity.
Karl Lagerfeld, while at the head of Chanel, hasn't just repeated the designs of the past—not in the design of clothing or in their films and advertising. Take a look at this series of videos advertising their "Gabrielle" handbag. Each short has a different main character and a distinct visual style. One is even a watercolor animation of Cara Delevingne rather than a film.
If I cut off the final few seconds of each of these ads, a layman might not be able to recognize what company created this ad. (A snob like me would see tweed jackets and know immediately.) That's a good thing—it's the reason that I periodically check Chanel's YouTube channel and website to see if they're up to anything new. I wouldn't do that if they weren't innovating and creating new things on a regular basis.
Even though I don't own any Chanel clothing right now, you can bet your ass that if I ever run into money, I'll be sporting a black tweed jacket like Pharrell before I even think about picking up a Rolex—why? Chanel keeps it interesting in a way that makes me want to be a part of the action.
"We have to use <ugly typeface>, it's the only one in our brand guide."
For a long time, I thought that to have a strong brand you had to look the same all the time. That means using the same typefaces and sporting the same colors, no matter what. Everything has already been decided, so don't bother—just apply the old rules to new things.
That thinking is common practice, but it's flawed. Great brands are consistently inconsistent.
The distinction first has to be made between intentional vs. unintentional inconsistency. Unintentional inconsistency is all around us. A mom-and-pop restaurant doesn't know any better, so they use six different typefaces on their menu, or the logo on their sign outside doesn't look like the one on their cups. It's poor design, but done by people who either don't have the know-how to fix it or don't care.
On the other hand, there is a way to be different and be intentional about it. I don't mean the occasional switch-up to make a page layout more interesting, I mean consistently recreating your visual identity in a way that might not be recognizable if you didn't put your name on it.
The ebooks at the beginning of this article were all created by the Intercom Brand Studio, led by Stewart Scott-Curran. The IBS is Intercom's "in-house brand team keeping things weird," and they do a great job of it. Their books are always interesting, Intercom's blog is adorned with beautiful illustrations, and they even maintain a blog of their own at brandstudio.intercom.com where they post...weird things.
This is a company willing to dress differently than the rest, and then wake up to dress differently again tomorrow.
Unafraid to change
An ex-co-worker of mine subscribed to a competitor's newsletter and paid close attention to their content. He noticed that every year around the time they hosted their conference, they were using new software to deliver content to customers. (I don't remember if it was a new provider for email marketing or possibly a new vendor to collect satisfaction surveys, but the point is that their software changed on a regular basis.)
You'll find the opposite trend in most companies—even the ones who claim to be innovative. If they host a conference every year, they'll stick with the same software. They'll stick with the same food vendor, same venue, same everything.
In a case like this, it's not about consistency for a brand's sake, but consistency out of fear. What happens if we make a change and everything goes sideways? That makes sense if you're in healthcare—I don't think we should switch up polio vaccines anytime soon—but if you're trying to build an innovative company, you'd be wrong not to take some chances.
The same inertia that makes a visual identity stale after so many years of repeating the same design elements is the same inertia that leads to the downfall of great companies who can't keep up with the change in their industries.
I'm not a Fortune 500 corporation, but even I had problems with my inconsistency. I started my blog at diegodoes.com in March of 2018. In the few months since it showed up on the internet:
I went from Roboto to Helvetica to Poppins to Baskerville as my principle typeface (in addition to using Cinderblock)
switched from WordPress on Bluehost to Squarespace
changed my domain name
moved my email list from MailChimp to Squarespace and back to MailChimp
redirected pages that were on my blog to pages on my Notion workspace
The changes are bountiful and happen often. That's the spirit.