Recently, a client asked me an unnervingly pertinent question: ‘What makes for a good mark?’ We were working on a new brand identity for his company and as he and his colleagues were adjudicating among design options, they found themselves foundering on the rocks of subjectivity. They couldn’t forge consensus—and thus make a decision and proceed—on the basis of what were essentially a contest of ‘likes’ versus ‘dislikes’. In a word, they lacked criteria.
At that point in the process, things had degenerated into a random set of solicitations—‘shopping it around’ is the catchphrase—that violated the closed circle and sanctum of corporate decision making. Now, spouses, neighbors, the FedEx courier and the ubiquitous ‘Man on the Street’ had been encouraged to weigh-in in hopes of stumbling upon an insight of surpassing power, something irresistible and conclusive—a trump card. No such luck.
This led me—scratch that—forced me to develop an overt evaluative system; to reflect on and make explicit what had been a matter of tacit understandings, implicit assumptions, even instincts. What I came up with was six or seven (admittedly imperfect) criteria by which a ‘strong’ brand logo or mark can (and ought) be judged—and, indeed, from which it should ‘spring’:
- Distinctiveness: The design idea need not be unique in the world, just distinctive enough to own in your market, against your competitors.
- Practicality/Adaptability: The mark has to be one that can be printed at very small scale, in ink or pixels, while remaining recognizable and/or legible; it has to work in black and white, in gray scale, as well as color; it must perform in reverse-out and in both vertical and horizontal configurations; and must also perform consistently across a variety of physical substrates and media (e.g., papers, electronic screens, metal, cloth, glass).
- Simplicity: The mark should contain or ‘sum up’ a single visual gimmick or graphic idea, such that it could be described in a word or short phrase (e.g., a chevron, a shield, a swoosh).
- Appropriateness: At its best, the mark should transparently and immediately express something about the brand’s meaning or the company’s persona, reputation, or aspirations. Shy of that, it should not conflict with any of these, nor come across simply as an enigma.
- Expressiveness: A person can intuit, relatively unaided, the personality of the brand (e.g., intelligence, warmth, agility, gravitas).
- Rationality: Its introduction and application needs to be synched with and ‘justified’ by some significant strategic business milestone or inflection point in the company’s business narrative (e.g., change of leadership, merger or acquisition, repositioning, etc.).
- Story-telling Potential: Brand storytelling could actually be the most important criterion of all and is one that I bring to bear on virtually every tactical application—visual or verbal—of a brand vocabulary. Is there some short explanatory story behind the image that delivers an ‘ah-ha!’ moment and serves as a key to the underlying business narrative?*
accenture | a case in point
First, the story behind the brand naming: Anderson Consultants, under pressure of litigation from Anderson Accounting to relinquish their claim to the Anderson name, were forced to create a new moniker. As part of the name-development exercise, a worldwide employee-naming contest was initiated. The winner, ‘accenture,’ is a scrunched up version of the tagline-like statement, ‘accent on the future.’
Then, the story behind the symbol: the accenture visual symbol—a simple punctuation mark ‘>’ — is actually an elegant pretext for story-telling. It is situated above the ‘t’ in the name, literally like an accent mark, and thus becomes an explanatory device that unlocks the meaning of an otherwise exotic name, with no immediate meaning (it ‘falls’ on and marks the divide between the meaningful word ‘accent’ and the ‘-ure’ suffix).
In addition, its left-to-right directional orientation suggests spatial ideas like ‘ahead’ and ‘forward’ and thus the temporal ideas like ‘future’. In sum, the symbol is not only an explanatory key to the name and the company’s underlying strategic business orientation: it can also be repurposed to support different ideas, messages, and campaign slogans, going forward. This, in term, gives name, identity, and brand ‘shelf life’.
While these criterion are not ironclad in their objectivity, they do form the basis of an evaluative system that is superior to a contest of mere opinions. Moreover, they can serve as an orderly process that usefully informs and guides design, before evaluation even comes into the picture (or, rather, before the picture comes in for evaluation!)
* Story-telling Potential is a more abiding form of the Rationality criterion (No. 6), which is really specific to new brand or new ID introductions and their justification.