Forget your logo. Sign with words.

- Opinion by Thierry Brunfaut

No one today questions the significance of messaging when it comes to branding. All relevant contemporary brands and institutions carefully work to clarify their brand message, vision, and mission. Their key people will dedicate precious time to numerous sessions and workshops with their branding agencies and strategists, employing colorful post-its on walls in attempts to properly convey their brand message. Everyone in that room knows that a brand’s success lies in its ability to convey its values and beliefs with consistency and transparency. These same brands will use 360° integrated approaches, brand experience, brand engagement across a multitude of interactions (physical, visual, digital) to emotionally connect to their customers. Over time, they will have to be responsive and evolve in iterative ways to ensure they succeed in the future. 

New potential clients that come to Base usually have no problem starting and/or changing their brand conceptually and visually (“I like this idea, this feels right, I need a new logo, I love that color, I don’t like that image.”) Most of them embrace the complexity of the process of change with trust and courage. Interestingly enough, there have been two recurring questions almost all of our clients ask us that intriguingly refer to a brand’s tone of voice: “How should my brand talk?” and “How should my brand express itself in writing?”

Don't fear the weight of words

Of course, social media plays an increasingly important role  within an overall communcations strategy. With so many brands communicating so frequently, brand managers are increasingly stressed about how to stand out amongst the “noise.” Most brands are unsure about what or how to tweet or post, even when guided. There is this… fear. Brands are reluctant to use words due to the weight they carry. As the ancient Latin proverb states, Verba volant, scripta manent (spoken words fly away, writing remains). Psychologically, when you write something and release it, you have to own and commit to it. The written message is there forever on paper, an ad, the internet, social media, databases… somewhere. It can’t be undone.

Strangely enough, I believe designers and all relevant members in the branding process have a responsibility in allaying this fear. People in our line of business tend to segment their job functions. The strategist will research, analyze, and develop the strategy, the graphic designer will work on the logo and graphics, the art director will develop the imagery and when it comes to writing words, most of us will turn to hire a copywriter. Of course, these people can brainstorm, collaborate, and develop ideas together to come up with great solutions. Nevertheless, most of the time, the job functions and tasks are divided. Additionally, very often branding (brand codes) and communications (brand messages) are treated as distinct, successive phases, and the division between texts/messages and images/graphics remain.

A 100% organic and de-compartmentalized approach

I’ve fought this division within job functions for years at Base by asking everyone to hone their writing skills so that they learn to combine text and images from the very outset of the creative process and to integrate the messaging and tone of voice at the core of their visual work. This skillset would be especially important for in-house designers who work for specific brands. Our approach at Base is 100% organic and de-compartmentalized – we have no boundaries. We believe brand codes and communications should mix, mingle, and contrast to successfully create energetic and relevant brands.

Looking at our studio’s past projects, I came to realize that we have continuously been integrating messaging at the core of the graphics of the brands we worked with. Some of them have withstood time well without becoming obsolete. For Belgian mobile company Mobistar, we created a flexible 4 square logo (Fig. 1) by combining 3 words, “Love, Work, Play,” that represented the three worlds of our lives that mobile occupies.

Fig. 1 On top of its denomination, Mobistar endlessly combines the 3 words “Love, work, play” in in its flexible 4 square logotype.

This integration of the brand message within the graphic treatment can apply to a variety of businesses. Within fashion, our identity for the luxury Parisian Chanel branch, Maison Michel (Fig. 2) incorporates messages in a repetitive logo system present everywhere, but mostly on their iconic luxury hatboxes with the idea to induce a visualization of a “femme parisienne” endlessly talking. Furthermore, “Chapeau!” has a dual meaning, literally “Hats off” but also “Kudos!” which helps to elevate the identity.

Fig. 2 “Chapeau!” The Maison Michel Paris incorporates messages in its repetitive logo system. The MM hat box has become an iconic item in the streets of Paris.

Within the restaurant industry, we created an identity for gourmet burget joint Stand that was made only with words and stacked to visually represent a burger (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 The Stand gourmet burger joint identity was made only with words and stacked as bread, meat, cheese and salad.

Other examples of more recent creations where we felt this need to include the brand messaging at the center of our designs include the identity of the City of Brussels with its ever changing 2 lines logo system (Fig. 4), the branding of the Greene Hill Food Coop in Brooklyn to gather the community with messages on puzzle pieces (Fig. 5), the Olympic Museum in Lausanne with their messages on-site, online and offline composed in the genuine TOM-Relay font we designed for them (Fig. 6), and the MoMA Design Store in New York (Fig. 7).

Fig. 4 The Be.Brussels City ever changing logotype is made of 2 lines of messages: the above one always changes, the below one never changes.
Fig. 5 The Greene Hill Food Coop in Brooklyn gathers the community with messages on puzzle pieces.
Fig. 6 The Olympic Museum in Lausanne (Switzerland) displays messages on-site, online and offline in its genuine TOM Relay font.
Fig. 7 In New York, the MoMA Design Store new brand system, based on the ‘Shop The Unshoppable’ message concept, tells the story of each and every object.

Why words are so impactful

What are the advantages of having words at the center mixed within the logos and the graphics? We have identified 5 main assets:

  • First, clients’ “fear of talking and writing” is immediately addressed with words existing at the core of their brand. By creating these systems, we desacralized the use of words and can guide the clients on how to play with text. This also gets them to participate more easily in the writing process.
  • Second, their brand is genuinely open to change. Altering the messaging has a direct impact to change the graphics. The logos no longer have to be fixed forms. The brand is truly dynamic and always “in motion”. You can see and read the change.
  • Third, words are wonderful visuals. Words instantaneously evoke in the mind of the reader an array of images that are translated through personal interpretations which may convey a stronger reaction than when one is only given images. Brands obviously tell stories, in style.
  • Four, a “brand that talks” feels more human. The user can immediately interact with the brand through a conversation. Branding with messages reinforces the emotional link between the brand and the user. The range of possible emotions one can elicit is infinite.
  • Five, and this is important, it is an easy way to insert humor in the brand. The same way you like to be welcomed with a smile in a store, a brand that displays lightness of attitude is more attractive.

Fig. 8 The identity of Graanmarkt 13 in Antwerp (Belgium) has no logo at all. Only an address. The entire brand identity is build exclusively out of poetic messages about the founders, their love story, and the house.

Can this method of integrating words within the visual identity be pushed further in the future? I certainly believe so. The identity we recently created for Graanmarkt 13, a concept store in Antwerp, is a compelling example. Run by a young married couple, the house gathers a restaurant, a fashion boutique and a gallery. Instead of going through the usual step of strategy, naming, logo development, and the execution of brand items, we decided to go with an another route: use the name as a simple address, “Graanmarkt 13” (the destination) and build the entire brand identity exclusively out of poetic messages about the founders, their love story, and the house. (Fig. 8). Graanmarkt 13 has since become one of the most fashionable and desired destinations in all of Antwerp.

So, will brands of the coming years get rid of their logos and only sign with words or texts? Why not. There are so many beautiful stories to be told.

–Thierry Brunfaut is Head of Creation and Founding Partner of Base Design. Follow him on twitter @ThierryBrunfaut

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