Symbol or System?

by Blake Howard    June 18, 2013

If this “internet” fad really sticks around, what does that mean for the future of brand identity?


Well, this “internet” thing isn’t going anywhere and in the reality of our internet-driven world customers are interacting with brands like never before. How should brands respond? How should marketers or designers change their thinking? The answer is a simple shift.

A Visual Identity System (VIS), basically the visual expression of a brand, is the future. Dead are the days of just having a logo etched into every notepad and pen. Alive are the days of carefully considering every touchpoint of the brand and designing a system to flourish and last, despite changing mediums and marketplace.

A brand’s VIS is a way to be as forward thinking as possible for all the brand’s needs. It considers the application of a brandmark, color palette, typography suite, graphic elements, photography across a multitude of designed pieces (like brochures, websites, business cards, apps, etc) until it becomes medium agnostic. The vision isn’t stagnation, but fluidity— an identity that is alive, breathing, and moving. The goal isn’t repetition, it’s recognition— whether through a symbol or system.

There’s a balancing act going on in a VIS. Does the brandmark need to carry most of the visual weight or does the system? Lets look at two different, yet successful recent rebrand stratgies, to explore this thinking…

Stanley, the stable and strong tool brand, released an evolved brandmark that is repeated nicely throughout their product line. The point of emphasis is placed on the dissected “N” making the brandmark super memorable and ownable. The new packaging is simple and lets the brandmark and signature yellow do all the talking. This strategy “nails” a traditional and strong approach to a VIS (pun intended).


Images from the Brand New blog


On the other hand, the city of Minsk, recently released a new VIS that explores a slight shift in design thinking. It relies less on a decorative mark and more on an overall visual language. The blue stripes are the emphasis across all of the applications, while the wordmark is simple and quiet. This system is a new way of thinking— more loose democracy, less greedy monarchy. Graphic elements do all the work, while the brandmark is reserved and neutral. Both solutions work, given the needs and context of the project, and that’s what it all comes down to.


Images from the Brand New blog


It’s all a balancing act of the symbol or system, and the answer should be birthed out of the needs of the brand. Here are some questions to help you decide a direction based on those needs:

What is the overall strategy?
For example, does the brand want to be perceived as more stable or more innovative? Which direction is most meaningful to the story you are trying to tell?

Where & how will the VIS be used?
Is there a seemingly endless litany of places where the brand identity will need live? Or are there only a few critical applications? If there are only a few, perhaps a symbol is the best route.

What resources exist?
Can the organization afford to design every piece or is there an in-house creative department that can take the VIS and run with it?

Most importantly, what’s best for the brand?
It’s not about what you like, it’s about what will work given the context of the organization.

2 thoughts on “Symbol or System?”

  1. Awesome job, Blake. This has always been a struggle for me. There’s no doubt in my mind that the “loose democracy” (love that!) of a VIS has the ability to provide a more unified customer experience. The problem is when you only have limited reach. Have you seen any hybrid approaches? Maybe a smaller company that augments their mark with a system?

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