The Grit in the Creative Oyster

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I was working with a brand design team recently, something I have not done for a while. They were at the early stage of the project, just getting to know the market, the cultural context, the history of the brand. I was fascinated by what struck them as fascinating. I should explain they were an international team and while they knew the brand category well from work in other parts of the globe, the country was unfamiliar to them.

They latched on to certain patterns, symbols and rituals they observed in a variety of places. The way the city looked from the air and the shapes of the open play areas in the poorer suburbs, the common use of a particular style of mosaic, the motif in the floor of a disused but historically important part of a factory, a particular ritual employed when serving the brand.

A few weeks later they shared their first ideas and we could all see how some of the cultural observations and especially these unique patterns had inspired what were a really impressive set of designs. They had met the brand brief but they did so by bringing in some fresh unexpected semiotic ideas. There were some pearls and you could see they had come from putting some grit into the brief.

Designers don’t just design from fresh air, a blank piece of paper and some technical skills learned at art college. They can meet a brief but they have to work with more than a brief. The process requires an eclectic magpie approach to produce the seemingly serendipitous outcome. And this in turn demands some latitude, trust and patience on the part of the client.

You can try this if you have the opportunity to work with an interior designer. Show them the space, give them a budget, tell them the feel you are looking for – you can give them some photos cut from magazines to help you. But then give them a picture you really like and might want to hang in the room. The colours will provide some obvious inspiration but the picture will also produce some unexpected ideas. The picture is the grit in the oyster.

You see this in brands themselves. The really great brands almost always have some unexplained yet distinctive eccentricities. These brand foibles can sometimes look at odds with the brand or category when viewed in isolation but as part of the whole they give the brand its character. The homely script of the Coca Cola logo, the communist red star of Heineken, the whimsical jingle of Intel, the odd name and packaging for Haagen Dasz ice cream.

When there is a story behind the foible it adds to the brand mythology. If you are creating a new brand design you can construct some back-story to explain the design (I recall the most pretentious load of twaddle used to explain the inspiration behind the new logo for Toyota some years back, or was it Mazda?). For me it is better to leave things unexplained – let the people fill in the gaps.

What is the lesson in all this? As I have hinted already, respect the brief as an expression of the desired outcome but be very open-minded about process other than ensuring it allows for a wide range of stimulus. Develop an appetite for the unexpected, the little features and ideas that are not logical. Get some grit into the brand and risk a deep dive to find the pearls.

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