The Sure Hand

How Strategy Guides Design

The first book I read on branding was nearly 40 years ago. Only we didn’t call it “branding” in 1981. And it wasn’t even a book that belonged to me. A friend gave me Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, a renowned marketing classic that clearly stated if you want to stand out, your company must create a position inside your customer’s head.

The importance of that idea hasn’t really changed in the four decades since. Successful branding starts in the head. When we do a Head and Heart Workshop, we are establishing the brand connections between our client’s strategy (the head) and the matching design (the heart).

We believe that a brand exists as an emotional response to design, based on strategic definitions of who you are: the brand personality, voice, archetype, and only/only (amongst others). So, clearly, brand design is much more than a logo. That’s simply the vehicle that identifies your brand.

A couple years ago, a Bay area tech subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker contacted us about developing a brand identity for a company, then known as Aura. They needed to define who they are and how they are different from their competitors—and they needed a new name and identity.

Strategy comes first. Then we design.

Based on the approved brand strategy, we proposed a selection of new names and identities for Aura. Since our client brings together employers and job seekers in an underserved industrial workforce, Surehand became the new company name. The name was selected based on the idea that a sure hand guides the use of technology to improve job satisfaction.

We launched into our next stage, and presented logo proposals that were all figurative, as we recognized the metaphorical power of both animal and human based symbols. We proposed an ox and a horse, as well as the chosen concept; the universally recognized handshake. Each had merits and reflected the strategy, but the name and selected logo clearly reinforce each other.

The typography that accompanies the symbol was chosen to reinforce the idea of a sure hand. It is a sans serif typeface, yet it’s not a modern, perfected sans serif, like Helvetica. This is a Gothic type from the 1800s, with a character that matches the focus of the images from our emotional response exercise and were selected by the client; they were care, craftsmanship, and simplicity.

Like people, brands have personalities and can be categorized according to universally recognized traits. There are twelve primary brand archetypes that represent recurring character themes that surface time and time again, such as the Hero, the Ruler, and the Caregiver. Our process showed that Surehand fit squarely into the Citizen, with qualities like respect, fairness, and accountability. Those qualities are clearly represented in Surehand’s purpose and technology, that brings together job seekers and employers, and builds upon the Citizen archetype and the handshake symbol. Other Citizen types include Habitat for Humanity, Rosa Parks, and Tom’s Shoes.

Beyond personality, we’re strategic about color. Tangerine Orange, a primary Surehand corporate color, combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It stands for enthusiasm, creativity, and attraction. These qualities fit perfectly with the outcomes associated with finding a new job or hiring the perfect employee. Additionally, Prussian Blue is the complementary color for orange, as they’re directly across from each other on the color wheel, and is the additional Surehand corporate color. Blue is oft associated with knowledge and has always been the symbol of truth.

To embolden the brand even further, photography for Surehand has a focus on real people connecting. A photojournalistic style, rather than staged imagery, captures personality in an authentic, humanistic way—all integral attributes of the brand as well. Color blocks and hairline details are complimentary graphic elements that, when consistently used, become recognizable brand identifiers.

So, did our “heart” based solutions for Surehand reflect the “head” based and approved strategy? We think so.

Make Vision Real

Executives set the vision but the designers execute it.  

“A computer on every desk and in every home.”

That was the imaginative and unfathomable vision statement Microsoft wrote when they were founded in 1975—only 45 years ago. In the years that have passed since, that vision is a reality.  A vision statement is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a statement that describes where the company envisions itself to be upon achieving their mission, and the executives of the company have the responsibility for setting such an aspiration for an organization.

But for many, the problem isn’t setting the vision—it’s executing the vision. And according to a comprehensive new report, design can make that vision real. 

The Chicago-based IIT Institute of Design has completed a major study, titled “Lead with Purpose,” with the purpose of identifying design’s role in realizing executive vision. The Institute, founded in 1937 as the New Bauhaus, conducted qualitative one-on-one interviews with over 50 business and design practitioners.

We’re past the point now where we feel the need to promote the idea that design makes good business sense. Recent reports from Fjord, InVision, and McKinsey have clearly and quantifiably demonstrated that design offers great value to organizations. What the ID study makes clear now is where design meets strategy. 

The vision of an organization, set by the executives, is strategic. But as one respondent in the report said, “The connection of strategy to execution is where we fall down, and frankly a lot. There are huge gaps between all the strategy and thinking and then the ability for the organization to execute on it.” As designers, we are well suited to bridge the gap between abstract visionary ideas and concrete tangible outcomes. The report states, “Designers thrive in the face of ambiguity. The intent set out by the organization’s business leaders should be visionary, and, as such, it will likely be lofty as well. Designers can take the same competencies and methods (foresight, systems thinking, etc.) that they put toward building products or solutions and orient them toward achieving that vision.”

There are six skills that an organization should seek in order to move from vision to execution: storytelling, prototyping, foresight, facilitation, collaboration, and systems thinking.

  1. Storytelling 

You should be able to boil down your brand story into a sentence that reflects your point of view. Create an infographic that dispels ambiguity. “That’s the difference between a designer and a scientist or technician. The technician could give you a hundred pages of data that probably says the same thing that a designer would say in two sentences.”

  1. Prototyping 

It’s a well-accepted principle that testing business ideas and products should occur early in the development process. The oft-repeated axiom “fail early and fail often” is testament to the value of prototyping. Sketches, mockups, and models are all means to rapidly try ideas out with your user and with your business to learn from the experience. 

  1. Foresight

Seeing a forest while bumping into trees is a common problem for organizations. Too many executives are simply blind to the different types of disruptions that are happening in their industries. As designers “we help them understand the drivers of this disruption and the implications and how to manage and continue to grow or innovate within the disruption.”

  1. Facilitation

Organizations pretend to know how to implement high-level, visionary goals. “How we shape—and facilitate—activities to get to those goals is where design comes in.” 

  1. Collaboration 

It’s not just the marketing or communications departments that are responsible for executing visionary strategy. Manufacturing, R&D, sales—they’re all important. “A mature design organization leverages design to support its other functions. It’s not design as a service. It’s design as collaboration.”

  1. Systems Thinking

Designers think differently than business school grads, who tend to think linearly, numerically, and logically. Designers think spatially, visually, and emotionally to make connections and conclusions missed by others. Designers are saying, “What other folks in the business do we need to be talking to, to make this all work?” 

For strategy to succeed in propelling an organization forward it needs to be both, envisioned (intent) and realized (effect). “There is currently a great opportunity [for designers] to lead an organization on the pathway from intent (strategic vision) to realizing that intent both within the organization and outward to the broader world (effect).”

The Books that Influenced Me


When I graduated from college in the 70s, graphic design academia was thoroughly entrenched in the International Typographic Style—or Swiss school. One of my professors was from and educated in Basel, Switzerland while another, though American born, was also thoroughly ensconced within the European aesthetic. My formal education was, therefore, highly structured around minimalist purity. I couldn’t use any typeface in college other than Univers, the sans serif typeface held in high esteem by all true Swiss designers.

While my education indoctrinated me to the formalities of the Swiss school, I also found myself attracted to other interests. I was familiar with the work of Milton Glaser at Push Pin, who seemed to design most of the album jackets of musicians I liked. After the catalog of the 1970 Louvre exhibition, The Push Pin Style was published, I ordered a copy and poured over the work of Glaser and others. My favorite work in the book was Glaser’s comicstrip style poster called “Mozart Sneezes” for the Lincoln Center.

My professors were so doctrinaire about their preferences, I hid my copy of the obviously non-Swiss-styled Push Pin book from their view. At the same time, I loved the simpliciaty, rationality and structured typography of the Swiss school. My textbook was Typographie: A Manual of Design written by the Swiss educator Emil Ruder. I was so absorbed by the principles of the book I also chose it for my textbook when I taught typography many decades later.

“Typographie: A Manual of Design”, by Emil Ruder (1967)
“Typographie: A Manual of Design”, by Emil Ruder (1967)

These two books have quite the contrasting viewpoints; Typogaphie is based on modernist principles while the postmodernist Push Pin Style seems to have defined much of my career’s work after graduation. I sometimes found myself designing for the same client, one time in a clean Swiss style and the next in some decorative motif full of complexity and ornament. For some reason, clients didn’t seem to respond to my stylistic shifts.

“Push Pin Style” (1970)
“Push Pin Style” (1970)

On the postmodern side, I was infatuated with Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde typeface. The type style is full of decorative ligatures, just the opposite of the rationalist Univers type. Ligatures are combinations of two or more letters designed to work together and Avant Garde featured many of them. My senior year at the University of Utah I was the designer of the on-campus newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle. 

 I designed the newspaper masthead and all of the column headings in Avant Garde Gothic, using as many ligatures as I could.

Not long thereafter, I created form systems and manuals for a multinational corporation based on uniform grids, a strict typographic hierarchy, and hairlines and rules that still define a modernist look for the organization 40 years later. My students now can’t believe that I was limited to only one typeface in school. “It seems so limiting,” they say.

In actuality, it was limiting, but strict parameters forced me to understand the complexity of typography, the relationships of size and weight, legibility, and comprehension. It’s easy to lose all those when you have unlimited choices. I owe my understanding of typography to my education and the opportunity to apply it early in my career.

My students now can’t believe that I was limited to only one typeface in school. “It seems so limiting,” they say. In actuality, it was limiting, but strict parameters forced me to understand the complexity of typography, the relationships of size and weight, legibility, and comprehension. It’s easy to lose all those when you have unlimited choices. I owe my understanding of typography to my education and the opportunity to apply it early in my career.

New Wave graphic design eventually emerged as a postmodern reaction to the sterility of modernism, and I embraced it with abandon. Hand-drawn squiggles, Memphis-inspired bright colors, and neon photographic effects (all before Photoshop) made it into both my client and self-promotional work. It was a fun reaction to modernistic principles, allowing a degree of personal expression and spontaneity that no self-respecting modernist would certainly even consider.

My eclectic design career has left me with a portfolio that lacks easily identifiable characteristics. At the same time, my career has given me an appreciation and support, as both creative director and instructor, for uniquely different points of view that I encounter in the direction and supervision of others’ work.

Beauty Is More than Skin Deep

Beauty and performance in business are linked.

At the University of Utah last fall, I decided to take Introduction to Philosophy. It’s been a long time since I was a college student, and it was more unusual—because I was teaching my Branding and Identity Systems class simultaneously. I walked from one side of campus to the other and morphed from student to professor. We read all of the famous philosophers but began in Ancient Greece with Plato from 428 B.C.

Along with truth and justice, Plato considered beauty to be one of the ultimate values. In Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, he says that if something is beautiful it is also morally good. Plato’s ideal of beauty may have lost some luster in the centuries since, but most would agree that a definition of beauty includes both subjective and objective qualities like balance, proportion, and harmony.

One might think that the definition of beauty varies from one person to another or from one culture to another yet, certain qualities appear to be universal. The highly regarded New York-based design firm, Sagmeister & Walsh, wrote a book that was published late last year, with the simple title—Beauty. The authors conducted extensive research about what we all consider beautiful.

de Stijl, the artistic movement of the 1920s, sought to create universalist ideals of beauty and truth. It included architects and graphic designers, but the artist most closely associated with the movement is the painter Piet Mondrian. His works depict the attributes we recognize in de Stijl; abstract compositions using the three primary colors, plus black and white. From X-rays of his paintings, we know Mondrian endlessly moved the lines and shapes around before finalizing his compositions.

In their book, Sagmeister & Walsh used Mondrian’s paintings to conduct an experiment. They created a fake Mondrian alongside a lesser-known and original Mondrian, and presented it to audiences the world over. They asked their audience if they could pick the original. Despite their marked similarity, roughly 85% of viewers recognized the original. The experiment had the same result in front of European, American, Asian, and Australian audiences.

(From Beauty, Sagmeister & Walsh, PHAIDON)
(From Beauty, Sagmeister & Walsh, PHAIDON)

See answer at the end of this article*.

The conclusion of the Mondrian experiment (and many others in the book) strongly indicates that although beauty “eludes an easy definition, people know it when they see it.” Furthermore, “Beauty is not something skin deep: it is part of what it means to be human.” 

 We seek out beautiful things because they make us feel beautiful too. It’s the kind of psychology that drives much marketing today and why we want that beautiful Herman Miller chair or that expensive Apple product. 

 Beautiful things elicit an emotional response. The correlation between beauty and emotion is obvious. What may be less obvious is the correlation between beauty and business performance. Here’s the formula: beauty > emotion > perception > behavior > performance. Here’s an example: if the packaging is beautiful (or website, or logo, etc.), then we respond to it emotionally. That response changes our perception of the product. Our perception then changes our behavior and we end up buying the product, which clearly drives the performance of the business. 

 The book, Beauty, concludes with a manifesto that beauty itself is a function, and that “pretty” and usefulness is not enough. However, without beauty, nothing ever really works well. As a company, we join the authors to make the world a more beautiful place while helping our clients drive the performance of their business in the process.

*A is the original, B is the fake.

Crafting modern8’s New Look

The best identities last quite awhile. Changing with every trend suggests a graphic solution that is based on fads instead of design principles. The modern8 symbol and wordmark were designed 17 years ago and had remained unchanged.

With the launch of our new website last fall, we formally introduced the updated modern8 look and feel, which had been evolving over the year. Here’s how it works.

Giving structure to creativity.

With new management at modern8, the objective was to suggest a new direction and update the identity. We wanted to create a design language that allowed us to be expressive while working within a defined menu of components.

“We designed a palette of expressive elements that would allow for brand consistency while still leaving room for abundant creativity.”

-Alyssa, Senior Designer

Consistent and Grounded.

The package of assets that comprise our identity work harmoniously together: the wordmark, the symbol, the lettermark, the colors, typography and photo and illustration styles. Each are complementary and distinctive.

“We wanted the new identity to maintain the legacy and equity of what was established in 2001, but feel fresh and modern and reflect the vibrancy of our team.”

-Alysha Smith , Managing Director

A bold wordmark.

The most important element of the new identity is the wordmark. The unusual hyphenation of modern8 into two lines, acts as a visual attraction and incorporates the hyphen as an integral component of the final solution.

The lettermark.

A compact version of our wordmark grew out of the internal use of the abbreviation m8. It functions as an additional symbol along side the 8man.

An independent symbol.

The use of the Eightman, our symbol, is now separated from the wordmark and acts independent of it. Subtle changes have been made, including to the terminals of the “mouth” stroke to match the hyphen in the wordmark.

Our brand typeface.

We use Raleway as our corporate typeface, a modern sans-serif, often displayed boldly and vertically oriented as it appears on our website..

Corporate colors expand.

The color most associated with modern8 has always been an orange yellow. The old color has not been discarded, but a new complementary palette has been added, bringing the total up to five. The new palette is dynamically displayed on our home page.

Consistent illustration style.

We have always created custom illustrations for posts in our Thought Library, but in the past each illustration was different stylistically, depending on who created it and the message conveyed. We’ve adopted a collage style that mixes black and white photos, typography and bold strokes of our corporate colors to achieve a consistent look, despite a wide range of subject matter.

There’s more to come.

When we think about the changed world since modern8 was founded 18 years ago, it’s only natural that brand look and feel move forward with the times. It will continue to evolve and we love it.

where to eat lunch

One of the nice things about a downtown location is the lunch options. We can walk to a lot of places. Right next door is Toasters, a sandwich shop specializing in paninis. Then there’s Siegfried’s, a German delicatessen on our street, and Eva’s Bakery on Main Street, whose macarons are independently worth any effort. With so many options, it’s hard to choose.

I was sympathetic, in fact, when I read about “Elliott,” a patient who walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio in 1982—he had a problem. When Elliott chose where he was going to eat lunch, he had to carefully consider each restaurant’s menu, the comfort of the seating, the lighting scheme, and then he’d drive to each place to see if it was too busy. But even after all that, Elliott still couldn’t decide where to eat lunch. Elliott’s indecision was—literally—pathological. A few months before, a small tumor, located near the frontal lobe of his brain, had been cut out of Elliott’s cortex. Prior to the operation, Elliot had always been an exemplary father and husband. He had an important management position at a large company and he participated in his community church. However, after the surgery, everything changed. Even though Elliott’s IQ remained the same (97th percentile), he exhibited one serious psychological problem—he couldn’t make a decision.

It was so severe, that Elliott’s life fell apart. Upon examination, Damasio said that one thing stood out, “I never saw a tinge of emotion in many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” He didn’t even exhibit any feelings about the tragic turn of events in his life. He had no emotional existence whatsoever.

It became apparent that Elliot’s issues were a clearly unexpected result of the brain surgery. It was also incorrect to assume that a person lacking any emotions would be equipped to make better decisions. Elliot’s pathology suggested that emotions are indeed a crucial part of the decision making process. When we are cut off from our feelings, even lunch options become impossible, as “A brain that can’t feel, can’t make up its mind.”

The impact on brand science is obvious. We think we’re always rational beings, making decisions about consumer and business choices with deliberate, practical consideration. In actuality, we’re relying on our emotions to short circuit the decision-making process much of the time. Our emotional brain is quick and effortless. That’s why we rely on it time after time. That’s how brands become loved. That’s how brands become tribal.

Emotion is the first step in the Performance Model: Emotion > Perception > Behavior > Performance. It goes like this: if you want to affect the performance of your business, make an emotional connection with your potential customer, which changes their perception, which affects their behavior and drives the performance of your business. We have literally watched this happen recently with a client of ours. We never asked to do their social media—they asked us—and we approached the work believing if we could connect emotionally with their target audience, then we could make a difference. Our social media posts have emphasized highly creative solutions because execution is where and when the rubber meets the road. It either connects emotionally or it doesn’t. Since we began, sales for our client have increased 300%, and they couldn’t be happier.

And if you’d like to go to lunch in downtown Salt Lake I can help you choose.

the x factor

In the marketing and design worlds, it seems that “X” descriptions are taking over everything.

First, there exists UX, a nice shorthand for “user experience.” Now, CX for “customer experience,” seems to be blowing up everywhere. Also, there is the use of PX, which stands for “product experience” or, depending on who you’re talking to, “prospect experience.” Adobe has an offering called XD for experience design, and, lastly, relevant to mention is the placement of an “X” after a “B” to represent brand experience. Regardless of the latest “X” du jour, there are commonalities between all of the “X” descriptions.

We often have the tendency to think that this “experience” stuff only exists within the digital realm—that’s not true. All our “experiences” in the digital world happens to practically mirror what occurs in the real world. I’ve written before about The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, which strongly demonstrates that usability issues are present around us as both physical aspects and digital aspects. In fact, our lifelong familiarity with the physical world can be adapted to analyze the experience of the digital world.


Anyone that has been around me for the last 10 years knows I’m into cycling. I’ve spent up to 14 hours, in a single day, on my bicycle. I know my experience with my bike very well. I can ask myself: How do I feel using my bicycle? How does it perform? Do I feel safe? Am I accomplishing my goal? Answers to these questions describe my overall attitude and personal interaction of the product, my bike, which ultimately defines the UX.

The UX on my bike is, in turn, influenced by the user interface (UI). I have a French-made, Time Sport bicycle frame. The rest of the bike is made up of many other components—made by Shimano, Easton, and others—all for different tasks but used to work together. As a user, I interact with the different components to accomplish something from switching gears to braking, and I’m very aware of the UI that I have with my bicycle saddle after several hours of sitting on it. The success of my ability, the UI, to perform tasks on my bicycle greatly impacts the overall experience.


I bought my bike at Contender Bicycles in Salt Lake City. Only after test riding other brands at other stores, did I debate and eventually check out the Time Sport website (the UI and UX). I stepped into a customer experience with the brand once I became a serious shopper, which lasted until I made my purchase. As a customer, my experience could have been ruined during time spent at a retail store—it wasn’t—due to the fact that CX focuses on the entire journey the customer takes. Had I been purchasing a bike for somebody else, the primary focus would be on the end user, and the importance of UX would be distinguished from CX. Additionally, success of one does not guarantee the success of the other. CX encompasses the whole experience from advertising to customer service and interaction to experience.


Though less common, I was aware of the Time Sport brand from seeing other cyclists riding them. I remember thinking it was a kind of odd name. That was my first awareness of the brand with a very limited experience. The very best brands create a narrative with emotions to help envision lifestyles and/or behaviors to create a distinct experience of the brand. Combined with great UX, the brand will stimulate the senses through interactive experiences. In the digital age, brand is experience.

Brands have been around since people began buying and bartering for goods. Though “branding” is a more recent term, the digital age has brought about greater visibility and opportunities for influencing the perception and the interaction between brands and their customers. Inasmuch as “brand” is a compilation of everything read, seen, heard or understood, it is the holistic sum of every experience. Managers now better understand that the logo is not the brand, rather the visual representation of an idea—a message, a promise—about the product and/or company.

Each level of experience is broader. The user experience is a portion of the customer experience, but the brand experience encompases everything and lives before and after customer engagement—without the brand, there is no potential engagement. The challenge often within companies is to cohesively manage these experiences across multiple departments and responsibilities. The best brands “just do it.”

good brands tell stories

The principles of storytelling don’t change in the age of social media.

After five vehicles, I decided I had had enough of expensive repairs, and no longer felt a need for status cars. I walked the short distance from the BMW showroom to the Mini dealership, which is owned by BMW. The Mini, although introduced a few years before, had a story that still rang clear in my head. Instead of the typical ads showing cars curving around mountain roads or stopping in front of fancy hotels, the Mini “Let’s Motor” campaign was built on an irreverent attitude toward big American cars and competitors. Pun-filled billboards and cool magazine ads with pop-up 3D Minis added to the anti-big story. The most audacious visual of all, were the gigantic SUVs driven around Manhattan with Mini’s strapped to the roof. When I bought the car, I was given my own website where I could watch the progress of manufacturing and shipping of my vehicle from England. I became emotionally invested in the Mini story. Clearly, this was part of their brand strategy, and I was all in.

Telling stories are part of human nature. We’ve been doing it for a long time. Mankind has always passed on knowledge, learned lessons and imagined adventures through storytelling. We use stories to give our ideas context and meaning.

A transformative story idea will almost self-propagate and diffuse on its own. This is true in business, as it is in life, and now often relies on social media to spread. Your employees and customers can help, but first, they must understand your story and where it is going. This is particularly a problem with technology companies, where understanding product advantages can be difficult to grasp.

Such was the case with Intel, who in 1990, was an unknown supplier of microchips. A product buried deep inside your computer—which you never saw and cared little about—until Salt Lake City-based, Dahlin Smith White, changed the value perception of the product with their remarkable “intel inside” brand story. Intel is now a $60 billion company and the second largest semiconductor chip maker in the world.

Brand storytelling is not inventing a story. In fact, the very reason your brand exists is due to stories when you describe how and why you developed the products and services you offer. Your solutions and their value is a story itself when told with emotions.

Good storytelling is not just an informational presentation of facts; that may be valuable content, but it’s not storytelling. It’s about emotions and experiences, and it requires certain fundamental elements. The best stories share the following, even when presented abstractly.*

Setting: The setting orients the audience and provides a sense of time and place for the story.

Characters: Character identification is how the audience becomes involved in the story and how the story becomes relevant.

Plot: The plot ties events in the story together, and is the channel through which the story flows.

Invisibility: The awareness of the storyteller fades as the audience focuses on a good story. When engaged in a good movie or book, the existence of the medium is forgotten.

Mood: Music, lighting, style of prose and vocal timbre all create the emotional tone of the story.

Movement: In a good story, the sequence and flow of events is clear and interesting. The storyline doesn’t stall.

The seminal book, Universal Principles of Design, annotates how each of the above elements are used in the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who is best known for creating the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a fountain in the form of an inverted, asymmetric, stone cone. A film of water flows over the base of the cone, which contains the names of 41 individuals who died in the struggle for civil rights in 50s and 60s.

Despite the obvious differences between conventional storytelling and a stone memorial, each of the six storytelling elements above, from setting through movement, are present and active in the Civil Rights Memorial.

Use storytelling to engage your target audience in your brand and evoke an emotional response. When successfully used, the audience will very personally experience and remember the story. This is a phenomenon that is nearly unique to storytelling.

*In 2001, Randall Smith, the founder of modern8, had just ended a difficult partnership from a short lived entity. The abruptness and jolt of the split forced Randall to restart and begin again with a fresh perspective. A renewed way of viewing things, seeing things and thinking about things, which required not only a new name but an entirely new philosophy. As a means of revitalizing the marketplace, modern8 was born out of a need that reached beyond just design. No longer were only creative services sufficient. Companies needed more than a logo or a brochure to convey themselves to their customers, but rather a more cohesive, emotional, valuable approach—they needed their brand. In recognizing such a need for businesses, Randall worked to create and deliver a process that could guide, distill and provide the foundation for a company’s brand. Randall created, what modern8 still uses to this day, the Emotional Branding 5d Process, which was a marriage of design services and necessary strategic approaches to achieve shared goals. This process has become the long lasting foundation and approach for modern8, and how we continue to complete every project, big or small.

Our story’s setting took place in 2001 at the time of modern8’s founding. A time and place where the concept of branding was more often than not associated with “identifying cattle” and not for marketing goods and services. The main character is the founder and creative director of modern8, who had previously offered creative services for many years to predecessor companies, but had never thought to combine design with strategic services. The main plot surrounds the unique foundation of a fledgling company that happened due to a swift turn of events and the creation and approach of the 5d Process—a honed integration of strategy and design.

Now, this story of our founding and process development has been told numerous times, most often during in-person and new business pitches. Our story serves as a distinct differentiator between us and our competitors. Although we don’t know how invisible modern8 is when Randall tells the story, we have certainly landed a lot of clients through the telling of it. The story establishes a mood that is both emotional and relatable with much of it visibly evident through the personal conviction of the founder, as well as the value proposition the 5d Process holds. From the heart of the story to the end of the story, there is constant movement that helps to convey who we are, what we do and how we do it. The details are as apparent as the progression and movement of our 5d Process, in obviously, five steps.

the perception gap

Last week we presented design proposals for the packaging of a new retail product. While discussing the relative merits of one design concept compared with another, I was asked by the client about the value of intrigue in design solutions. The client was wondering if design effectiveness was enhanced by certain amount of ambiguity in the solution, which sets up a cause to be interested, or curious.

In response, I mentioned the concept of the Perception Gap, an idea that I believe I first heard about from Milton Glaser, (I can’t recall whether it was from his writings or speech). The Perception Gap refers to that period of time between seeing and perceiving. When we are presented with a new and intriguing visual attraction, there is often a period of time between observing it and understanding it—what it is, or what it is for.

That gap of time is important. If the Perception Gap is too big, we ignore it. We don’t have the time or interest to devote to understanding it. However if the gap is just right, the extra mental energy used in understanding the gap has a profound effect—we remember it. In our over-communicated society, remembering any promotional message is huge. (Of course our interest is greater if the message sender is important. A note written in lipstick on a napkin may be very hard to decipher, but well worth the effort.)

The Perception Gap is used by designers and artists of all visual mediums to engage, delight and inform viewers. The trick of course, is knowing when the gap is too big. At modern8, we often ask Tara, the Office Manager, to come and look at something. She’s typically not involved in the creative efforts and therefore a more neutral gauge of the size of the gap. If she walks away, saying, “What the hell is that?” we figure the gap might be getting a little wide.

It’s a constant battle to propose solutions that are on the cutting edge creatively, where we are pushing the gap to the maximum size allowable, while at the same time meeting the client/project/cost objectives. We must intrigue, but as Charles Eames said, “Design depends largely on constraints.”

because i liked it

This week I bought a new lawn trimmer. I never liked my old one. When the string got short, I had to insert new string by hand into the trimmer head, versus the bump method I had used on my previous trimmer. And now I couldn’t even get it to start. I was done with it. In fact, I was done with that brand. Before heading over to the home store, I decided to do some online research. I was attracted to one brand that had a distinctive color—a bright yellow-green—as opposed to the dominant red and black color schemes. It also had a video showing off product features and benefits that other brands didn’t have. I went to the home store zeroing in on the clearly branded yellow-green packages and product displays.

You and I are rational beings. There might be a few crazies out there, but not us! When I bought that yellow-green Ryobi lawn trimmer, I made the decision based on logic, facts and what’s best for my situation—or at least I think I did.

As I write this, I’m trying to recall how much I actually evaluated those red and black brands. (Not that much really). By the time I was in the store, the sales associate, who tried to push me toward a couple other brands was in a lost cause. I wanted that yellow-green Ryobi!

But that’s the consumer world. In the business world we think more logically. You know—numbers, like spread sheets, and profit and loss statements. The stock is either up, or the stock is down. There’s no ambiguity in business decisions. Or at least that’s what we think.

Since the enlightenment, humans have placed more value on logic. After all, isn’t it our rational self that separates us from animals? In actuality, rationality is just part of it. Neuroscientists tell us we buy based on emotion, but justify with logic. When asked, people will use logical, rational explanations for their choices. Our brains don’t like admitting they’ve been undone by our hearts.

The emotional impact on buying decisions plays a useful role. The nearly unlimited considerations that enter into any choice are reduced to a manageable number by emotional reactions. According to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchase decisions actually take place unconsciously. It could be argued that emotions are the unseen portion of rational thinking. They drive much of our decision-making, just processed unconsciously.

We all carry with us brand knowledge. Everything we’ve heard, read, seen and understand about a brand is in one big database in our head. We access that database when making a brand buying decision. This applies whether making a B2C or B2B purchase.

Today our office is responding to an RFP that indicates our reply will be evaluated on a point system, with so many points allocated to each of several categories, only one of which is budget. You might conclude this evaluation process appears to be strictly rational. Whoever has the most points wins. But the number of points assigned to each category is very subjective and dramatically influenced by emotional interpretation.

We’ve long held the idea that perception modifies behavior, which drives the performance of your business. Our research into the power of emotion, has shown us that in between perception and behavior, lies emotion. Behavior is not just logic and rationality. We buy with emotion and justify with logic. And my yellow-green Ryobi trimmer worked just great yesterday.