Highly Effective Brands

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed on the Silicon Slopes Live Podcast, and one of the questions I was asked was “What are the best brands out there in your opinion, and why?” Although my answer was brief, the question made me think more in-depth about what makes a highly effective brand and if our point of view at modern8 aligns when taking a closer look.

In my interview, I defined branding as an emotional response to design that lives in the mind of your customers—reiterating that your brand is not in your logo, your website, your marketing materials, and your catchy headlines (as quippy as they might be). These are merely tools that identify your brand. Our belief and point of view is that you DO have the ability to influence and control the emotional responses of your customer through the design and communication of the strategic pillars that define who you are. Here are those pillars paired with case studies of some of the most highly effective brands in the world, IMO. 

Position– We define this as the ONLY ONLY. What is the only thing that you offer that no one else offers. Do your customers identify you as being the only one? In journalism, the primary facts that need to be understood are WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY, and HOW. The technique tells the reader whether the rest of the story is worth reading. The same approach tells your customer whether they should be interested in your products or services. Here’s how brand strategist Marty Neumeir describes the process for Harley-Davidson:

Who: Harley-Davidson
What: The only motorcycle manufacturer
How: That makes big, loud motorcycles
Who: For macho guys (and macho “wannabes”)
Where: Mostly in the United States
Why: Who want to join a gang of cowboys
When: In an era of decreasing personal freedom.

Your Only, Only statement becomes the litmus test for future brand decisions that will keep you on target while ensuring you maintain your difference from the competition.

Promise– We define this as the pledge you make to your customers when they do business with you. Every brand should have a promise—a takeaway. This might be expressed as a tagline or as the brand message on the homepage of your website, and it is always understood as a promise delivered to the customer from the brand owner. Starbucks promises that as a brand they will “Inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” Starbucks views themselves as a company that brings more to the world than a great cup of coffee. It views itself as a lifestyle brand to consumers with a promise to affirm that. 

Perspective- We define this as the way your brand sees the world or reacts to specific situations. It defines why “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek, who coined the phrase, uses Apple as the best example of a company that leads with a clear and differentiated point of view, which is arguably the reason Apple is the most recognizable and effective brand in the world because “With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently.” As customers, we like to align ourselves with companies and brands with similar values and beliefs to our own. We often buy to feel like we belong. 

Personality– This is defined by modern8 as a collection of human based adjectives that describe your company’s characteristics, culture, voice, and qualities. Customers don’t buy experiences and products rationally. They are highly influenced by the way they feel and relate to your brand. Disney exemplifies their brand consistently through every detail and experience, and utilizes key adjectives that are integrated into their language to communicate their personality, like magical, friendly, and happy. You’d be hard pressed to find someone, despite their age, who wouldn’t feel those emotions and use those adjectives when stepping into one of Disney’s parks. The personality of Disney is how they win the hearts and minds of their guests. And this is what creates brand loyalty. 

Highly effective brands use design to communicate and connect to their brand pillars. Typically, the initial point of entry is visual, for instance, the Disney scripted logo centered upon a castle, a Harley-Davidson whizzing by, and a beautiful Apple computer being used in your neighborhood Starbucks. We are now living in a design and brand centric world. Design is where the “rubber meets the road.” Without great design based on a strategic foundation, there is no emotional connection and no lasting value.

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.

Branding in a Pandemic

A few weeks ago, I was pretty nervous about talking live over Instagram to 1,300 strangers. I know a lot about branding, but branding in a pandemic isn’t as simple. I had to put more research and reflection into my preparation.

What we can all agree on is that the current climate of consumer spending is unstable. As consumers, we are all rethinking how we spend our money and the effects of the crisis may not be realized for yet another six to ten months. Discretionary spending will be squeezed from all ends, and we will ALL be more cost conscious, if we aren’t already. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a new brand can’t launch during this crisis, but it must answer the obvious question—does it address a current need?

Does your product or service make communicating, buying, traveling, working from home easier or more accessible? We are all experiencing a mindset shift since being forced to work, learn, and homeschool within our four walls. modern8 would have never considered running a service business virtually, but, by being forced into a new way of thinking about and leveraging technology, we are making it work and may never go back. During the last recession, several businesses used this shift in mindset to launch, and they still continue to thrive—Groupon found a way to bring coupon clipping to our inboxes, Slack helped us stay in touch with our work teams, Venmo eliminated the need to carry a checkbook, WhatsApp gave us a vehicle to communicate no matter where we are in the world, and Rent the Runway made fashion accessible and affordable.

The second consideration is an evaluation of your value proposition and competitive advantage—is it different and distinct enough to stand out in a crowded market? The current market is highlighting disparities in value from product to product and service to service. If you are a challenger brand, and not the first to market in your space, then now is an opportunity to prove your value against the bigger, slower leaders in your competitive landscape. Messaging that targets your audience and relates to WHY your product is needed above the others can cut through and get noticed. There is an opportunity to leverage the current circumstances to provide more value to your current and potential customers, to make your offering more accessible, and to analyze and balance the current needs of your market. This doesn’t mean giving more for less, but it might mean reevaluating the customer experience, creating helpful content, marketing with empathy, giving gratitude and donations, or providing a sense of place and belonging for your audience. Make your brand invaluable to your customers.

We are currently working with a direct-to-consumer brand called Wave Coffee, which is set to launch in the next month. We debated pressing pause and waiting to launch the product after the pandemic, but Wave addresses a current need—get coffee delivered regularly without the risk of going out and picking it up. There’s also the fact that the target market for Wave has already been defined, the aesthetics have already been designed to resonate within its market space, and the messaging has been crafted to speak to those preferences and motivations. Though Wave is not going to be the first to market in the coffee subscription space, it can still provide simple access to a product that promotes shared experiences, even during these times of uncertainty, can be purchased at a justifiable price point, and will take advantage of the shift in mindset while getting noticed for its value.

A brand is a promise of value to be received. A brand is the totality of perceptions that you see, hear, read, know, feel, and think about and have been embodied in a product or service. A pandemic could be the right time to establish or pivot your brand to reestablish a distinctive position in a potential customer’s mind based on their past experiences, current associations, and future expectations.

A brand is a shortcut for gaining and expressing beliefs and values for consumers. These promises of specific beliefs and values will also differentiate your brand while simplifying the decision making process for your consumers. There is always a means to exceed industry and market expectations, and create surprise for an audience that never knew, in their mind, what they were missing.

The (Imperfect) Brand Story We Tell

Why a crisis is the time to give brands personalities, context, and meaning

The thought of being vulnerable makes them red in the face. Every image is perfectly posed, perfectly lit, and perfectly filtered. They refuse to show imperfection. Sound like anyone you know? Or perhaps a brand you know?

Brands, like people, can suffer from social anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, by their very nature, brands are supposed to be in the spotlight, interacting with the public everyday and even multiple times a day on social media. Every chance a brand gets to show its personality and tell its story is vitally important, yet many brands waste the opportunity by hiding who they are behind boring facts.

In contrast, the very best brands let their unique personalities shine through. They stand up in front of the crowd, unashamed and unafraid of how others will perceive them. There are many brands right now who choose to be honest about how the pandemic is changing their future. Fashion brand, Tamara Mellon, admits to why they need to keep their annual sale as scheduled, even though many women aren’t thinking about a new pair of heels right now, because their business, like others, just can’t afford not to continue with planned sales. There are also brands that need to pivot their business operations to survive, and are taking this opportunity to tell a different story. Nordstrom is now focusing on a new plan for sustainability and phasing out plastic bags. “Through this COVID-19 crisis, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to reimagine our future and rethink what kind of company we want to be for our customers, employees and shareholders,” said President and Chief Brand Officer Pete Nordstrom. Brands should be prepared to let their perspectives come through in a growing brand story; this story that is changing minute by minute, and is so much more substantial and honest than those that attempt to hide and deny reality

Stories are a 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 personalities context and meaning.

A story is not only the best way of earning an audience’s attention but its heart as well. It breaks down barriers, allowing people to understand you and forgive you your weaknesses because they can see how your story relates to them. Moreso than this, an established story is memorable and should encapsulate what the brand ideals are, and should be the blueprint for how the brand interacts with the world.

The real secret is choosing the right story for your brand. Just like any person, a brand can have any number of stories that define it. These stories can range from seemingly insignificant, to monumental. Last year, we worked with Little Unicorn for a brand design refresh. During the process, we found that the real connection between the brand and the consumer was the story of real parenting and the story of the moments with your child—that story will be messy and sometimes a little dull, but it won’t be boring. Their story of imperfection makes an authentic connection with their audience and allows an opportunity for their brand personality to resonate. Many of us are currently stuck at home with babies and kids, trying to balance parenthood with work. Life is less than perfect and sometimes we make choices that sacrifice one for the other—letting that spill go unwiped, mid-video conference hugs, or sharing a bowl of mac and cheese for lunch. Creating marketing messages that prioritize their customers and their ability to share intimate moments with new or growing families through their products, tells a story of understanding and empathy.

The reason this story of imperfection is important is because it’s emotional and sticky. Those who read it will come away with feelings about the company based on their stories and will bring that perspective to all other interactions with that brand.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors and columnists for Fast Company magazine, expounded on what makes an idea (or story) sticky, and it’s a lesson that all brands can benefit from; like Little Unicorn’s story, the Heath’s suggest it must be simple (the story of your child), unexpected (the story is messy and sometimes a little dull), concrete (everyday is a story), credible (we all have a memory of childhood to hold on to), and emotional (enhancing the beauty of real parenting). Not all stories have all these elements, but the more they have, the more effective they are.

Admittedly, finding your personality and finding a way to communicate it through a story that stands out and connects with your audience amid so much clutter may be daunting. For every good story out there, there are dozens of completely forgettable ones. It’s all the more reason to put the extra effort into finding, creating, and crafting a good story.

If a good brand story is worth having, it is worth telling.

Designing Joy


One of my neighbors last week dropped off a box of pastel colored outdoor chalk with a handwritten note. The note explained how chalk was used by the children in Italy to bring peace and happiness to those who needed it during this time of uncertainty. My three-year-old immediately recognized the chalk and demanded we go outside that very moment. We both have a love for rainbows so that is the first thing we drew together followed by some clouds, a sun, and our names. Drawing those objects with bright colors brought me back to my own childhood—when feelings of delight seemed to be in abundance. Every day since, I look down and step over the rainbow, sun, and clouds, and those same feelings of joy come over me.

I didn’t immediately recognize those feelings as joy, but on a recent Monday we watched a very timely TED Talk in our morning Zoom meeting titled “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It” by Ingrid Fetell Lee. I smiled as Lee immediately caught my eye wearing a dress in one of my favorite color combinations, red and purple. She starts off her talk by recalling her senior portfolio critique and the feedback she received from several years worth of effort was “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.” “Joy? Joy is nice, but it’s kind of light—not substantial.” This idea set her on a journey to understand the relationship between the physical world and mysterious emotion we call “joy”. What she discovered is that not only are they linked, but that the physical world can be a powerful resource to us in creating happier, healthier lives. 

Like you, I am spending my days at home managing my life in an uncertain future; running a business, entertaining, and homeschooling my kids while trying to stay physically and mentally healthy, and being overly cautious in all of my actions. It feels unrealistic to focus on the pursuit of overall happiness, but drawing and walking over chalk rainbows brings me joy—an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion. As psychologists explain, joy is different from happiness, which measures how good we feel over time. Joy is about feeling good in the moment, feeling good when life feels out of our control.

This week I have made an effort to notice objects and things around me that bring me joy. Things like the fresh flowers on my coffee table, the new VW electric bus I saw an ad for, the artwork hanging on my walls, the rainbow sprinkles on our ice cream cones, white clouds against the blue sky, pink frosted sugar cookies, artists I follow on instagram that use color and whimsy in their work. Like Lee, I too noticed that although feelings of joy are mysterious and elusive, I am able to access them through the tangible, physical aesthetics that surround me. While these observations may seem juvenile at first glance, if we hold ourselves back from the enjoyment of aesthetics in color, patterns, and symmetry, we might miss hidden opportunities of joy. 

This realization sent me on a crusade to create and design, for myself and my family, a space where moments of joy can happen often. We are wearing more color and making our beds. We are drawing, coloring, and creating art. I have a separate instagram account that is curated with artists, objects, and animals that make me smile. We are getting balloons when we pick up our groceries. There are more fresh flowers, bubble baths—I am intentionally putting us in the path of joy. 

Seeking and creating joy offers an alternative to seeking out “happiness” in our current state of affairs. Perhaps in several years when we reflect upon this time, the little moments might add up to more importance and significance. Because if we stop, seek, and create joy in our surroundings, we might see it’s already happening around us. And we all need to take notice of that right now. 

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).”

Buying in a Design Centric World


I’ve never considered myself to be a beauty junkie—I only spend the minimum amount needed to keep my aging skin at bay. I’m mostly influenced by my attraction to a brand’s aesthetics and, occasionally, by a friend’s testimonial. A couple of years ago, I was introduced, via Instagram to a direct-to-consumer beauty brand with IMO great design. Over the last two years, I’ve slowly been swapping out all of my existing beauty products not because I believe them to be better or work better, but because I am visually attracted to the design of the product, the packaging, and the fact that I really love pink.

There was a time when you simply came up with a product or service the world needed, then offered it for sale. But no longer. The world has changed in many ways, largely due to social media. We are now living in a “design centric world” and are more visually oriented than ever before. We upload and share a staggering 1.8 billion photos each day on social media in hopes that we catch the attention of existing and potential customers. For a business to be successful in a design-centric world, needs must be contextualized for the visual environment. When we respond to almost anything, the initial point of entry is visual. 

Another relevant example happened a few months ago when I was invited to attend a chocolate tasting. I am by no means a chocolate connoisseur, but the exercise proved to be very educational and enlightening. We started the tasting with a Dove Chocolate bar and noted what we tasted and our overall impressions. As we went on, the chocolate got more exotic, more bitter, and less sweet. One of the bars we sampled was a Ritual Chocolate bar. After we all sampled the bar, the package was passed around for reference. Several of the group members were not familiar with my association to Ritual and I overheard a few conversations—all of which included comments on the beauty of the packaging. I also heard a few people say they had purchased the chocolate from the shelves of Caputo’s and Harmons, a decision not made from having sampled the chocolate but rather due to the beautiful packaging and design, and they wanted to share it as an unwrapped gift.

Apple, the most valuable company in the world, changed the business world when Steve Jobs came back in 1997. His intense focus on the design of products, the user interface, and even the components sealed inside the computer marked the beginning of a corporate recognition of design as a value proposition. Clients come into our office all the time to say they want clean and simple design, like Apple.

Successful companies recognize that offering a product or service that the world needs is not enough. Why? Because our feelings and perception of a company are largely formed by design. That perception can change people’s behavior. And changed behavior drives the performance of your business. This phenomenon is what compels us to pay $12 for a Ritual chocolate bar, $5 for a latte at Starbucks, and spend hundreds more for an Apple versus a Dell laptop, or travel 20 miles farther to stay at an Ace Hotel.

The value of design is recognized in the business world and is evidenced constantly in business publications. But it isn’t just about aesthetics. Rather, it is a far more serious matter of problem-solving and experience shaping. The principles of design can be used to change how people work, to better understand customer needs, and to reframe complex problems. These efforts lead to insights that constitute strategic competitive advantages.

As a brand design firm, we have long understood and fought for the value of good design. A late 2018 study by McKinsey and Company can finally put those advantages to real numbers based on their survey and analysis on over 300 different companies. McKinsey claims the report contains “the most extensive and rigorous research undertaken anywhere” to map the business impact of design. It concludes that firms who embrace design generated 32 percentage points higher revenue growth as well as 56 percentage points more total returns to shareholders compared to their rivals during a five-year period.

“While design was once largely thought of as a way of making products more attractive, it is now a way of thinking: a creative process driven by the desire to better understand and meet consumer needs,” said McKinsey. Those advantages show up as real numbers, and “Good Design is Good for Business”.

Over the last 10 years, design-led companies (such as Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Nike, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target, and Walt Disney) have maintained a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 211%.

Design is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where we make the emotional connection and generate an “I gotta have it” (at any cost) mentality on the part of customers. To be successful in a design-centric world, companies need to embrace design culture and allow design values and philosophies to guide the way people work, interact, and present themselves to the world.

Gifts for Designers


For the true color lover, who always thinks out of the box by creating their own geometrical world.


For the designer ages 12 to 99 that wants things to be several steps more complicated (like themselves). It’s a present that can be a metaphorical jab and a gesture all in one. Plus, it’s DIY fun, duh.


For the designer who can’t draw a proper circle but wishes they could.


It’s about time you subscribed already.


For the designer who’s always doodling…or who can never seem to remember what was said at the last meeting.


For that designer you know that likes things that are really nice for the sole reason that they are really nice things, these pencils are your solution.


For the creative/doodler in your life who needs a break from their screen.


For the creative that might want to enlarge their faith in design/art/music/literature/happiness/culture. And it doesn’t come every week like the New Yorker – so there isn’t any guilt because there is actually time to read it.


Where is design going to be in 10 years and how can you use your skills as a designer for a better future? Great read for the designer looking to help those around them.


For someone who needs a refresh to their physical environment and create a clear + sacred space for new creative ideas to emerge.


It’s the perfect calendar for the connoisseur of good design and television. Plus, you’re supporting a local business!


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.

Why Does Brand Consistency Matter?


Last week I was listening to a new podcast called Driven while driving. Amongst simple and practical advice for women business owners, they touched on the importance of brand consistency on all platforms. Not surprisingly, my ears perked up! Too often we think of rebranding as a means to success when in fact, more often, what is needed is a consistent application of the brand you’ve got. At any point, a customer or future customer should be able to pick your marketing or social post from a crowd—from the aesthetics to the voice—your brand should be recognizable, and, more than likely, you’ve got room for improvement.

The hosts of the podcast quoted, “Consistency will improve your brand.” Consistency is a design principle that dramatically affects usability and learning in all systems, including branding and identity. It helps us transfer knowledge to new contexts, focus attention, and learn more quickly.


  • Aesthetic
  • Functional
  • Internal
  • External

Aesthetic consistency is the type most obvious in branding. A brand whose style and appearance is the same (color, photography, graphics) no matter where it appears (Instagram, ads, website), and it sets emotional expectations and becomes a shortcut for recognition and decision-making. For example, Dove ads are easily recognized because the company consistently features women of different shapes, sizes, and skin tones, in nude or white undergarments on all white backdrops. We associate Dove with inspiring women to have the confidence to be comfortable with themselves and showing “Real Beauty,” according to their tagline.

Any parent can tell you how their toddlers can “recognize” brands long before they can actually read. At the age of one, my now toddler was able to recognize the distinctive shape and colors of the Krispy Kreme sign from the road. She cheered as we got closer to them and cried as we passed by without stopping. 

Successful brands also include functional consistency—referring to consistency of action and meaning. Humans require order, and functional consistency provides us with this order. Have you ever had a difficult time finding your way in a New York subway station? In some of the largest train hubs in downtown it would be easy to wind up on the wrong train going uptown instead of downtown. In complex built environments, investing in a wayfinding program is vital because, simply put, when people are lost, money is lost. Functional consistency allows us to leverage existing knowledge about how the design functions. The symbols on my iPhone use the same controls for playing music that my boombox used in the 80s. Such consistency makes the new devices easier to use and learn.

Internal consistency refers to consistency with other elements in the system—your logo is the same online and in print, like signs within a park are consistent with one another. Such internal harmony suggests that the system has been intentionally designed and builds trust with viewers.

External consistency means having the same aesthetic design or performance across multiple systems. External consistency extends the benefits of internal consistency across multiple independent systems. This is difficult to achieve, but fast food companies do this very well. Even technology companies like Microsoft and Apple recognize that it works. You can go to these businesses anywhere in the world and expect to receive the same service, that they will be using the same equipment, and in the same amount of time you will receive the same product.

In branding and design, if standards exist, observe them. If standards don’t exist, create them. Consider aesthetic and functional consistency in all aspects of design. From the book, Universal Principles of Design: “Use aesthetic consistency to establish unique identities that can be easily recognized. Use functional consistency to simplify usability and ease of learning. Ensure that systems are always internally consistent and externally consistent to the greatest degree possible.”