Recently, Michael Bierut wrote an article about branding, and our cultural tendency to armchair quarterback design decisions. The first 2700 words (or parts I-IV) poke at populist response to graphic design, during which the piece shifts between sarcastically casting the consumers as a lynch mob to casting designers as arrogant idiots. The last 450 words seem to lament the death of graphic design. That’s part VI, which includes a Vignelli quote that seems to contradict everything in the first chunk.
But it is part V that sparked me to write this response. In Part V – How Many Psychiatrists Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb? – Bierut describes his own experience in redesigning the UPS brand. I appreciate his honesty, because it offers an intimate view into what happens in corporate America. An agency is called in to do some “creative work.” They offer concepts and vision. The work passes through endless meetings and a machine of consensus. If the work is not killed during the process, blanding pops out the other end.
What concerns me is the view of design – and particularly identity design (or branding) – as the hammer, where stagnant consumer growth is the nail, and the need to “change consumer perception” is more important than the need to “change our product offering.” Bierut presents the UPS opportunity as a response to marketing needs. As he describes, “We were hired for a simple reason: surveys kept showing the company was inaccurately perceived as being slower, more inflexible, and less technologically adept than their competition.” Yet there’s nothing simple about this reason, and it begs an even less simple question: if the company was perceived as being slower, more inflexible, and less technologically adept, could it be because they are slower, more inflexible, and less technologically adept?
This is a constant and reoccurring theme in design circles. In the well-publicized Tropicana example that Bierut cites, communications director Jamie Stein initially explained the rebrand: “Our intent was to get people to rediscover the benefits of orange juice.” When UC tried to redesign their identity, the stated goal was to unify the UC system. In the recent American Airlines rebrand, the “new logo and livery are designed to reflect the passion for progress and the soaring spirit…”
But a redesigned logo does not make a broken airline better, and a redesigned logo does not make a tired parcel system more flexible. New paint on the outside of a plane does not offer ergonomic support to flyers, who are forced to sit on a “chair” made of metal rods. It does not empower customer service representatives to help confused, tired, or pissed off customers. It does not make right the countless absurdities of random ticketing and return policies, or baggage fees, or headphone fees, or inflight entertainment fees, or change fees. It does not fix the countless broken interactions that occur within the American Airlines service ecosystem, and it will not fix the poor financial state of the company, which is bleeding money.
Similarly, a new logo does not help UPS better respond to the complexities of their customers, who change their mind and need packages re-routed. A new logo doesn’t help educate people about the nutritional benefits of fruit in their diet. And a new logo doesn’t improve the ability for students to register for classes across the UC system, or help them better manage the complexities of course registration and degree completion, or navigate the bureaucracy of the enormous California college system.
We see example after example of branding as band-aid: a new identity will somehow magically transform a company from broken to fixed, from out of touch to empathetic. It won’t. The cited reason for a rebrand, in each example above, should have been addressed by changes to the actual product, service, and business strategy.
I herald design as one of the most powerful forces of change we have for addressing complicated business and social problems. Part of design is selecting tools, methods, techniques, and approaches that make sense in the context of the problem. Design, like any other discipline, is not “one size fits all.” It is not appropriate for “the masses” to critique the aesthetic of the new design in each case mentioned above, and while predictable, it’s particularly disappointing to see the criticism at such shallow and superficial levels (“it looks like a toilet”; “my two year old could do better.”) But it is entirely fair for those same masses to critique the design strategy in each example, for the design strategy in each example was to put lipstick on a pig.