Richard Parker
Richard Parker
May 11, 2021 . 3min read

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the homogenisation of design – something one wag has termed ‘blanding’ – and its likely knock-on effect on how well comms work.

Design has always been somewhat trend-driven. From Bauhaus to Rand, there have been leaders who set out the rules for an aesthetic, and acolytes who apply it. But recently it’s all started to feel a bit too much.

We reckon it started with mobile phones and user interface design. When Google (Material Design), Apple (iOS 7) and Microsoft (Windows 8) all embraced the use of simple, two-dimensional elements and bright colours that work better on smaller screens – collectively known as ‘Flat Design’ – around 2013, it wasn’t only UI designers who became acolytes. Gradually all of the tech firms followed suit, modifying not only their UI design, but crucially also their brand marks and entire visual identities. Uber went from a bevelled, metallic, somewhat fascist ‘U’ symbol, to a simple, flat rendering of its name. Airbnb went from fat bubble letters with drop shadow to a simple sans serif font and a flat, abstract shape. More recently, both BMW and Volkswagen out in the real world followed suit. In fact most of the car industry followed suit (problematic when your logo is rendered in actual 3D on the front of your product, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).   

A sea of pineapples, pastels and transparency infected even luxury fashion brands like Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.

At roughly the same time, the competitive online world of Direct To Consumer brands triggered a gold rush that older, more established brands sought to emulate. A sea of pineapples, pastels and transparency infected even luxury fashion brands like Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga all of which modernised their logos in recent years and became barely distinguishable.The old and the new began to merge into a one-size-fits-all Instagram aesthetic.

And to make matters worse, businesses like Canva further homogenise design. Don’t get me wrong, Canva democratises design in a fantastic way. Businesses that previously wouldn’t have known good design if it bit them on the arse (and wouldn’t have paid for it if they did) can now access thousands of templates with design aesthetics they could previously not have dreamed of – and it’s made the world a more beautiful (if less interesting) place.

This is all very well if you’re BMW or Berluti, but not so great if you’re a Johnny-come-lately brand with no real product or service differentiation.

And all of this is all very well if you’re BMW or Berluti and you have years and years of brand equity supporting you. Or if you’re Uber or Airbnb – and you’ve built a brand on being first to market with a truly innovative product and shedloads of earned media. But not so great if you’re a Johnny-come-lately brand with no real product or service differentiation.

Which is a shame. Because it feels like lots of new businesses have jumped on the bandwagon – sans-serif typeface; abstract logo or none at all; direct, straightforward tone of voice – but they just don’t stand out.

Why is this important? Well, Byron Sharp talks a lot about the importance of distinctive assets, which he argues can drive brand salience if combined with clever media spend and the right channel mix. These are triggers; either verbal, visual or auditory, which manage to get the consumer to recognise the brand via a series of subconscious associations. The danger is, by jumping on the homogenous design bandwagon, businesses are making this process harder for themselves.

So, how can brands avoid being ‘bland’ yet still be contemporary and, most importantly, distinctive through comms? Here are some top-line considerations: 

Find the empathetic insight. Understanding every consumer interaction with the brand experience is the base of creating distinctive comms – not just visually but through tone of voice and personality. Understanding exactly how consumers feel when they interact, or might interact, and the opportunity for the brand (what the brand should say, feel and do) are central to authentic communication.

Know your emotion. What is the one emotion you want people to associate with the brand when they interact with it? Often consumers have a positive affiliation with a brand – they might recall positive memories when asked about their experience – yet they aren’t able to articulate why it’s different. Starting with the objective of communicating just one emotion through communication that the brand can be known for will help deliver cut-through.

Have the proof points to back it up. Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with adopting the characteristics of ‘blanding’: minimalistic aesthetic, neutral colour palette and ‘everyday language’ if the brand is able to deliver on the premise through products, customer service, brand promise or social purpose. Just make sure it’s relevant and fits the business.

Ensure it’s in the brand’s handwriting at every touch point. The genius of brands like Apple is consistency. Everything, from the website experience, to customer service to packaging to social media comms is done the ‘Apple way’. While an asset may have the potential to be highly distinctive in the category it will not become a distinctive asset without repetition and the ability to evoke the same feeling over and over again.

One thing’s for sure – zigging when others zag, has long been a directive for success. Stand by it with your visual design and you can’t go far wrong.

Image source: this graphic circulated the web; we found it on Twitter

Richard Parker

Richard Parker

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