Corporate Design is dead, long live Corporate Design!
For more than a quarter of a century, the Corporate Design Prize has honored outstanding brand and corporate identities. Of course, the judges on the panel sometimes have heated discussions – not only about the quality of the work itself, but also about what the criteria for good corporate design are. This is because the framework conditions and requirements have changed again and again over the years. Traditionally, corporate design stood for the entire visual appearance of a company. The more uniform and self-similar the appearance remained across all points of contact with the brand, the better. Of course, consistency requires rules to which the design can orient itself. That's why the panel of judges frequently discusses whether submissions might have too few rules. And if the submission does not include a comprehensive set of design guidelines, the question becomes how to recognize the rules behind the design. We sometimes ask ourselves: Is corporate design without rules really corporate design?
I'm pretty sure the issue of rules is no longer the most essential aspect. Because corporate design is currently in a phase of upheaval. On the one hand, there is the world of social institutions, organizations, manufactories, and small businesses, all of which use a manageable amount of media. They generally don't need much more for a functioning corporate design than a good, inspiring logo idea, a website and a poster. The high-quality work being done for them is often artistic, sometimes radical, and generally exhibits a loving eye for detail as well as a focus on creativity.
On the other hand, however, there is the world of large corporations and international corporations, which need a consistent appearance worldwide. They struggle with a huge number of formats and adaptations that are practically impossible to handle. New questions arise more and more frequently, and corporate design has to respond to them. Whereas yesterday the challenge was to be recognizable on a Smartwatch, today the question is how the brand speaks in voice interfaces or behaves on TikTok.
What small and large projects have in common is that increasingly, no set of rules can provide all the necessary answers. Small projects are so manageable that they do not require a comprehensive manual, while the large ones are too complex for a manual to be comprehensive and user-friendly at the same time. In the end, there's little chance you can just turn to page 289 of the guidelines to find the current dimensions for advertising formats on WeChat that you need for your colleagues in China.
When it comes to developing complex visual appearances for global brands, I have observed that our industry is looking for new terms that reflect the complexity of the requirements and could replace the rulebooks and basic elements we have all become so familiar with. We talk more and more about visual codes, modular design assets, design systems involving atoms, molecules and elements. Our work becomes Creative Coding. And the design? In the future, it will be handled by artificial intelligence as an automated or generative process.
All this seems necessary because the visual manifestations of large companies have increased. Digital communication with its manifold channels has increased the complexity of design. Design has to be able to function on a variety of devices – from a 16x16-pixel "favicon" to banners in any conceivable extreme format. Layout systems have been stretched to absurdity. The content and individual elements, such as a brand icon, logo, colors, font and image worlds, all play a more important role, but the combination of these elements is often rather random. In addition, functional requirements such as readability, accessibility or the supposedly "intuitive" navigation behavior mean that the digital appearances of different brands are visually converging.
Under these conditions, what possibilities are there to achieve independence, distinctiveness and recognizability in the appearance of companies and brands? I am convinced that Corporates Designers are the best consultants to answer this question – because our discipline represents the interface of the brand point of view with the user point of view. We can help companies align themselves with user needs – and warn them if they run the risk of diluting their brand values with short-lived design trends.
Paradoxically, however, there seems to be a certain tradition of not seeking the advice of corporate designers. When traditional advertising agencies used to develop campaigns, you could be happy if they at least used the right logo. They weren't much interested in corporate design rules. The reasoning was always the same: The ad campaign did not work within the tight corporate design corset, and needed freedom to present the communication idea convincingly. I often came up against ignorance and intransigence rather than a willingness to try following the rules and see if it could work. But because advertising budgets were significantly higher than those for corporate design, the traditional advertising agencies usually won out in the end.
Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. Digital channels with their products and appearances are developed by web designers. The content comes first, corporate design plays no role, prototypes are quickly developed. Those responsible for corporate design are usually the last to know about the new developments and can no longer influence them.
Just to be clear, I'm not laying the blame on colleagues from other design disciplines. I also don't intend to complain about the fact that corporate designers are not included. Instead, I want us to ask ourselves what we can do to be perceived and appreciated as a relevant partner. How should we align ourselves and our work in order to be able to bring our expertise into the design process in the best possible way? Although this list is by no means complete, I can think of six aspects I'm sure we will need to use with confidence in the future – and which will help all partners understand and organize the new complexity of the appearance of companies and products:
Co-creation right from the start
Flexibility in design and the renunciation of rules must be compensated by a genuine understanding of the brand and its values. The best way to do this is in direct personal contact with all the trades that shape the image of a brand. To work together, to experiment, to discuss. Co-creation with clients and agency partners as well as training and workshops with brand users have proven themselves valuable instruments in the collaborative design process. As corporate designers, we must offer ourselves as partners and bundle the requirements and results, so the company can achieve efficiency in development. It is important to be involved at the beginning of the communication process. Only then can all developments be intelligently linked with each other.
Focus on the brand idea
What can we learn from the fact that visual appearances are converging and attempting to conform to learned patterns? First and foremost, in my opinion, we need to focus more on the basic idea of a brand – before we even begin to develop communication channels. Instead of "Digital First", we should ask what makes the brand unique, regardless of the channel it serves.
Object-oriented design systems
Conventional, strictly defined layout systems will play a lesser role in the future. Instead, our task as corporate designers is to define the relationship between the individual design elements. We need to move away from looking at individual formats and instead define the context of the elements as freely scalable. This requires abstraction skills, but forms the basis for being able to automate design processes in the future.
For many years we were used to thinking in a brand-centered way. This is logical, because in most cases our clients are companies who expect us to apply a corporate design that is consistent with the brand. For some years now, however, the perspective has been turning. Companies are looking at their customers, their different usage situations and how their own offerings can be relevant in different contexts. As corporate designers, we must develop solutions for brands that make it possible to adapt to these different scenarios – while at the same time remaining unmistakable.
Variable design elements
The surfeit of different formats, media and usage situations makes it necessary for brands to constantly adapt their design elements to new contexts. When we, as corporate designers, ask for the brand idea, we also have to provide concepts for how it can best be used in the respective, specific application. The solution may well require questioning received dogma. Colors, fonts, key visuals, even the logo – everything can be responsive.
In the past, we as designers have often dealt with the question of how companies can transfer their brand appearances into the digital world. We have also seen new, purely digital brands emerge, which today are among the most valuable companies in the world. And yet, digital is not everything; analogue brand experiences still have the power to inspire people. There are good reasons why some digital media are publishing printed versions of content, and why online shops occasionally pop up in shopping malls. Consumers will continue to make concrete purchase decisions in the retail and supermarket sectors, so a direct and genuine experience is still important. And the experience should appeal to all the senses. As corporate designers, we therefore also advise on the brand-appropriate use of sound, haptics and fragrances.
Our discipline is therefore in an exciting phase and must solve a wide variety of challenges. The Corporate Design Award provides an exciting overview of how brands and designers can successfully achieve this. This year's Grand Prix winner, the visual identity of Munich Leukemia Laboratory (MLL), designed by KMS Team, is an outstanding example in which I recognize many of the aforementioned requirements. It translates the topic of the blood cell into a simple red dot, which serves as the starting point for the entire further design. The corporate design is consistently responsive and variable; the point is an atom that can be used to create an entire cosmos. The resulting possibilities are limitless – and yet always brand-appropriate. Such a small laboratory pursuing such a big idea is a fascinating piece of corporate design poetry.