As a follow-up to Tim Hill’s three-part look at the role of design within branding, Tim calls upon the expertise of Fred Richards, Worldwide Creative Director at Brand Union, to talk about the use of semiotics in more detail.

When you boil it down to its core, design is all about problem-solving. Great design makes you smile because it’s simple, pure and fun. It confirms that the designer truly understood the problem at hand and delivered a solution that resonates with the consumer.

High profile marketing faux pas quickly remind us that it’s not so easy. Just mentioning Tropicana and The Gap is enough to make marketers shudder with fear. And thanks to the speed and ease of communication today, consumers are quick to respond negatively.

So what can we do? More and more designers look to semiotics to convey layers of meaning in a simple and memorable way. Consideration of how people interpret meaning from signs and symbols is a smart way to explore untapped areas of opportunity. Additionally, it allows us to identify how decisions on colours, symbols and shapes will be received. In an increasingly international marketplace, this takes on even more importance.

At our core, we are a reflective species. We map the world around us and reflect what we see to provide a sense of order. Similar principles apply to the design process. We start by observing, synthesising, and then organising to give meaning to the things we see in a particular category. Once we understand the landscape, we can define our approach. The goal is to create core assets that not only identify the brand, but also effectively express the brand experience, regardless of the medium.

The inclusion of colour theory in branding has been around for some time. It’s interesting to consider its roots and how to leverage it in a new way. Newborns see only black, white and gray. As their colour vision begins to develop, babies see red first. This stimulating colour is known to increase the heart rate, so it’s no wonder that red is one of the most arresting colours in communications. Blue, with its association to the sky and sea, feels soothing and therefore conveys trust. Referencing the wasp, black and yellow convey danger, so it makes sense that brands like DeWALT and CAT started using these colours — while Dyson is a successful example of using similar design cues in a completely different type of category to support efforts to appeal to men.

In certain categories, whether intentionally or coincidentally, there are some unwritten rules at play that help define the category and aid the consumer in navigating from product to product. Obviously the objective and benefit is to prevent consumers from smearing Spackle on their ham sandwich. Category conventions often go beyond just colours and symbols, to structure and information architecture. Reviewing beer bottles on the shelf, you’ll quickly notice commonalities, often including a similar shaped bottle and a banner of some sort highlighting the logo across the middle of the label, with secondary information circling around it.

Even though category conventions are hard at work, they are not necessarily set in stone. While it remains hugely important to understand these category conventions, it’s key to do something different enough to stand out. Looking at logos across the airline industry would lead one to wonder if any other ways to convey flight, besides the wings of a bird, even exist. There is a huge opportunity to avoid the cliché and stand out.

Every situation is unique and, once we understand the current category landscape, the strategic questions remains:  When do we follow the category rules, define them in a new way, or totally disrupt them? This interplay between left-brain and right-brain thinking is an opportunity for tight collaboration to spark creativity. The goal is to create positive moments of interaction and memorable brand experiences that consumers will want to pass on to others.