How I loved going to watch Tottenham Hotspur play at White Hart Lane. I wasn’t a season ticket holder, so all I could afford was the unimportant midweek matches. I’d cycle up High Rd after work and head to the main gate where an usually friendly steward would let me lock my bike on the fence by the players’ parking area. I tried to guess who’s who based on the peacockness of their car. Inside the stadium, it was invariably cold, there was a pick of hot dog or pie, and messages of “Happy birthday, Harry” with sad fireworks on a scoreboard screen that’d make a bowling alley feel like an IMAX.

The thing is, how do you monetize that? It’s a brutal question to mix into my nostalgia cocktail, but while I was out there as a supporter nestled in the quaintness, a commercial team sat elsewhere tasked with keeping pace with a world that won’t wait for them. On the other side of the venn diagram of me watching football on a freezing November evening, there are venture capitalists, oil-rich states, media rights, partnerships, engagement targets, market expansion plans, and all else we know as the modern commercial landscape. The tension is real, often sad, and it’s easy to become the old man yelling at clouds. How could you not?

It’s convenient for me to paint this scene in binary terms–history versus modernity, tradition versus commerce, charm versus heartlessness–but it’s also a bit disingenuous. First of all because I’m a designer, and heaven knows we love to market ourselves as the ones gifted enough to bridge the chasm between these two worlds. But also because it fails to account for the duality of the experience: The game is both between 11 players kicking a ball and global companies vying for financial return. It happens both on the pitch and the spreadsheet.

Likewise, design is both a craft in pursuit of visual excellence and a tool to manufacture value. It becomes a spectator sport every time a global brand unveils their new visual identity. Oh, how could they? What about their history? It looks like that other thing! The game’s gone, mate. I nod hard in righteous agreement, and I take pleasure in reading the reactions just like everyone else. Yes, it looks bland and lazy. Yes, it was iconic. Yes, how can one throw away that rarest of traits, uniqueness? At times, it looks so obviously bad that you wonder how a bunch of smart people came up with it, and on top of that agree it’s a good thing. We’re shouting at players kicking a ball, mourning the loss of something intangible–character, a soul.

Let’s focus on that room with smart people for a second, the ones who’ll sign off the brands that are later fleeced. They’re surrounded by objectives, evidence, and data pointing to a bad situation. They want to rebrand because they are losing ground, their audience isn’t interested anymore, their public image is gone, or they’re struggling to gain traction. To compound that, the slice they want is the largest (naturally).

The currents that lead to the middle ground are strong, demonstrable, and reliable. They’re often operating in the space between what people say they want and what they actually consume. It’s easy to love the mom and pop shop on the corner whilst buying groceries online. Products designed for a target will tend towards sameness and, like it or not, the world is full of people listening to the Top 40 in an SUV.

The romantic story is the one where the company zags, doubles down on what makes it unique, churns the mainstream, and emerges victorious on the other side. Leaders, not followers. They take risks. It’s a nuanced narrative that needs a bit of unpacking.

Firstly, regardless of how average and safe the outcome is, throwing away years of organically built history is a massive risk. In the stereotypical example of the company with an imperfect, calligraphic logo that unveils their new nondescript, frigid version, we’re conditioned to think that because they are doing what everyone else is, there’s no risk involved. But we’re already deep enough into “reblanding” waters for clients and agencies to have an awareness of what they’re doing, and they’ll make the bet they feel is right. It doesn’t mean they’ll get it right–and there’s plenty of bad work out there to prove that–but it’s wrong to assume that there’s no attempt to calculate that risk.

The other thing with history is that it’s easily glorified. Through inertia, a logo that was unimaginative, awkward, and mannerist when conceived decades ago can be quaint, charming, and unique today. Like period buildings in a city, they were once just buildings. So often, the public commentary equates old with good, but when looked at from a contemporary sense of utility, it’s easy to see the temptation to replace these buildings with glass towers that are accessible, energy-efficient, and cheaper to maintain. The question of balancing what’s lost versus what is gained is hard, very hard, and highly dependent on the motivations behind the exercise in the first place. History can be a burden, and living brands have little to gain from becoming relics for our amusement.

That isn’t to say that there’s equal value and consideration in every new bland redesign that hits the market. Whereas some are the result of well-intentioned and qualified stakeholders tackling the difficult job of translating a tired brand for a changed world, others might be opting to belong instead of standing out or simply taking the path of least resistance. Familiarity sells, and it’s worth keeping in mind that successful design agencies are also successful businesses. It’s much easier for companies to part with their money when someone convinces them that they have bottled the solution to brand malaise, and that there’s a linear path to relevancy–that character can be fabricated to a formula, delivered, and measured. In doing so, designers facilitate the conditions for subjectivity, doubt, and oddity to be ironed out of the picture. The problem with the room described earlier is that everything in it was factual.

By all accounts, the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is a marvel. It has craft breweries, lounges, a sky walk, and two pitches stacked on top of each other, unlocking all sorts of commercial partnerships that see the club host NFL games and Beyoncé concerts. It’s a commercial triumph, a thematic airport paved with aggregated concrete embedded with the ruins of the old White Hart Lane. History box, tick. I don’t live in London anymore, so I’m yet to visit. I suspect I’ll feel sad and mesmerized, but that’s the thing with working in an area where you’re responsible for shepherding intangibles into a performance-oriented future: It’s disorienting.

Cover source: Devitaayu