December 7, 2016

Against Branding — Design and Conflict on Design Observer raises an interesting question but is not argued well. With his critique of Amnesty International posters, his issue appears to be consistency or homogeneity of the looks. He says, “While I’m not claiming that there’s no room for consistency in visual identity design, isn’t the uncritical application of any communications methodology asking for trouble?”

If consistency per se is not the problem, he needs to explain why the rebranded versions are “uncritical.” He fails to explain the relationship between consistency and lack of critical analysis. They are not necessarily related. As a branding strategy, it’s possible to deliberately employ inconsistency while being uncritical, and it’s also possible to be consistent while being critical.

His bigger issue appears to be the socio-economic class. Unfortunately here too, he doesn’t explain how exactly branding contributes or perpetuates the problem. The mechanism is not at all clear in his arguments.

For instance, he uses São Paulo as proof that “removing these signs helped reveal the stark poverty of the favelas (urban slums).” But how? He doesn’t explain. In fact, his claim goes counter to his quoting of Barthes. Barthes’ point isn’t that “myths” veil or hide “class division”, but that they normalize it. That is, manipulative branding or advertising can turn a problem into an identity to be embraced. It does not veil or hide “the stark poverty”; it presents the poverty ubiquitously in order to normalize it. It does the opposite of veiling.

In this sense, the aspect of Donald Trump’s branding that needs a critical analysis is not his vodka but his use of baseball caps during the presidential campaign. Baseball cap is a symbol of the rural working class. The 1-percenters like Trump do not wear baseball caps. It was part of the effort to turn the socio-economic plight into an identity, to normalize the income inequality. This is where Barthes’ analysis of myth becomes relevant.

Between the branding strategies used by Trump and Clinton, the latter was decidedly more “corporate.” Take a look at Trump’s baseball cap; it’s decidedly un-corporate. It’s set in a generic serif font and is barely designed. But I would bet that it was a strategic decision NOT to design it well, to keep it looking lowbrow. Clinton’s branding, designed by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, was much more corporate, but its sophistication is also a signifier for the urban elitism that the rural working class detests. Trump’s campaign understood this, and Clinton’s didn’t. In one interview I saw, Michael Moore said he suggested making baseball caps to Clinton’s campaign early on but they ridiculed his idea. He said he realized how out of touch they were with the rural working class then.

What this tells us is that whether your branding campaign looks consistent and corporate has nothing to do with whether you are being critical. Clinton’s campaign was out of touch with the people they claim to fight for. If they are not even aware of their plights, how could they be critical in the first place? Trump’s campaign was at least in touch with their people, and knew how to exploit it using deliberately unsophisticated, un-corporate branding strategies.