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Reflections from a brand strategist

We wanted to initiate this editorial journey with a story about the ultimate reason why we do what we do giving it all, everyday. It summarizes the process through which we came to the conclusion that strategy is key. No matter how big (or how small) is your project…

If you’re anything like me, when a client hires you to do a job, you try your absolutely hardest to produce the best work possible. And then you hand things off and hope for the best. Early on in my career I pretty much only knew how to work the computer programs. I had zero business experience and no experience designing identity systems. But somebody hired me to set up a design system for them. So I did my best. I delivered the project. I got paid. And then pretty much forgot about it for a year or two.

The next time I saw that brand, its visuals (logo, typeface, imaging) were butchered. It was a fall day in Milan and the leaves had turned bright orange and red and the air was crisp. Autumn is my favorite season. And I just remember being in such a great mood. I was driving down the “circonvallazione” at 20 miles an hour with the windows down. And all of a sudden this billboard zoomed by!

Normally we don’t pay attention to these things, we tune them out. But this one caught my eye. And it caught my eye because there, for the entire world to see, was the brand I’ve been working on for so many hours, and with such great passion!

Whoever put that billboard together made some terrible decisions. Bevel and emboss on the logo? Sure. Weird color and a busy background? Why not? Drop shadow on text? Well, hey, it’s got to be legible. Make the logo bigger? Nessun problema! By the time they were done with it, you could barely recognize the brand.

Now we like to bash clients for this stuff. It’s fun. It’s easy. But it’s not exactly the right thing to do. See, I called the client and I walked him through why this wasn’t good. He had a small business and he trusted the billboard company with the design. And the surprising thing is he didn’t initially see anything wrong with what happened. He had no idea. And why would he? He’s in retail. He’s not a designer. He didn’t see things the same way I did. No one taught him how to see. And that’s when the epiphany happened. See, I didn’t set him up for success. I didn’t give him the information that he needed to make visual design decisions for his brand in the future. I just sent him the pdf file and said, “Thanks.” And that’s it.

Now, I’m sure you know this already, but for those of you who don’t, what I learned is that whenever we hand work over to our clients, we need to give them an instruction manual. This is especially important for branding projects. But the same thing applies for anything that we make for other people. So think back onto your last projects. Did you truly set your company up for success? Is your entire team all speaking the same visual language? Are you being clear with your vendors about your brand? This is something worth thinking about, because you might find your brand in a situation like the one just described. Seeing your brand out in the wild is a nightmare, especially if you had done some work to define your strategy and then it gets twisted and ruined as soon as you brief somebody new about you next project.

The moral of this story is simple: you don’t want to underestimate the power of strategy and planning, because, to put it with Michael Jordan words, “It starts with hard work, it ends with champange”: with branding you want to define a strategy before anything else, then set it in stone, and then move on. This reminds me of another famous quote, that shapes our company vision like no other, I’ll leave you with it: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe” (Abraham Lincoln)