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June, 2012

I hear that all the time when reviewing design. I also hear, “we’ve shown this around and everyone really, really likes it” even if the communication is not what we would consider on-brand.

But design, especially in the realm of corporate identity and branding is not a subjective enterprise. It is not a simple matter of personal taste. In many cases, we have to check our taste at the door, so to speak, when talking about such matters.

There are 3 aspects of design I want to consider here and show how none of these core aspects of corporate identity and branding can be reduced to mere subjective whim.

1. Design is a Discipline.
Today, graphic design is not the realm of self-proclaimed individual practitioners. It is a profession requiring years of study. Design has a history. While many may feel it begins with Gutenberg, one could easily cite far earlier cave paintings as its source. Every graphic expression does not occur in a void, but in a historical continuum and engages this history of mark making communication. Designers are trained to be aware of this.

Designers do not spring from nowhere; they attend design schools with rugged curricula that prepares them for a career as a professional communicator. Classes in composition, the technical history of typographic forms, classic design categories such as emphasis and restraint, organic vs. structure, scale, weight, traditional vs. modern, color theory, and more.

They attend accredited institutions taught by professional practitioners.

And there are professional organizations, such as the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) who is committed to “advancing design as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force.” The AIGA is a national design advocate with 22,000 members in the U.S. It seeks to serve its community through the sharing of best practices, inspiring designers through on-line galleries, profiles, videos and exhibits. Further, it demonstrates the value and power of design to the public and business leaders.

Then there are design competitions where contemporary design work is submitted to various panels of industry illuminati for judging and awards.

What should become clear from all this is that design is an institution. It has a history, it is a discipline studied at the university level that result in degrees from accredited institutions, it has professional organizations and highlights and shares work with the design community through award programs. It has heated debates about contemporary design issues through the multitude of design blogs now on-line>

So, it sounds like design isn’t a subjective endeavor. Rather it is a profession of educated individuals acting within a history as a community.

2. Corporate Identity and B
randing is a Strategic Endeavor
The development of a graphic identity system for a corporation is far from the idiosyncratic whims of a designer. Brand agencies start with rigorous research of brand equity. They delve into corporate strategy They  consider brand architecture. They develop positioning. All this happens before a designer even gets involved.

What this means, is that design is a strategic discipline. Design gives visual expression to a pre-defined strategic goal. Our design system at SAP was built from this kind of groundwork. Every element in it was a strategic decision, from our color palette, typography, grid system, photography through our point of view and visual vocabulary for displaying information and data. All link back to our corporate goals.

This isn’t to say it is a mechanical process or lacks creativity. What it means is that the designer brings their creative insight, determined by their education and participation in a community of graphic designers informed through professional organizations, awareness of design competitions and general dialog with design communities, to a concrete set of issues laid out from a process of research in line with a corporate strategy.

Again, when considering all the work that goes into the development of a corporate identity and brand system, it would be unfair to dismiss the decisions made as subjective.

3. Our SAP design system is objectively determined.
When our board adopted our current identity system back in the fall of 2011, in effect, it became law. In this sense, the system is objective. The board has announced this will be our system of visual representation of the corporation moving forward. It may mature over time, it may be tweaked, it will alter its expression according to context and media, but all that will occur without disrupting the core elements of the system.

I know this may all sound harsh to many readers. No one likes one’s personal opinions and tastes to be devalued. But there are situations that are beyond our taste and personal preferences. As for myself, everyday I have to step outside of my own likes and dislikes and act as an unwavering advocate for the SAP brand. It’s easy to do because I understand the strategic goals involved and see how our identity/brand system coherently reinforces and communicates those goals to our audiences. And I see validation in this approach when I see our system winning mention in competitions such as Rebrand 100 Global Awards and brand evaluation studies such as Interbrand’s Best Global Brands report where SAP is ranked 26 among global brands. These are the opinions I find most compelling . . .