Category Archives: Brand Identity

What’s With All The Fake Authenticity?

There is something oddly ironic about taking a picture with an 8-megapixel smartphone and then using software to make it look like it was taken 40 years ago with my dad’s Kodak Instamatic 100 camera. These faux-vintage photos are all the rage at the moment and part of a larger trend of what might be called Inauthentic Authenticity.

What’s doubly ironic about these photos, created with Hipstamatic or Instagram apps, is they appear to be actual analog photos, faded, contrasty, scratched, and worn around the edges; they look like physical photos but don’t actually exist in the physical world. They’re still digital photos being viewed in a digital space.

And if you’ll indulge me in a triple irony: these nostalgic-inducing, faux-vintage photos are most popular with a generation of young people who have never even known photos that look like this so it isn’t even their own nostalgia they’re inducing. Now I’m dripping in irony.

Stores like J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, et al., sell fake antiques that seem strangely anachronistic in the 21st century. Following their advice on how to decorate your apartment would make it look more like a movie set than a place to live. Products include rusted, pre-dented toolboxes and new-but-old-looking children’s record players ($170). There are even library card catalog drawers for sale. Again with the irony, marketed to young people who have never even seen an actual card catalog, let alone ever used one. What’s next, the hoop skirt?

I was in the mall the other day and wandered into Buckle, the “on-trend fashion clothing” store. It looked like a second-hand thrift store. Pre-scuffed boots and faded, torn, and otherwise destructed clothes made to look like they were within a thread of disintegrating. These new, patched, pre-torn jeans have the look that says, “Oh these? Yeah, I wore them out while backpacking through Europe last summer,” but were really bought last Tuesday at the mall. One no longer has to be authentic as long as one looks authentic. It’s like buying your own street cred.

In the interest of full disclosure: I bought this retro-looking telephone at Crate & Barrel a few years ago. Yes, it was so charmingly nostalgic. And I confess that I have pre-washed jeans. But this current clothing aesthetic, the affectation of dressing from head to toe in carefully crafted pre-worn rags, begs the comparison to what we in the 80s called “poseurs.” They were the wannabes who copied the look and dress of punkers and heavy metal fans in order to gain acceptance but who didn’t share the philosophy of those groups. Today’s pejorative term would be “hipsters.” To quote Douglas Haddow on the blog Adbusters, “(these are) a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.”

My thesis of this article is that this fake authenticity trend contributes nothing to furthering new design aesthetics. Two good examples of borrowing designs from the past but updating those designs for the present are the MINI Cooper and the FIAT 500. Both cars took their inspiration from the original designs, keeping their spirit, but reinterpreted them with a modern sensibility. They didn’t just manufacture new-but-old-looking MINI Coopers and FIATS, which might have had a certain charm but would never have caught on in popularity like a modern take on the original. These new cars seem fresh and vibrant, not cartoonish copies of the past.

Fake old photos, fake antiques, fake old clothing. This fake authenticity is nothing new. I remember learning in an architectural history class in college about Victorian “follies,” or what was known as the cult of ruins. In the 19th century it became fashionable for wealthy landowners, inspired by their grand tours of Europe, to build ruins of ancient Greek temples or Gothic abbeys on their property. These moss-covered faux-ruined structures were considered objects of reflection meant to elicit deep emotions. They symbolized their owners’ sophistication and knowledge of other cultures.

Many cultural movements throughout history have been reactions to larger cultural shifts that propel societies ahead faster than many wish them to go. Romanticism grew out of a rejection of The Enlightenment; the Arts & Crafts Movement a revolt against the Industrial Revolution; the Beat Generation and Hippie counterculture a protest of post-war societal conformity. I wouldn’t call fake authenticity a new cultural movement — it might be symptomatic of  Post Post-Modernism, which itself is a reaction to a previous movement — but it may be a reaction to the precipitous changes brought about by the rise of new technology (personal computer/smartphone/internet).  Or it may not. Those more qualified than I will eventually decide.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Starbucks for an inauthentically authentic European espresso bar experience.

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Why Do All New Cars Look Alike?

I look around and all I see is the same car. A different tail light here, different door handle there, but essentially they’re all alike. I can’t tell a Honda from a Lexus from a Chrysler without looking at the logos. As a designer my first thought is, can’t anyone design something different? I mean, where’s the personality? I am forever seeing ads touting “aggressive new styling.” When was the last time you saw an aggressively new styled car?

I did some research and read that a lot of what drives new car design is aerodynamics. Okay, granted, to be more fuel efficient designers strive to decrease wind resistance as much as possible, but come on. I couldn’t imagine that there was so little room in the wind tunnel for differentiation that they all had to be so much alike.

I was skeptical of this aerodynamic silhouette claim, not that I didn’t believe in the science, but I wondered how much influence it had on the actual design. So I chose eight cars at random (no lie) from the internet as my representative sample. I traced the silhouettes of all eight cars, in different colors, and superimposed them and was SHOCKED at how closely they matched. These lines are the actual silhouettes of the eight cars pictured.

Secondly, I know that product and package designers face consumer resistance when designing anything new or innovative. For years laundry detergent came in powdered form in big boxes. When liquid laundry detergent first appeared on the market the response was: outrageous, laughable, weird. Automotive design is no less immune and is prone to follow established convention when it comes to designs the consumer is familiar with, willing to spend $25K+ on and something they are willing to park in their driveway without the neighbors snickering.

In 1934 Chrysler took a gamble and introduced the Chrysler Airflow and its lower priced counterpart, the DeSoto Airflow. Not only did the radically new designed Airflow lead the way in terms of aerodynamics (or “streamlining” as it was then called), it was the first mass-market car in the world to use the “modern” bodyframe architecture that has now become standard. However, as modern as the Airflow was, it wasn’t accepted by the buying public and the car was only in production for four years. The public was simply not ready for such a major change in automobile design. Chrysler must still be given credit for continuing with innovative design with their PT Cruiser, Crossfire and 300 Series.

There are some current exceptions in this play-it-safe world, with a few cars, the Mini Cooper, Nissan Cube and Scion iQ (ala Smart Car) as examples, that are targeted to younger consumers who are more willing to accept new ideas. But my feeling is that to appeal to a broader audience and decrease the risk of consumer rejection, especially in a recession, auto manufacturers will continue to play it safe and design cars that conform to current trends.

Wondering what the eight cars are: Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Genesis, Honda Accord, Chevy Cruze, Audi A4, Lexus LS.

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The Power of Color in Brand Recognition

I was on vacation in Egypt years ago — long before the Arab Spring threw the country into chaos — and noticed a sign above a storefront in Cairo advertising products I instantly recognized. I don’t read Arabic, of course, and there was no English translation on the sign like one might see in a train station — the dominant language large and prominent and the alternate languages appearing below, much smaller, but always viewed with great appreciation by foreigners traveling abroad.

What amazed me was the power the brand colors possessed in communicating their identities without the use of language or even graphics. How was it possible for me to identify the sign as advertisements for, from left to right, Sprite, Fanta and Coca-Cola, without a moment’s hesitation? Did you guess the same thing? I first thought that maybe it was the logos, but there really aren’t any discernible logos for these products. It wasn’t words or even photos of the product, it was the use of color, solid, bold and used edge-to-edge with the “type” knocked out from the background. Consistent use of color schemes build brand recall. Don’t believe me? Look at the same photo below in black and white and tell me if it’s even recognizable.

Color is one of the most important components in creating brand identity. Color is the first element the mind sees and the last it forgets. Walk down the laundry soap aisle of the grocery store looking for Tide. Do you look for the logo? The bottle shape? No, you look for orange. It’s color first. In the Three Zones of Merchandising (12 ft., 3 ft. and 1 ft.), product recognition starts at 12 ft. away with color recognition (Tide, that’s orange). Next comes the 3 ft. Zone, which is product differentiation (I’m looking for the Tide with stain release). Finally, picking up the product, the 1 ft. Zone is for inspection of the label, if needed, to read ingredients, features, ounces, etc. This is why every brand spends millions of dollars owning its own unique color and reinforcing that color in the mind of the consumer. However, color choice should be appropriate to its product sector. Choose a novel color not usually associated with a product and consumers may reject it as inauthentic, cheap or too avant-garde. Read my article, A Cereal Package Design Blunder for an example of this.

As you flip through a magazine, go through your mail, or browse the grocery store aisle, take note of how brands use the power of color to differentiate themselves from the competition. Observe how color is used in the marketing of products and services and note how often you use brand color recognition when choosing those products and services.

To illustrate, most of you would recognize the brands pictured below, even though only a portion of the logo is visible. *

*Left to right: BP, Coca-Cola, UPS, Best Buy, Citibank, Starbucks and Pepsi.

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