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The Branding Secret

by Kelly Hobkirk

Psst, lean your shoulder in. I’m going to tell you a big branding secret that graphic designers and branding firms (like ours) keep safely tucked away in their minds, away from clients, away from you. Are ready? Here it is: There’s no such thing as branding. We made it up. We talk about it, promote it, teach you all about it, and do the powerfully inspiring work of defining the core character of your company that is branding. But yeah, branding doesn’t exist.

How can that be? Well, I’ll tell you.

When graphic design was in its infant years, it was all hand-painted, hand-drawn, and personal. It was the craft of artists, and as with nearly any artists trying to carve out a living, it was by no stretch of the imagination a way to earn a good living. People got by, did okay, but they were never considered professionals in the way that a doctor or lawyer might be, and they put in long hours to barely eek out enough to eat and pay the rent (and sometimes they couldn’t). There were a handful of good designers back then, and many average ones (a lot like now).

So how do you make a struggling existence into a comfortable, highly profitable one? You create branding. You might think that just saying, “We specialize in branding,” wouldn’t be enough to allow a graphic design firm to succeed at branding. The truth is, merely saying it is enough, and here’s why: relatively few businesspeople (and few graphic designers) actually know what branding is.

How can that be? Think about this for a second: If I ask you, ‘What is scorting?‘ How would you answer? You can’t provide an intelligent answer because you don’t know what it is. But I made it up, so I can describe it however I like. If I describe the service well enough, really sell you on it, your business will have to do it because you will know that all of your competitors are doing it too. It’s just like branding, except that branding has been in business vernacular long enough that it now has taken on meaning.

Where did branding start? On cows, literally. Cattle ranchers branded their cattle with a mark (well, they burned a scar with a hot iron) to show which cows were theirs and protect ’em from rustlers. Then, along came business savvy (hungry) graphic designers who adopted the practice for businesses (except we used ink and now computers).

Branding has created a separate category for design firms, and those of us who took up the challenge to do it well made a better living. We helped businesses connect better and prosper. But if we never promoted branding as a service, people would not ask for it. What they ask for is design. They know design is art, and art is valuable. But branding? What is that?

If I say the word ‘branding’ now, savvy business people know that it is the process of developing their brand. But most people—business people and designers alike—still do not know what branding means. So we teach, inspire, and connect the thoughts.

To many people, branding is a logo. For others, it’s advertising. Some people know branding is about laying the groundwork for how people will receive your brand, your company, or products. Some people think branding is a one-time proposition, while others think of it as something they do every day. Some people refer to their brand as branding.

Here’s the kicker though. Even though the design industry made it up, branding works. If it did not work, you would never have heard of Apple or Starbucks or Nike. There would be no such thing as category leaders because there would be nothing to categorize. You would not know about Wal-mart or Best Buy or Crate & Barrel. Without branding, your laptop or smartphone would not greet you with an Apple or Windows or Android logo. You would never have heard of Google. Chiquita would just be a banana. And all the smaller brands that earn a place in your day wouldn’t be there either.

Even though branding as a practice was made up, it works when it’s true. As with nearly everything else in our lives, your brand has meaning because people attach significance to it. They do that when every ounce of your brand is true. And that’s the real secret.

Want to know more about branding? Read on:
The important difference between brands and branding
Branding in 5 minutes a day
How to have a standout brand

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • January 17, 2013 • Tags: ,,,

On waiting for inspiration

by Kelly Hobkirk

Graphic designers are often stereotyped as emotional artists, waiting for inspiration to strike to fuel brilliant ideas. For many, I suppose it’s accurate, otherwise the stereotype would not have come to be. Most times, however, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Instead we have strategy development and design processes that manifest inspiration seemingly at will.

People ask, ‘What inspires you?’ Many things inspire me. Fractals, photosynthesis, children, animal nature, reading, thoughts, dreams, people.

People ask me how I developed my strategic process? Mostly, I developed it by listening to people. Hillman Curtis wrote a great piece about strategy in his MTIV book some years back. I recall seeing how similar it was to my own process. He put a visual to it that made sense, so I added that.

Listening to people talk about their vision reveals patterns over time, from which I’ve devised strategy development processes. I try tweaking them slightly once every year or two, and always change them on the fly to meet the needs of each client. Strategy is my most inspiring tool.

Without the people, though, I would have no need for strategy. You can’t use one without the other. Fortunately, people often come equipped with a sense of purpose, and strategy is the first step on the way to fulfilling that purpose. Once we do a session, we can begin writing and designing something great that helps them reach their goals.

If I had to wait for inspiration to clobber me in order to proceed on any given project, I would have long ago croaked from the waiting. Instead, I employ strategy to manifest inspiration.

Graphic design is driven by inspiration, but inspiration driven by artistic sense has little value in business. Graphic design has the power to infuse marketing with a visually compelling sense of purpose. But business can’t wait for inspiration to strike. We have to manifest inspiration to keep pace with business needs.

Waiting for inspiration inspires, well, waiting. Strategy, on the other hand, inspires great work. What inspires you?

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • November 7, 2012 • Tags: ,

Do you understand Graphic Design?

by Kelly Hobkirk

Say you’ve just started a business, or you’re a marketing manager. You have a unique idea or approach, the inspiration to give your idea wings, and the motivation to make it happen. You know you need to promote, so you will need graphic design and web design. For many business owners, this is the point where things get either complicated, difficult or confusing. But you can keep it simple, armed with just a tiny bit of understanding about graphic design. In fact, knowing too much might make it more complicated than it needs to be.

4 Things to know about graphic design

The first thing you need to know is that business graphic design is never about making things look pretty. If that’s the focus, the design will fail. This might sound like an odd thing to say, but you would be amazed at how often people say that’s why they need a graphic designer– “to make it look pretty.” What you need is graphically rich, smartly-designed strategic communications, the kind a talented graphic designer can deliver.

To put this in a more positive frame, good graphic design is strategically sound. As a graphic designer, it’s my job to discover a complex set of variables and craft a unique, easy-to-understand design that embodies a brand, product or communication need.

The second thing you ought to know is that design is always purposeful. If your graphic design lacks purpose, the final design will appeal to people who lack purpose. That is, it will appeal to no one. Tell me, who do you know that lacks purpose when making a buying decision?

The third thing you need to know is that there are no shortcuts in graphic design. Software does not make you a graphic designer, and in most cases, it simply makes poor design, lacking the aforementioned strategy and purpose, much easier (which is kind of scary, considering the budgets required for graphic design). Skipping any of the preliminary steps in graphic design invariably results in boring or ugly or off-target design. Taking shortcuts will surely lead to failure. Processes exist because they work. A good graphic design process leads to success.

Probably the most important thing to know about graphic design is that good design strikes an almost magical balance between what you like and what appeals to your ideal customers. I’ve heard of graphic design that appeals solely to customers, but I believe that type of design leads people and companies to misery. You must like everything you send out the door because it represents you. If you don’t like it, what does it say about you? On the other hand, if you thoroughly like your brand and all of the graphic design solutions used to embody your brand in your marketing, you can be proud of everything you put out into the world. And that’s really what design does. Graphic design helps people communicate complex ideas in seemingly simple ways.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 19, 2012 • Tags:

“I’m not an artist”

by Kelly Hobkirk

The client hands me chicken scratch on a napkin, and I’m fine with that. He apologizes for it with, “I’m no artist,” but it doesn’t matter. There is brilliance in the idea, just waiting to be discovered, polished and promoted. And I’m the lucky guy who gets to help him do it.

“I’m not an artist,” she says, before explaining her inspiring idea, “So I can’t draw it.” It’s okay, I am an artist, and it’s why she has me there. But she is an artist too, just not a visual artist.

People frequently apologize for their lack of drawing skill. It reminds me of my mom apologizing just before serving a home-cooked meal. “This isn’t very good,” she’ll say, but of course it’s delicious.

Clients would be amazed at how many designers can’t actually draw. (I’ll admit, I think good graphic designers make an effort to learn to draw.) I can draw and I thoroughly enjoy it, but drawing is not a requirement for being an artist.

We’re not here to be superior to our clients. We’re here to help them communicate who they are, what they do, about their amazing approach or offering, what they stand for and why anyone should care. And we love it.

Yes, we’re artists, but so is most of everyone else on the planet. From the guy who designs and manufactures sustainable furniture to the doctor (of any modality) who makes connections that solve medical mysteries to the woman who helps more people ride bicycles, they’re all artists in their own right. Can they draw? Maybe not on paper, but they can draw in their minds, formulate ideas that change our reality, improve lives and inspire greatness in others. That’s art, all of it.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 17, 2012 • Tags:

More about trusting your graphic designer

by Kelly Hobkirk

What makes trusting the work of a graphic designer so darned hard is the very nature of the work they do, which often must counter what management thinks ought to be done if it’s to be effective. The graphic designer brings the needed objectivity often lacking at the management level of businesses (large and small alike) to make your marketing communications work.

Trust the objectivity, work together on strategy, and you get inspired creative that fuels great marketing communications.

How do graphic designers gain your trust? Listening is key, but so too is aligning themselves with employers or clients who give them the freedom them to do outstanding work. And as much as it chaps upper management’s hide, good graphic designers have to maintain outside objectivity. That means they can’t be squished to fit the corporate cookie-cutter, which often makes your graphic designer stand out like the rogue entity they are.

That’s why you hire a graphic designer. We know how to stand out. We bring originality to your marketing and objectivity to your team. Graphic designers help you gain the long-term trust and loyalty of prospective customers. Sound appealing?

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 6, 2012 • Tags:

How to trust your graphic designer

by Kelly Hobkirk

Ever notice how all nearly businesses have either an in-house graphic designer or they work with a freelance designer or design firm? So you recognize the necessity. It’s not a big leap to extend your trust in the same way you do to other critical team members.

Since graphic designers and copywriters are typically not board-certified (there is no such thing in the industry), clients and some bosses look down on them, telling them what to do and how to do it, often without regard for how their (micro) management may negatively effect the outcomes.

The truth is graphic designers (and copywriters too) are just as critical to product or business success as salespeople, attorneys and accountants. Graphic designers are a critical cog in the team.

Consider how your advertising, interactive and marketing communications might suffer if the warehouseman or sales team did them. If the thought scares you, place your trust in your graphic design professional.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 4, 2012 • Tags: