Corporate design

More on the number 1 communication factor.

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Corporate design is an expression of the company’s character

Just as you can’t not communicate, you can’t not show what you’re like. This applies to individuals, as well as to corporations and organisations, i.e. including companies.

You always have some form of style. In this sense, every company embraces some form of corporate design. The only question is whether or not it’s good, coherent, consistent and whether it is adhered to. In good advertising terms: whether it is well-lived.

But if it is well-lived, then corporate design is the number one success factor for the entirety of corporate communication.

Good corporate design is not a corset, but rather a framework.

The term corporate design – to get the ball rolling – is understood as a holistic expression of a company’s visual appearance. Every material, designable form in which a company chooses to present itself is an expression of a more or less consciously developed and adopted corporate design.

Be it products, information material for offline or online marketing, be it locations, branch offices, guidance systems and, of course, business equipment. Only in certain instances may it simply not be apparent to a viewer or customer. Sometimes, it sports undefined gaps. If so, then it may be a bad, unconscious or even undefined design, but it is – even if this may now cut deep for one or the other corporate designer out there – still a design.

So, there is a weakly defined term for corporate design – just the way a company appears, no matter what value it places on the conscious design of its appearance. And there is a strong, normative definition of corporate design.

The latter emphasises that the company’s visual appearance must be precisely defined and that the individual measures must be well thought out. From the logo to the business card, from the signage system at the company’s different locations to the back pages of the brochure – both offline and online.

When you put it like that – and probably even more so when you read it – it sounds like a near endless task. Like a mountain, whose summit you will never climb. Or like a corset that constricts you so much that you lose your breath simply by wanting to communicate something briefly.

These are not just images, but actually very real dangers when dealing with corporate designs. The counter-image(s) to this notion are those of the path and the surrounding frame.

A well-developed corporate design is always understood as a way of communication that ensures that the sender is immediately recognised by customers, on the one hand, and that the message reaches its recipient safely and reliably, on the other.

In order for this to succeed – and this is where the second image comes in to play – a good corporate design always creates the right framework within which the most diverse messages can be broadcast variably, flexibly and yet appropriately.

Everything is (often/almost entirely) derived from the logo.

But what are the things that form part of a corporate design?

First of all, of course, the logo. The word mark. Sometimes, it’s just a figurative mark, and sometimes it’s simply a word mark. An icon that – once established – tells you at a glance who is talking to the customer. Two potato fries formed into a double golden arch, a three-pointed star in a chrome circle, an encircled V sat above a W. Spare me the words, the images are enough.

In a best-case scenario, the entire corporate design for the brand is derived from the lettering and the word mark. This can be the colours of the lettering, 3D, 2D, flat design, the typography, a certain design peculiarity or leading in typography.

All these factors determine whether a company or a brand comes across to its customers as more trustworthy or aggressive, straightforward or playful, rational or emotional, dynamic or static, modern or old-fashioned.

The logo appears, shapes and ideally defines all other components of the corporate design – the colours, the house fonts, and sometimes even the visual language. Although certainly not for the latter in terms of content, because a corporate design should be able to cover as broad a spectrum of content as possible, but still the tonality.

The easiest way to illustrate this is with an extreme comparison. Metal bands like ACDC, Metallica, Kiss or others utilise their branding and their logo to underscore the edgy, fantastic, eccentric, shrill, loud visual appearance that their music stands for.

This would hardly be advisable for an international industrial company and technology group such as Siemens. Here, documenting the factual is juxtaposed with the shrillness of the fantastic. Both are expressions of a corporate design, even if we don’t usually categorise the appearance and visual image of a rock band in such a way. It still remains a corporate design.

Behind every corporate design is a corporate identity.

But why does one fit the band and the other the technology company? And why, on the other hand, is it so easy to distinguish the design of two fizzy drink manufacturers as that of Coca-Cola and Pepsi? Is it simply the colours?

This raises the question of how such a corporate design is created in the first place. Ultimately, a corporate design is always an expression of “something”.

As stated earlier: an expression of everything with which a company appears in a visible or tangible format – as well as, of course, acoustically. But this “how it appears” is determined by the values, attitudes and beliefs for which the company or the brand stands: the corporate identity.

Corporate identity relates to corporate design like a person’s character relates to their style, look and appearance. And just as diverse as a character (i.e. the totality of its genetic, dispositional and motivational attitudes) can be, its visual expression can be just as multifarious.

Between the – let’s say – casual look of two hippies, for example, despite their similar fundamental attitudes, the individuals can be just as many worlds apart as two wearers of a Brioni suit. And the same applies to the corporate design of companies from the same industry.

So, in other words: Ultimately, despite the many overlaps in fundamental attitudes, people and companies are very different – each and every one is both very specific and individual.

Good corporate designs reflect these differences. They can and should be very different, especially when it comes to corporate designs for companies from the same industry. Now, corporate identity is far more comprehensive than corporate design.

Corporate identity not only forms the basis of visual appearance, it also determines corporate behaviour. How does the company conduct itself? Which code of conduct applies to the company’s employees? How is equality promoted, for example? What is the company’s position on sustainability, etc.? All of this is determined by corporate identity and concretised in corporate behaviour. It, in turn, shapes the style of corporate communication.

And all of this can neither be taken from the company’s proprietary colour scheme, nor extracted from its designated house font. And yet, corporate colours and fonts must be chosen to match the company’s character. Let’s put it this way: Zapf Dingbats don’t usually make it onto the shortlist here. One good example of corporate identity and its translation into a matching design can be found here.

First comes the analysis, then the design.

What does this mean in practice? That every company must first take to the therapist’s couch and undergo an in-depth psychoanalysis? Certainly not. However, escaping a corporate analysis is not on the cards. In many cases, this has to be done in a series of workshops – sometimes supplemented by interviews to be conducted with a selection of staff. This is because every agency entrusted with the (continued) development of a corporate design needs a certain starting point. This can also be described quite simply as a process of taking stock. And this includes not only the aforementioned attitudes, values and philosophy that shape the company, but also – very importantly – its history.

The perfect corporate design doesn’t simply grow on trees.

Where does the company come from? When was it founded? How did it develop? How has it made its presence felt so far?

It’s only in the rarest of cases that the initial corporate design – now understood normatively – is developed at the same time as the company is founded. This may be handled by design companies, design agencies, and some start-ups with a robust focus on online marketing.

But for many manufacturing companies, the topic is something akin to the ginger stepchild – of subordinate importance, and perhaps neglected entirely. It develops along the way, en passant, more or less consciously.

This is how you carve your logo, and it often stays that way. Sometimes, company bosses overlook the fact that they rely on trained engineers to develop their highly technical products, while they leave the appearance of their company to the talent of an over-indulged family member.

Only with the brand’s success does the need to sort out one’s own image register on the Richter scale at some point.

Communication grows with the tasks, the measures become broader – and each measure requires a look that customers recognise immediately.

This is because attention is the currency with which success is bought. Nothing has changed in the shift from offline to online communication. We don’t need more than the 1.3 seconds of attention we otherwise pay on average to a print ad to click away from an ad banner on the web. It’s all the more important that, in this very special second, the brand’s logo remains in our memory, shining towards us in the familiar frame of a corporate design, immediately telling us: new offer from Lidl, Aldi, Rewe, Edeka. Now, and only now, the buyer’s premium from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW.

A corporate design develops in continuity.

And so, over time (and usually as the company’s sales curve grows) the toolset of corporate design develops, which must be modernised, expanded, updated and itself communicated internally over and over, in order – see the first section above – to actually be well-lived.

This is anything but a trivial consideration, which repeatedly confronts companies large and small alike with major challenges, albeit of a completely different nature in each case.

Small and medium-sized businesses often care first and foremost about success. The money has to roll. It doesn’t matter what the sales presentation looks like. What matters is that it translates into sales. The logo? You can create your own online. The colours? The brochure? The website? The main thing is that the brand message is communicated. Many small and medium-sized companies still find it difficult in this regard to create a uniform look for all communication.

On the one hand, this is due to the fact that, not only do they not recognise the need, sometimes Marketing doesn’t even have the internal power to stand its ground against Sales or other individual business units, which all prefer to create their own solution.

Preferably with their own logo here and their own claim there. They create their own design elements and slogans, they choose their own fonts and colours, they don’t adhere to any design grid, they don’t use the templates and they don’t adhere to the specifications.

Large-scale corporations and globally active conglomerates, on the other hand, are faced with entirely different problems. They use PIMs, MAMS and other databases and portals to give their employees worldwide access to approved texts and templates, images and graphics.

But even these temples of corporate design – all shored up by legal departments and CD pontiffs – are not protected from uncontrolled growth, which creeps in gently before flourishing.

Truly embracing a corporate design means developing it further.

Despite all these challenges and adversities, how can good corporate designs be created in the end? And what exactly do the companies ultimately gain from this?

The 1.3 seconds of attention in offline or online marketing can’t be it alone, surely? That’s right, it’s not. It’s like we said at the beginning: A successful corporate design is the number one success factor in corporate communication, if it’s able to catch on.

And that doesn’t mean that there isn’t always wild growth and excesses, that there aren’t always employees who fail to comply, but rather that there’s the need to constantly review, optimise and modernise the company’s appearance, following on from (and continuing with) what has already taken shape.

One good example of this is the Mercedes star. If you google it, you’ll see that the brand – which seems to us all to be unwaveringly the same – has taken on new forms over the years: sometimes more elegant, sometimes more robust, and then again more refined.

Barely noticed by the customer and yet time-honoured, as anyone who looks at the beautiful logos of yesteryear can see. They’ve fallen out of time, but the fundamental form, the archetype and the idea underpinning the brand remain.

And finally: the pride factor.

This tightrope walk between tradition and evolution of the brand requires expertise, a feel for form, a sense of design – and corporate designers who keep an eye on the whole and see the corporate image before their eyes.

From the perspective of the company, through the eyes of the customer, with a sense of communication. Then the design unfolds its own dynamic. One example of this is the ABT Sportsline brand.

Incidentally, it’s an example of how a corporate design does not have to be perceived simply as a corset or a mountain, or something that can only be appreciated as a path or a framework, but which above all contains an identity-forming moment that not only appeals to customers but also inspires employees.

Whether they have to use it themselves or not. This is because it’s simply the label, the banner under which they gather, in which they recognise themselves and of which they are proud.


More information is available from:

Christoph Siwek

Creative Consulting / Group Head Text