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Beware: Brand ‘Meaningless’

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Harvard Business School have recently quantified that 95% of our decision making is made in the subconscious, system 1, part of our brains. This is the part that instantly decodes the cultural world that surrounds us; it’s signs, codes and symbols, without a second thought. The ‘system 2’ conscious part, then helps us to (often incorrectly) post-rationalise why we’ve made those decisions.

What does that mean for those of us who create brands? How do we make sure we send the right messages when creating a piece of communication, brand or pack, if we can’t ask the consumer outright?

This is tricky, as culture, whilst not faddish, is constantly evolving. We’ve collaborated with Sarah Hyndman who has published collaborative studies with Prof Charles Spence of Oxford University, on the subconscious meaning of fonts, to explore the effect they have on our understanding of brands and their communications.


Our work has identified just how important fonts are. We’ve codified a fascinating shift and identified new, more valued codes, as we move away from classic codes of prestige, rarity and status, now perceived dated and brash. This is particularly true for the Millennial and Gen Z brains, who are looking for more relatable engaging and approachable brands.

Sarah Hyndman has found that these past styles are increasingly described as ‘try hard’, something that both the premium fashion and tech industries have taken note of. Brands are now moving towards neutral ‘contemporary’ typefaces, steering clear of their pretentious, premium, authoritarian or aspirational design codes of the past.


But beware of brand ‘meaningless’….

This dash to safer ground is all very well, but experience has proven that generic visual or verbal stories may create a potential bear-trap. This approach can lack a specific call to action and reference point, therefore it can lead to the subconscious take-out of nothingness. Sarah Hyndman warns;

“Font’s tell a story in your subconscious, they cue origins and associations bound in the journey of cultural meaning. Scientists believe that these connections start to form very early on in our brains, before we even turn a year old. These new fonts, in trying to remove their more archaic history, may fail to make any relevant emotional connection at all.”

When the Burberry redesign made its debut in 2018, design blog ‘Brand New’ gave it a frosty welcome: “It is no more different nor more or less interesting than any other fashion sans-serif logo.”

The co-founder of design firm UnderConsideration; Armin Vit, said on his blog ‘Brand New’, “It’s like wearing a black-tie tuxedo, not flashy but leaves room for personality to come through in other ways.”This may be possible when you have millions to spend on your retail experiences, communications and packaging. But what does it mean for those on the mass market FMCG brand budgets?

Our work with Sarah Hyndman has proven that story-telling is the new wealth, not ‘bling’! The Millennial and emerging Gen Z look for more engaging and evolved expressions of meaning.

Better to identify your own unique more relevant role, meaning, and then corresponding visual aesthetic that best expresses this, rather than become generic and risk saying nothing. We may all know the meaning of Google and Burberry right now, but what will they mean tomorrow, if they only express the generic?

The most successful brands create their own graphic visual aesthetic which demonstrates their unique point of difference. Many of the most relevant brands have taken a different approach, adapting the editorial or apothecary design aesthetic.

This visual approach cues honesty, transparency and an intriguing story to be discovered, it also uses codes which are relevant to today’s values. Sarah has already shown us some great examples, and we’re in the process of developing something interesting for the hot drinks market that reflects this.

Finding your own aesthetic may sound more difficult than it actually is. We’ve applied a simple ‘three circles’ model that enables you to identify what you need to communicate. This can then be quickly translated into matching visual codes, using the new pioneering research we’ve discovered with Sarah Hyndman.


Content includes:

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How can we foster and learn in order to create an inclusive and diverse culture in design?

Cultural diversity in design
Brands that cater to the widest range of people will not only be rewarded by consumer spending, but by elevated status in competitive markets too.

Design for a better world
Noteworthy brands who are innovating for a more inclusive world.

How do brands create cultural relevancy through compelling storytelling?
It’s not whether you stand up for a social issue, it’s how.

Why shouldn’t grass be purple?
Designing for colour blindness.


All In.


Fresh thinking from 1HQ