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  • Julia Woollams

The chicken and egg of words and pictures

I’ve worked in the world of branding for a rather long time now, and if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have definitely said that words (or the verbal brand) come first and inspire any pictures that form the visual brand, be they logos, graphics, photography, illustration, moving image or otherwise. However, over the last decade I’ve come round to the idea that branding is a little less black and white than that, especially with long-established brands, that may have accrued layers upon layers of words and pictures over the years.

I was interested to hear the views of writers and strategists on these intrinsically linked communication forms that make up a brand identity, so I asked Nick Asbury, Emily Penny, Mike Reed, Thomas Sharp, and Rebecca Walton a few questions.

 


Nick Asbury, writer


Nick is a freelance writer and one half of creative partnership Asbury & Asbury. Alongside writing for branding and design, he is the author of Realtime Notes (three and half years of poems about current events) and Perpetual Disappointments Diary (a demotivational journal). His work has been featured in The Copy Book: How some of the best advertising writers in the world write their advertising and he co-authored the revised and updated edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty thinking in graphic design. Thoughts on Writing is a series of essays on writing, branding and culture – subscribe here.


Julia: Have you ever worked on a branding project where the pictures somehow inspired the words?

Nick: One recent example would be the Johnson Banks identity for COP26. I do a lot of branding work with Johnson Banks and nearly all of it starts with words – working out narratives that are primarily strategic but also contain the DNA of a creative idea and personality.


The COP26 identity was different because the main requirement was a visual mark. Planet Earth is a powerful symbol, but any conventional image is bound to emphasise certain countries over others. So the ingenious answer was to dissolve the land masses into this swirl of blue, white and green.


My role was to come up with some lines to bring that idea to life. It’s a different way of working, because you’re not exactly post-rationalising, but you’re trying to articulate some of the latent meanings in the image. The main line ended up being ‘The climate has no borders’. One sign that it’s working is when you can’t tell which way round it happened – you could just as easily imagine the line coming first and acting as the brief for the image.


You could just as easily imagine the line coming first and acting as the brief for the image.

Julia: In an ideally branded world what would be your dream brand to write for?

Nick: I’d think in dream projects more than dream brands. You can work for an Apple or NASA and the project itself might still be dull. Equally, you can work for an insurance company and do something exciting – there’s often more scope to do something interesting in a conservative sector.


I think the ideal position is when you’re known for something and the client (preferably the CEO) comes to you and says ‘please do that for us’. So if someone asked me to write short poems or meme-like headlines for a national poster campaign referencing hyper-topical events, that would be cool.



Julia: What word or phrase do you feel might be popular in branding this year?

Nick: I hate to say this, but I think Purpose will continue to be the dominant word in our world. It may feel like old news in branding circles, but it’s never been bigger in the corporate world, and that will inevitably trickle down into every advertising and branding brief. I have an ethical objection to the whole idea and think it leads to worse outcomes for both businesses and society – hopefully 2022 is the year we begin to move past it.

 

Emily Penny, brand strategist and writer


Emily has worked in the design industry for 25 years. She set up brand voice consultancy Becolourful in 2013. Emily and her team work with design agencies to boost their capabilities in brand strategy, brand naming and copywriting, laying the foundations for powerful design. She has worked with Johnson Banks, Conran Design Group, Mucho and Motto.


Julia: Have you ever worked on a branding project where the pictures somehow inspired the words?

Emily: Pictures constantly inspire me in my writing. I call myself a very visual wordsmith: a writer who went to art school, happiest working in close collaboration with a designer.


I’d like to think that I don’t think in ‘words’ or ‘pictures’ but in ‘ideas’ and ‘stories’. At the end of the day this is about communication and emotion.


There are three ways that words and pictures come together in my work.

  1. Sometimes I make moodboards to help define a brand personality and focus my direction for a brand voice.

  2. Part of the reason I love brand naming is because good names bridge the visual and the verbal. The names I created for Kindling (restaurant), Life Size (architects) and Hopscotch (UX consultancy) are all ideas that went on to inspire the story and the visual treatment.

  3. Recently I’ve enjoyed working on several website projects with designers. UX design demands collaboration between writer and designer as it’s impossible to separate the content from the design. The best outcomes come from a constant negotiation and a shared vision.

I don’t think in ‘words’ or ‘pictures’ but in ‘ideas’ and ‘stories’.

Julia: In an ideally branded world what would be your dream brand to write for?

Emily: When employees themselves can’t clearly articulate what their business does, that’s not good. But it does make for a good project for me. I love working with complex, abstract or technical brands that need to be made sense of, particularly B2B services and not for profit organisations. These businesses need narratives to make them tangible. Pinning down the mission and story can be transformative. It gives everyone a focus and *finally* makes it meaningful for audiences, internal and external.


Julia: What word or phrase do you feel might be popular in branding this year?

Emily: We’re going to see ‘immersive’ being talked about as brands begin to explore game-like 3D worlds (I can’t say metaverse, don’t make me) and with it the idea of ‘limitless’.

 


Mike Reed, founder and Executive Creative Director of Reed Words


Mike has been a copywriter since 1993, in which time he’s founded two agencies and won a clutch of awards – including D&AD Pencils, a Cannes Lion, Design Week, Fresh Creative and Dieline awards. As well as leading the team and working directly on projects, Mike speaks at conferences around the world, and leads creative and training workshops. He has also written on brand language for publications like Computer Arts, Harvard Business Review, Creative Review, Branding Magazine, and Design Week.


Julia: Have you ever worked on a branding project where the pictures somehow inspired the words?

Mike: Many times! Especially earlier in my career, when I was freelance. I tended to be brought into projects some way into the process, when there was often a fair bit of work in place already around the identity. (This still happens sometimes.)


Of course this can be maddening, as you may spot opportunities that have already been lost because a writer wasn't there from the start. (It's especially maddening if there are copy elements already baked in, and you know you could have done better.)


But equally, a strong design can be helpful. After all, design elements are there to reflect the personality and positioning of the brand, so they ought to be a decent guide to tone, at least. To use an extreme example, you'd write pretty differently for a brand dressed in red and yellow, with slab-serif all-caps type, than a powder-blue one sporting a hand-drawn butterfly.


In the end, the job's the same. But your options are restricted. Your writing wings can often feel clipped. I’ve always argued writers and designers should start from the same blank sheet, and work as closely – and as openly – as possible. If my design partner comes up with a brilliant tagline, I’m never going to say they've strayed into my patch. It's about the best ideas, not who has them.


I’ve always argued writers and designers should start from the same blank sheet, and work as closely – and as openly – as possible.

Julia: In an ideally branded world what would be your dream brand to write for?

Mike: The brand I’ve always wanted to write for, because I’ve always adored it, is the BBC. Especially in an ideal world – in which I assume all obstructionist committees evaporate, and you just have a small, passionate, genius-level client team to work with.


Clear, compelling messaging is especially critical for the BBC these days, when a significant proportion of the public seems to have turned against it (and/or simply don't understand its value), and our squalid Tory Government is making the most of every opportunity to gut it. The video the BBC Press Office just put out suggests they get that – it's great. But they've really got a fight on their hands, and the way they tell their story will be critical to the outcome.


Julia: What word or phrase do you feel might be popular in branding this year?

Mike: I honestly don't know – I’m no sooth-sayer. Based on some recent conversations, I’d venture that the concept of clarity may be an important one (if not literally that word).


In markets shaken by Covid, and with inflation spiking, the fight for consumer attention (and cash) is going to be fiercer than ever. Of course, clarity of proposition is Branding 101. But in recent years, a lot of brands have indulged in pretty fuzzy, happy-clappy, "purpose-driven" messaging (in the shallowest use of the term). They're going to have to get much clearer about what they're actually offering, and why we should spend our increasingly precious pennies with them. I’ve heard this theme bubbling through a few client conversations, and I suspect it'll only get louder.


At the same time, many organisations have been forced into leaner forms, and it feels like long-standing barriers to clarity (and innovation) have fallen away. So this may, in all sorts of ways, be a clarifying period.

 


Thomas Sharp, founder of The Poetry Of It All


Thomas Sharp is a Creative Director. He invents worlds, campaigns and artistic moments with language at their heart. Alice Black, ex-Director of The Design Museum, calls him ‘a brilliant poet and creative mind’ and mü, the quarterly culture magazine founded by Youth, called him ‘the strangely most punk poet’. He’s been commissioned by the British Library, Cubitts, Henry Moore Foundation, London Fire Brigade, Politico, Google,V&A, Southbank Centre,British Council, Art Fund, Francis Crick Institute, Canary Wharf, and Cultural Associates Oxford. He was the second most awarded studio in the 2020 D&AD awards.


Julia: Have you ever worked on a branding project where the pictures somehow inspired the words?

Thomas: Not really. My practice is founded on the belief that the verbal and visual aesthetic of a brand are just slightly different aspects of the same thing. They grow simultaneously, intertwined with each other. Weak brands are always the result of regarding the verbal and visual as separate points in a linear process, no matter which is first.


My practice is founded on the belief that the verbal and visual aesthetic of a brand are just slightly different aspects of the same thing.

Julia: In an ideally branded world what would be your dream brand to write for?

Thomas: A secret but benevolent scientific establishment working on inconceivable, decades-ahead technologies and concepts who commission me to surreptitiously drip feed their weirdest ideas through my other, more normal, commercial and artistic work in order to slowly acclimatise an otherwise easily-spooked public.

Julia: What word or phrase do you feel might be popular in branding this year?

Thomas: 'Ultra-terrestrial.’ Governments are increasingly disclosing the presence of UFOs, and from there I think it’s a small leap to realise these aren’t visitors from outer space, but Earth itself. In which case M&Ms or Adidas or Aviva Insurance or whoever will probably need to put out some corporate inter-dimensional hello and ‘ultra’ has got a nice ring to it.

 



Rebecca Walton, brand strategist


Rebecca helps purpose-driven organisations harness the power of their brands to deliver results: growing impact, income and influence. With more than 20 years’ experience, she has led transformational brand and communications strategies at Unicef and Save the Children. Before that, she worked at the brand agency Wolff Olins on high profile rebrands including Macmillan Cancer Support, Amnesty International, Tate, Unilever and PricewaterhouseCoopers. She now works as an independent consultant and has recently delivered brand and integrated marketing communications strategies for clients including Ambition Institute, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, The Connection at St Martin’s, Cats Protection and Wood Green.


Julia: Have you ever worked on a branding project where the pictures somehow inspired the words?

Rebecca: I think it’s definitely a two-way process. Whilst I’m not sure I’ve ever worked on a project that started out with pictures, I’ve always found that moving quickly into the visual stage helps to further inspire and evolve the brand. If you take too long on the words, or if it’s all about words and has no visual aspect, there’s a risk of disappearing down a very wordy wormhole, where you’re endlessly debating semantics and tiny verbal nuances. I think we’ve all been there! It’s the pictures that tend to take everyone into a new space. At Save the Children, the brand went up a level in terms of personality when we introduced fonts and versions of the child graphic from the logo that were hand-drawn by kids. It transformed the whole feel to make it distinctly child-focused and further clarified the positioning, which was about putting meaning back into the name – showing that we really do save the children.


As we become more sceptical about authority and institutions of all kinds, brands are trying to feel smaller, closer, more authentic.

Julia: In an ideally branded world what would be your dream brand to write for?

Rebecca: As I’m more than a little obsessed with fish, my dream sector to rebrand would be marine conservation. I think our collective failure to imagine life in the underwater world is behind our wanton destruction of it. I’d love to write copy that captures the exhilaration of the sailfish, or create illustrations that embody the intelligence of an octopus.



Julia: What word or phrase do you feel might be popular in branding this year?

Rebecca: The word I’ll pick is ‘personal’, which sums up the trend (around for a while now but always gathering more momentum) for brands to embrace human characteristics. As we become more sceptical about authority and institutions of all kinds, brands are trying to feel smaller, closer, more authentic. Speaking person to person and leaving out the corporate waffle. Opening up their boundaries and throwing out the guidelines, so people can use them how they want and do their content marketing for them. Searching for that human touch with handwritten typefaces and doodles. In the charity sector many of the recent rebrands have been about injecting more human personality – see Blood Cancer UK or Football Beyond Borders. Perhaps some brands are in danger of laying it on too thickly though. Am I the only one who finds the endless ‘friendly’ chat on the side of my Oatly carton a little self-obsessed? Is it just trying too hard?

 

Thank you to Nick, Emily, Mike, Thomas, and Rebecca for sharing their thoughts on the chicken and egg of words and pictures.

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