As consumers, we become accustomed to visual cues that reinforce meaning and tell us we’re making the right decision. These identifiers form recognisable looks and styles that are immediately understood. They’re a visual shorthand that allows a brand to be quickly associated with the right feeling – whether that’s instant trust or instant cool – and to fit in amongst their peers.
Think about the minimal aesthetic adopted by ethical direct-to-consumer clothing brands. They overwhelmingly choose simple, pared-back, muted colours and sans-serif typography as a marker of their authenticity and belief in conscious consumerism. With no intermediary to establish trust, such signifiers help to place them in a specific position within our minds.
We shouldn’t underestimate the value that fitting in provides. Sticking to conventions and globally understood visual cues can cut budget, time and risk. And it can achieve results, with permanence building credibility.
But with this comes a loss of visual variability. Brands feel placeless and interchangeable, and there’s an unnerving sense that everything is beginning to look much the same. Standing out has become a lost art.
So, how can brands retain the benefits of familiarity without always conforming to established looks? And where can they find meaningful distinction to stand apart when the time’s right?
It’s easy to start the design journey by looking at competitors. But getting too caught up in what others are doing can lead to mindsets becoming diluted and primed to conform.
By first looking inwards, you identify the values and character inherent to a brand – qualities it can authentically claim, own and amplify throughout its identity and experiences. This is where you find distinction – playing to a brand’s intrinsic strengths, not wandering straight into the playground of others.
The recent Duolingo rebrand demonstrates this. It’s become the norm for tech companies to combine a simple wordmark with a symbol as their logo – think Slack and Squarespace. Instead of adhering to this convention, Duolingo imbued Duo the owl’s character into the identity itself, through a quirky, feathered custom font. Still friendly, and retaining the necessary trust cues. But a little fresher, more authentic to its character and just distinctive enough.
And what about the friendly (and usually faceless) illustrations much loved by tech brands? Their exaggerated proportions and bright colours say, “We’re a tech company but we’re human and you can trust us”. They might look great alone, but become overfamiliar and repetitive in a wider context.
Instead, Duolingo derive illustrations from their personality. Human characters have faces and feel like a cohesive extension of the identity, not an external transplant that could easily apply to any tech brand. They fit in – because human illustrations have become a signifier of friendliness and trust – but stand apart, because they’re firmly rooted in the brand’s character.
Context matters. There are moments that leave no room for error or confusion: like a checkout experience, or when communicating important information. Conventions exist here to make things easy for users to understand. In such moments, it’s wiser to use them – and to fit in – because that’s what people expect.
Mailchimp recognised this. Their refreshed brand identity holds few signifiers of the tech and B2B software world, if any at all. It’s actually far removed and hard to place in any specific category. In particular, the illustrations are brilliantly weird and ‘bananas’.
To quote Mailchimp: “We developed a new brand system that, in each element, works to maintain a precise balance between the sophisticated and the surreal. We set out to retain all the weird, lovable elements that endeared our earliest customers.”
The Mailchimp website still follows many conventions of other tech companies: similar site architecture, reasons to believe, white space and simple functionality. It fits in. But the brand’s expression gives it an opportunity to make up for that elsewhere. It’s the little touches – the winking monkey on hover, the frenetic illustrations – that help the brand stand out. The sophisticated and the surreal work together in harmony to break convention – but only when appropriate.
Reality check. These sorts of flourishes, illustration commissions and custom fonts are not always financially feasible, putting them low on the priority list. Perhaps there’s less space in your industry to take the risks that could help you visually stand apart, and it’s necessary to play it safe.
If this is the case, think about how your brand makes people feel. It might fit in aesthetically, following best practice and using understood visual signifiers. But what small moments of magic can be designed into its user journeys? What could make the experience more memorable, if not in looks? And how could you make people feel what you want them to feel?
Naadam is a sustainable producer of cashmere clothing. On their website, the minimal look of an ethical, direct-to-consumer clothing brand is in full effect. I trust them implicitly because they fit my expectations of an ethical, sustainable brand. The signifiers are all there.
But it feels different: the humorous messaging, the fun ‘soft scale’ and the tongue-in-cheek copy about the cult of cashmere. These subtle yet memorable touches of character are integrated into an otherwise conventional experience. By making the audience feel something unexpected, Naadam stands out.
The recognisable visual cues, category conventions and signifiers that make up a category look are safer, easier to apply and already validated. Some might even be necessary to follow, at times. But too much convention means brands lose their originality, texture and points of interest. Their individuality and authenticity become undermined. They fall into the generic, formulaic and forgettable.
So, start by looking inwards. Identify and amplify the inherent character and qualities of your brand. Choose the right moments to break convention. And consider possibilities to be different beyond aesthetics. Standing apart doesn’t have to remain a lost art.