Visual identity has been a basic element of branding since the early part of the 20thcentury, when the rise of mass manufacturing led to development of competing products, and product categories expanded rapidly. Imagery was a way to create distinction on the retail shelf—to create a visual shortcut, enabling customers to quickly see and reach for “their” favored brands. That imagery was ultimately managed across all advertising and marketing channels and tactics to achieve consistent branding.
But over the past decade, many brands have adopted minimalist design practices, desiring simplified imagery and typography that is easily readable across devices and screens from large to small. This has led to what design critics have begun to call “blanding.”
The Blanding Trend
Blanding is characterized by brand imagery using spaced-out sans-serif type (dubbed the “graveyard of type personality” by one critic); flat icons if any; and limited color palettes. Brands are abandoning distinctive imagery and type design in favor of conforming to minimalism design trends. How does conforming (doing what everyone else is doing) create distinction or differentiation?
Just in the past year, we’ve seen fashion brand Burberry step away from its heritage typographic name plate; a rebrand of The Nobel Prize that adopts a sterile stacked type design; Balmain of Paris; Uber; and Animal Planet (at least they have a sweet elephant logo). Even the Ad Council (!) moved to look-alike typography and uninteresting visuals. Design commentary site UnderConsideration/BrandNew lists 862 sans-serif rebrands; see also their Most Notable identities and Best Reviewed of 2018.
Blanding is symptomatic of the growing perception that branding no longer matters, that it’s a construct of the marketing industry aimed at pulling more money out of client budgets. After all, businesses say, people are spending less time in retail spaces, and buying products found through search engines or recommendations at Amazon and other online sellers. Why invest in visual branding when customers no longer see similar products sharing shelf space?
Do Brands No Longer Need to Stand Out?
With every business branding their products and services in a cluttered marketing environment, companies that disdain brand impact are currently standing out. But as more and more brands opt to de-emphasize brand, conformity will become a handicap; bland brands will merge together in the minds of customers, where brand distinction truly matters. As brand distinction dies, so does brand loyalty.
Base Design’s Thierry Brunfaut, writing at Fast Company/CoDesign, points out that the blanding trend relies on a fallacy—that “simple” equals “best.” That may be true for some brands, but for many others, a distinctive visual identity can reinforce and support customer perceptions. That is where many trend-adopting businesses miss the core argument for distinctive brand design: that brand exists in the mind of the customer, and cannot be created by overhauling brand imagery and announcing, “This is who we are right now.” In some cases, customers may even push back against rebrands as “soul-less” and ignoring brand heritage. Heritage often matters far more to customers than companies realize… until they try a rebrand and learn how connected people felt to the old visual identity.
Be Brand Navigators
For designers worried about the loss of brand identity as a profit center, Logo Lounge’s 2018 Logo Trends Report offers an anti-blanding twist. The design pendulum appears to be swinging back toward more complex, intricate and embellished visual branding. The report commented on the sans-serif type trend specifically, noting “sterile” visuals “strips these brands of any personality.” Designers are again experimenting with color gradients, detailed crests, patterns, bright color palettes and retro fonts. Customization (i.e., creating distinction) is the goal.
As branding agencies and design firms guide clients through branding efforts, it is worth discussing what the client’s brand requires. Does a brand need personality and distinction in its imagery and logo design to stand out from competitors? Where will brand imagery appear, and how valuable is it to apply brand imagery across channels and touch points? How important are signage and store displays? Can the imagery be animated and adaptable (a trend that may be here to stay)? Be the client’s brand navigators, understanding the value of brand design to each client, and steering a course that creates distinction appropriate to brand needs.
Good designers know that trends are ephemeral, but branding gains power through consistent application and reinforcement. Blanding may be just a passing phase; branding is about building trust, credibility and connection over time. Don’t be purveyors of “bland.”