When you really dig down to the essence of language and communication throughout history, the symbol stands out as the true driver of what connects us to mankind. Symbols are often written down, drawn or designed by one person and then viewed by another. But they also can be multi-sensorial experiences that direct feeling and understanding. From cave drawings and family crests to national flags and the Statue of Liberty, symbols encompass much more meaning than what is shown on the surface. As a branding studio, symbols are of paramount importance to us as tools to convey ideas, create awareness, develop recognition and build emotion.
The power of symbology was recently reinforced to me when I attended the School of Visual Art’s second annual Brand Stand. The event brings together speakers from different industries and professions to talk on branding topics at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. The purpose of this year’s Brand Stand was to dissect the current state of “America” as a brand. This year’s speakers included Charles Blow, author and New York Times columnist; Brian Collins, designer, writer and founder of COLLINS, a branding and design company; Paola Mendoza, filmmaker and artistic director of the Women’s March; Jim Johnson, attorney and activist; and Derek Thompson, author of “Hit Makers” and senior editor at The Atlantic. MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman also spoke prior to the speaker panel discussion and presented the brand of the year award to the Pussy Hat.
I found the selection of speakers at this event to be particularly interesting because, aside from Collins, the other speakers did not come from branding backgrounds. The result was that their talks brought them out of their comfort zones, providing unique perspectives on the idea of the branding of America. Mendoza discussed her journey from a disappointing election night at the Javits Center to her work as creative director of the Women’s March on Washington, and how Harry Belafonte provided her with wisdom from his years as an activist. She spoke about the power artists have to amplify voices and the responsibility that goes with such power.
Johnson talked about his experience growing up during the Civil Rights Movement and his time as the head of the ATF during the Clinton administration. He believes part of the problem with the brand of America is its habitual failure to very often recognize its history and bring out the tension embedded in those roots. He also introduced the idea of how powerful symbols can be in politics both here and abroad, citing Obama’s campaign logo as round, universal and all encompassing, whereas Hillary Clinton’s logo was full of sharp edges, with a divisive arrow literally running through its middle.
Collins observed how when the longest lasting brands seem to have lost their way, they look back at the past to rediscover what made them great in the first place. Often, that can mean things that at the time were forward-thinking for brands. In the later panel discussion, he brought up the power of symbolism and how the Saturn 5 rocket was a forward-thinking symbol that signified the United States’ response to Cold War tensions with Russia.
Thompson, the final speaker, gave my favorite talk. He spoke about the career journey of industrial designer Raymond Loewy and his principle of MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable). Thompson: “The most fundamental bias in human psychology is a bias toward familiarity.” If he’s right, then Loewy’s MAYA makes perfect sense; it’s good to push as long as you don’t go overboard. From politics to branding, progressive ideas that can truly advance society are often disregarded because they lack the familiarity that most people need to embrace something new. Thompson brought this up not to discourage people from continuing to innovate and push us into new places, but rather to remind us that we all can think of ways to open peoples’ minds to consider new and powerful innovations.
Because symbolism was such a hot topic during these talks and the panel discussion that followed, it brought to mind a study conducted by Signs.com that I presented to the studio a few months back. The company tasked 150 Americans to recreate 10 iconic American brand logos from memory. The results were both humorous and fascinating, and the analytical conclusions drawn from the study were equally as intuitive. What better way to end a Friday, I thought, than to task my fellow colleagues with a portion of the same challenge? As you can see below, the results were again quite amusing. To my mind, they bring to light that the power of symbols isn’t always in the details and particulars of the design. Sometimes, it is the meaning that stands behind it, which often seems more memorable and top-of-mind. The most powerful of symbols find the right balance of meaning and design. Only then can they truly provoke thought, change minds and inspire a better future.
This fall at ThoughtMatter, we’re ending every week with a “Get Out Fridays” discussion. During each session, a different studio member will tell us about a recent event they went to that has inspired them, and can in turn inspire each of us here at ThoughtMatter. It can be any event—as long as it involves getting out of the office and thinking in a different space.