I wager that without leaving your home you are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of brands.

That’s before opening the newspaper, checking the feeds, or flipping on the news. Designers, scholars, psychologists and sociologists have been writing about the overexposure of advertisements in our consumption-crazy culture for a decade or longer. One day, the hyper-exposure made me stop, pull out my Moleskine, and begin recording brand-interaction data.

At the time, I was working on a project under the direction of Professor Alfred Sanft in the Visual Communication Design program at Arizona State University in which he implored a class of undergraduate design students to design a clock for a profession of our choosing. Inspired by a post I had seen at Dear Jane Sample, I decided to make a clock for identity designers. The blogger wrote about a day she spent recording identities she interacted with. She then asked others to do the exercise and post their results. Hundreds poured in and her blog swelled with responses. Admittedly, the timelines were brief; the original only contained 92 marks. I wondered what conclusions could be drawn from a comprehensive twenty-four hour timeline. What brands did I observe before I had even exited the shower in the morning? Did I interact with certain brands at specific times of the day? I was intrigued. What could I determine from a time-based brand interaction journal?

With the desire to create a more complete brand timeline and the knowledge that an identity designer must constantly be aware of the brands surrounding them, I decided to take a detailed snapshot of my daily brand-interaction. Beginning the moment my alarm buzzed and ending when my head hit the pillow nearly 18 hours later, I obsessively chronicled every brand, logo, identity or symbol I encountered. On Wednesday 14 October 2008, I recorded 1,035 identities.

The process

Armed with a Moleskine pocket squared notebook and Staples retractable ballpoint pen, I recorded several pieces of data including: the name of the identity, the number of times it occurred, the exact time I became aware of it and whether I directly interacted with it or simply observed it. This process was maddening. I began to dread when my BlackBerry Curve 8300 would vibrate, knowing every time I checked a message or answered a call meant I would be obligated to record “11:38a, Blackberry Curve, Verizon, Opera, Google Maps”. If I was exceptionally diligent: “Staples, Moleskine”.

Often times, I found myself unable to write quickly enough. I felt defeated by the brands surrounding me. Riding in the car proved to be particularly exhausting. On the trip to campus in the morning, I mistakingly attempted to write out each brand name entirely as I observed it: “Volkswagen, Chrysler, GMC, Chevron, Lexus, Sheraton, Volk.., Wendy’s, Chry.., Volk.., Ford.” I must have missed a hundred brands as the cars sped past and I had my head down, writing. Before traveling home that evening, I carefully wrote each brand I expected to see and added tallies as I observed them. This was a much better process.

There were times throughout the day when I found my world to be relatively, but never entirely, devoid of brands. For example, as I arrived at work in the morning, I recorded all the identities surrounding my desk. As I sat in my brand-filled cubicle, I realized I had recorded all the marks surrounding me. This is when I took a deep breath, opened Mozilla Firefox 3.0 and realized Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss had posted an image comparison of a dozen or so corporate brands by color on her blog. Sigh.

I cannot count the number of times I was forced to interrupt someone mid-sentence as I became entirely consumed writing in my Moleskine. At the end of the day, I felt overexposed. I was tired, and very glad that the backs of my eyelids were black and brand-less.

Finding the vector files for 356 individual logos was a task that I put off a full week after the initial research; I was thoroughly burnt out from my twenty-four hour exercise. Searching for the vector files was easier than expected, but took a lot of time. For fourteen days, I was pouring through the archives at Best Brands of the World, searching for the exact iteration of the logos I observed. If I failed to find an appropriate file, I would search Google’s image archive, Wikipedia and finally the company’s website for high resolution images. As a last resort, I would redraw the identity in Adobe Illustrator CS3.

During this part of the process, I happened upon a high-resolution version of the Apple TextEdit icon. I was pleasantly surprised to find a quote hidden in its design. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.” After a bit of research, I discovered this is ad copy from the first major marketing campaign after Jobs’ return to Apple. This discovery lifted my spirits during an otherwise grueling part of the project.

I began to think I had bit off more than I could chew. Though all the identities were collected, there was one week left before the deadline and I only had prototype sketches in Illustrator. Knowing my design process would require several revisions after I had a fully-laid out file, I realized I needed to move fast. This, of course, resulted in one of those mind-numbing all-nighters of precisely placing, rotating and scaling every identity on a freshly designed grid. I felt silly for working for such a long period of time, nearly twenty-four hours, without a break. In retrospect, it was essential and really helped me push myself to make a better project.

Questions for identity designers

The final requirement of the project asked that we contact professionals within our chosen field in order to broaden our understanding of our particular projects. I sent a list of questions to identity designers from the local and national community. I consider myself lucky to have heard back from Michael Bierut—Pentagram, Armin Vit—UnderConsideration, Chermayeff and Geismar and David Rengifo—Visual Rain Design & Strategy. Collectively, their responses were intelligent, revealing and appreciated.

Michael Bierut was the first designer I heard back from. He sent me links to articles he had written that answered the general questions I asked and encouraged me to ask him a more specific question. This is what I came up with: “In ‘the mysterious power of context,’ you write about the importance of a brand’s context. You also admit that much of a brand’s context is out of our hands. Since without context a logo is merely a mark with little to no meaning, how do you know when you’ve reached a proper solution? In different terms, how do you sell a design, before it has been put into context?” His response was very clear. “Paul Rand has a great quote somewhere in which he says that a good logo has ‘the pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning.’ I always liked that ‘promise of meaning’ part, which reminds me of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. A good logo doesn’t necessarily mean everything ― or anything ― the day it’s born. Instead, it’s like an empty vessel into which meaning is poured. Some vessels are well suited to the things they are destined to contain. Some are not. A good designer tries to make well-shaped vessels.”

Chermayeff and Geismar were polite to respond, despite the volume of similar emails they are accustomed to receiving. Chermayeff and Geismar approach a new branding project by “trying to learn as much as possible about the client and their needs.” They always “start with an audit ―fact finding ― then design exploration and presentation.” And, to test an idea, they will apply it to “typical communications – business card, website, brochure, etc. to see how in functions in context.” Chermayeff and Geismar are largely responsible for many of the more memorable brands we have today: NBC, Mobile and National Geographic, among others.
David Rengifo, senior designer at Visual Rain Design & Strategy shed some light on how he approaches a new branding project. “With any branding project I need to understand two things. 1 Who is the customer and what do they really want from the company, and what do they think about the company we are branding. 2 What does the company want to achieve, are they getting ready to sell the company, do they want to enter a new market, etc. This is critical to help them brand themselves in support of their goals. Often they simply want to match the customer’s perception and stay on target.”

Armin Vit is a blogger I particularly respect. He writes for UnderConsideration, Speak Up, Brand New and Quipsologies. Armin explained his lack of a process. “There is no real process, or nothing worth outlining. It’s basically a combination of thinking and doing, in no particular order.” He approaches a new branding project by asking “a lot of questions of the client, and from as many people involved in the decision-making process as well as from those that have been in the company long enough to provide insight. After that it’s just a matter of taking that insight and turning it into great graphic design.” When asked about his most successful brand, he replied “I hate to be self-referential, but I think the UnderConsideration brand we’ve built and designed ourselves has been really strong. It’s not so much the visual aspect of it, but what we stand for. And the secret to it, if there is any, it has been listening to our audience and seeing what they think of us and how we can become better, but at the same time it has always been driven by taking chances and trying out things.”

I posted the designer’s responses in their entirety as part of a series on Fill/Stroke, a design blog I run with two colleagues.

In conclusion

This project was daunting. However, I am happy I pursued it. It presented many opportunities and forced me to consider the way brands are ingrained in our daily lives and activities.
Surprisingly, the most brand-condensed area was my home. I assumed I would see the most identities on the drive to work and the walk through campus to class, but I had documented hundreds, easily, before I left in the morning. This really made me think about the packaging I purchase and what I do with products after I get them home.
In retrospect, I was limited by the speed of my handwriting. A good friend, Aaron Collie, suggested the best means of comprehensively recording the brands I interact with would be to strap a camera to my head and record my day in its entirety. From that point, it would just be a matter of watching the video again and recording the brands as they appear. Watching the twenty-four hour video would be a gigantic waste of time, but it would certainly be more comprehensive than writing with a pen in a notebook. I wonder if it is truly possible to document every brand a person comes into contact with. I would definitely still consider my research a snapshot, and not necessarily a complete brand timeline.

Lastly, I find it incredible what you can learn about a person by studying their brand timeline: when they wake up, how they travel – even when they have sex. Do they prefer name brand or generic groceries? How often are they distracted by news sites while they are at work? To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m more frightened by the fact that you can answer all these questions by observing a person’s brand-timeline or by the sheer amount of brands surrounding us on a daily basis. One thing’s for certain, I do not plan on doing an exercise like this again in the near future.

This essay was first published in Open Manifesto 5.

January 19, 2009