An Event Apart: “Practical Branding”

Sarah Parmenter speaking at An Event Apart Orlando 2016 at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Walt Disney World on October 3, 2016.

Over the past few years our skill sets have been firmly planted in understanding this new era of multi-faceted web design. While we’ve all been busy making sure our designs adhere to the latest flat trend and performance specifications, we’ve forgotten that what once got us all talking, before we looked under the hood at the code, was visually striking websites. We’ve come to believe that simply re-designing to increase visual pleasure and memorability is somehow not okay. In this talk, Sarah will discuss what designing brands (including personal brands) looks like in 2016 and the social ecosystems that accompany them—without a “golden ratio” overlay in sight.

Photo source: Zeffrey Zeldman
Photo source: Zeffrey Zeldman


  • We lost some of our personality with responsive web design
  • May Day, May Day by Jeffrey Zeldman
  • “I don’t think we’re looking at the web as a primary artistic medium at all. We can do more of that.” — Jeffrey Zeldman
  • Every company is a media company
  • Websites are all looking the same; boring and predictable designs
  • We are all looking at the same pools of inspiration
  • We pick design elements based on what we want to use
    • Decisions should be made based on what the branding needs
  • We keep waiting for permission
    • We wait for trends that we can follow
    • We have been waiting on Apple for years for design permission
  • Stripe is a good example of a company that sticks to their own designs, not following trends (e.g. “flat” design)
  • Branding is the product of deliberate conception
  • Branding is not a pattern library or mood board
  • “When a brand says ‘a modern form of currency…for a new generation of chocolate enthusiasts’, that might be good design talk, but to appeal to real people, the brand will have to connect to a series of feelings.” — Seth Godin
  • “Genuinely good branding involves an examination of every single way the brand, the product, and the experience is viewed.” — Stanley Hainsworth – Global Creative, Starbucks
  • How do you stand out in a homogenized web?
  • Research
    • You can’t always rely on research
      • “If I went to a group of consumers and asked them if I should sell a $4 cup of
        coffee, what would they have told me?” — Howard Schultz – Founder, Starbucks
      • “At Nike, ideas were validated by gut instinct, not the consumer.” — Stanley Hainsworth – Former Global Creative, Nike
    • Facebook Audience Insights is a good place to do research
  • Creating a brief: work with a copywriter
  • Anatomy of a brand
    • 10 “spokes” of the branding wheel
      1. Logo Mark
      2. Color Palette
      3. Tone of Voice
      4. Company Values
      5. Typefaces
      6. Art Direction
      7. Layout
      8. Slogans
      9. Social Ecosystem
      10. Authentic Storytelling
    • Focus on 3 or 4 spokes that are the most important to the client
  • Logo
    • Many people think that the logo is their brand
    • Logo should be memorable with or without typography
    • “An icon should be neutral enough to be able to withstand all kind of cultural or generational shifts” — Sean Adams
    • Examples:
    • Companies are really afraid to simplify their logo marks
  • Color palette
    • Try a physical Pantone color palette to look at colors
    • Trend to using 2 dominant color pairings
    • Examples:
    • Gradient maps can hide bad photography
      • Example: color overlays on Spotify
    • Try Pantone postcards to look at colors
  • Tone of voice
  • Social ecosystem
    • The system must be designed for social interactions
    • The basic social ecosystem
      1. Publishing channels
      2. Aspirational/inspirational channels
      3. Support channels
      4. Follow up channels
  • Typefaces
  • Art direction
    • A simplified logo enables you to use it in a lot of different places
    • Examples:
  • Company values
  • Authentic storytelling
    • “Today, value is less about brand attributes and more about brand meaning.” — Virgina Postrel
    • Tell your story
    • Examples:
      • Starbucks responsibility page
        • “I buy from Starbucks because they tell me a story about where the bean comes from, and this relationship and overall vibe make me feel better about the purchase, even though there’s a part of my brain saying “hmmm I’m not so sure about this”. — Dori Tunstall
      • StubHub redesign
  • Layout
  • Slogans
    • Slogans hide bad design; some people love them though
    • Examples:
      • StubHub
      • Serial: uses an audio slogan at the beginning of each episode
  • Good example of branding: Frank Body
    • Chose 3 spokes of the wheel for branding: tone of voice, art direction, and social ecosystem
    • Founders write copy themselves
      • “We created a male persona called Frank. We wanted to be frank & honest in all communications.” — Jess Hatzis – Founder
      • “We wrote in a way that came very naturally to us.” — Erika Geraerts – Founder
    • Took pictures of themselves using product to get customers to post the types of photos they wanted on social media
    • Had to re-think photography for U.S. audience
  • Personal branding
    • Tend to choose 3 spokes of the branding wheel
    • Direct marketers are some of the best people to look at
    • Good example: studio.zeldman
    • Consistency
    • Quantity over quality
  • Summary
    • Find your authentic story
    • What equity can you start to create from typography, colours or other brand elements.
    • Get your users to create your content.
    • Create tension by playing with contradictions
    • Carefully think about every touchpoint of your business, and design that experience

Related Links