Branding vs identity, concepts vs ideas.

How good is it when you’ve been mulling something over in your head and then you hear or read something espousing the very same idea but argued more eloquently than you do in your head, and suddenly your point of view becomes crystal clear?

It happened to me last week.

I was listening to an archive issue of Design Matters. Debbie Millman was talking with Louise Fili, a New York based graphic designer who specialises in food packaging and restaurant identities.

Note the identity part. That’s the bit that interested me.

In the past I had always described what I do for clients as designing visual identities – more than a logo, less than a brand.

The problem is, my language is often corrected, often by other designers, sometimes even by clients. They all use the ‘brand’ word.

For example, recently a client commissioned me to ‘revise their brand’ but at closer inspection, what I found was a logo and some very dated identity guidelines.

I have been corrected so often I thought I was wrong so I labeled the ‘identity’ category on my website ‘branding’, even though all but one of the examples are clearly described as identities (or the term our government like ‘look and feels’).

So, back to the Design Matters’ interview: Louise talked about identities.

Louise talked through some of her projects and made a clear distinction between brands and identities. Part of what she said is ‘ designing for a brand can bloat the design process’, and I’ve got to agree. Instead of an agile design process, using the ‘branding word’ can turn a simple visual identity process into a ‘design by committee’ exercise that needs approval at every level.

Louise argued exactly the point I was trying to make in my head, only better.

It’s worth a listen to get her views first hand because she makes other valuable points. She made me smile when she explained that the only time she uses the word brand is when her clients want to do something that will destruct the logo she’s designed. She says they can’t do that because it would dilute their brand. I too have been guilty of that.

Perhaps what I don’t like is people taking themselves – and design – too seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that if an organisation is spending $50,000 on a brand role-out it has to be taken seriously. That’s why – like Louise – I’m happier working with smaller companies where you deal with the decision-maker.

The second ‘designerly’ word that I never use is concept.

I was reminded why, when I read a tweet by Kevin Finn last week. It was about a recent interview with Bob Gill – a founding member of Pentragram and one of my original design heroes.

The interview prompted me to get one of his books Graphic design as a second language from my bookcase. (I can’t remember when I bought it but it’s signed by Bob, so it's a treasure).

The first chapter is on Definitions. Here’s part of the first page, written in 2003, way before the design thinkers labeled what they do:

Design is a way of organizing something.

You can’t hold design in your hand. It is not a thing. It is process. A system. A way of thinking.

In the second paragraph he discusses the word concept.

Please never use the word concept.

Great thinkers like Einstein and Newton think of concepts like relativity and gravity. We, humble graphic designers never get concepts. Only ideas.

I could keep quoting, but best you buy the book.

Carol Mackay

Carol is co-founder of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 30 years in business.

Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that is easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not for profit sectors. More at

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