Are rebrands starting to look the same? The challenges defining commercial design
Graphic designer and writer Elizabeth Goodspeed looks at the current trends in designing for the commercial world, and the impact shortened turnarounds and economic tensions are having on originality.
As long as there's been branding, there's been rebranding. From new identities forged to reflect post-war mergers and acquisitions in the 1950s, to modern corporations undergoing digital facelifts for a global audience, rebranding remains a testament to the need for constant adaptation and evolution in design. In an ever-changing market landscape, where consumer preferences change on a dime, and technological advances redefine standards overnight, businesses and designers find themselves delicately balancing brand legacy and the desire for a new and innovative approach. But between the pressures of quick turnarounds and the allure of inspiration boards, how does one define originality in an age saturated with visual stimuli?
Commercial art is in a bind; clients’ increasing reliance on venture capital and fast returns has pressured designers to deliver work ever-quicker and more predictably. Coupled with post-Covid economic tensions and an impending recession, originality has become a gamble. Studios can hesitate to push boundaries, especially if they doubt a client's willingness to buy into something more experimental. As design historian and commentator Richard Baird, founder of Brand Archive, a collection of historic brand design, aptly puts it, for some it can be "more efficient and effective to go onto Pinterest or design blogs and take the best bits and pieces of what’s already being done".
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Brand Archive: Olivetti (Copyright © Brand Archive)
“When the client comes to the table with the answers, they really just want executors.”Emunah Winer
The designers and agencies who manage to create lofty mythologies about their studio and approach often succeed in pitching unconventional rebrands to hesitant clients – but therein lies the paradox. Getting buy-in on unique work often requires already having done unique work before. Only once a studio gets press coverage or commercial recognition for a groundbreaking originality does it tend to attract clients looking for similar levels of ingenuity. In contrast, studios not already known for making “weird” work might find it challenging to secure clients willing to deviate from the norm. This creates an ecosystem where established innovators are beacons for adventurous clients, while the rest remain in the shadows of conventionality. And while it often appears that larger studios are intentionally borrowing from smaller ones, it may also be the case that smaller studios simply get more leeway to create unusual aesthetic worlds; once the visual motifs the independent fringe adopt early become mainstream, it’s then easier for larger studios to encourage more tent-pole clients to utilise those same motifs. The process is arguably less a case of direct plagiarism than an example of a slow trickle-down effect – almost akin to aesthetic gentrification – as ideas assimilate into the larger culture.
From a financial perspective, the rise of value-based pricing over the past decade has muddied the waters between designers and clients further. Compared to industries like construction, where cost breakdown between labour and materials are clear, branding fees aren't always easily parsable. Even when deliverables are expressly defined, by nature, the scope of a rebrand extends much further into the murky ether. Clients are ultimately paying for ideas, expertise and the occasional spark of genius that can't be quantified by hours or days (see: Paula Scher's Citibank logo, sketched in moments on a napkin). Regardless, this lack of clarity can make clients hesitant: why spend big when more expensive may not mean more effort? “Pre-Branding” or "MVP" (Minimum Viable Product) branding – where clients receive pre-made or quickly made identities that are just enough to get them over the first hurdle of fundraising or launch – have also contributed to increased confusion around the value of design. With MVPs seemingly delivering adequate results for less, the nuance and strategic depth of thorough brand development might appear superfluous to some clients. Mike Smith, founder of Philadelphia-based design studio Smith & Diction, that has undertaken rebrands for companies like Exposure and Suburban, summarises the issue: "in a system where there's no consistent pricing, clients can't trust that more money means a better product."
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Brand Archive: IBM (Copyright © Brand Archive)
“In a system where there's no consistent pricing, clients can't trust that more money means a better product.”Mike Smith
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Joseph Han: Kaleidoscopic Home (Copyright © Joseph Han)
Other constraints still compound the difficulty of achieving originality. Richard notes that the primary deliverable for most historic 20th Century rebrands was print collateral, a format that necessitated more time and financial investment to bring to completion. On the other hand, the digital applications more often associated with modern rebrands, while comparatively easy to update, may counter-intuitively promote less care and attention towards their making. Mike points to another possible issue contributing to rebrand redundancy: lack of rollout support beyond rebrand launch. Even a unique identity may lose its spark when its primary consumer touchpoint is what a social media manager produces on Canva after skimming the brand guidelines once. Further still, many clients no longer approach design studios to harness their expertise but, instead, with preconceived notions of the result they expect; design studios may want to create original work, but sometimes clients are willing to pay more for a rebrand that mirrors their own preconceived ideas of what the work should look like. Emunah Winer, creative director of Israeli design studio Nihilo, which recently completed rebrands for Olive and Trullion, encapsulates this shift, saying, "when the client comes to the table with the answers, they really just want executors."
With so many logistical factors fighting against us, many designers find themselves both fighting for originality and simultaneously quick to point a finger at what they perceive to be a lack of originality in their peers. But practical limitations aside, our urge to assess the originality and “trendiness” of rebrands may be a misguided metric. Is there evidence that a truly novel idea exists, and is it always beneficial for a rebrand to prioritise this? Or, is our desire to avoid making trendy or unoriginal work a deficit? While designers might debate the intricacies of truly unique branding, beneath these immediate concerns, there's an underlying truth: what's seen as popular often holds a key to broader appeal and effectiveness.
“Many clients mistake newness for bravery, but sometimes bravery can be something restrained, if that’s what the client needs.”Emunah Winer
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Brand Archive: Westinghouse (Copyright © Brand Archive)
At its core, a trend is evidence of a successful idea. Rebrands that resemble one another aren’t necessarily using similar visual treatments because they’re trendy; rather, their trendiness is proof of their effectiveness. Many of the redundant tropes seen in contemporary rebrands may primarily emerge out of functional constraints – certain formal qualities are simply better suited for the needs of present-day brands, especially fast-moving digital ones. As Dave Ladd, executive creative director at global design agency Koto (the studio behind rebrands for major players from Discord to WhatsApp), notes that blue is the easiest colour to make ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, which is likely what causes it to show up in so many visual identities in tech. The same could be said of the flat-vector illustration style that’s bubbled up over the last 10 years, or its arguable successor, the loose brushy doodles seen in rebrands from Koto’s Glassdoor to Collins’ Mailchimp (a current topic of debate online). Both styles are, in some respect, minimum viable illustration; as Dave describes it, they’re evergreen, convey diversity in the safest, most risk-free way possible, and are simplistic enough to be created by a range of illustrators and designers. In a sense, the real value of these distinct illustration styles isn’t necessarily their formal qualities (though there are many talented illustrators working in such styles who bring unique perspectives to the work), but, instead, in their efficacy as fodder for brand building. It’s no surprise, then, that multiple design studios may find themselves drawn to the same tools and formal approaches in the pursuit of a modern, production-friendly rebrand. In these cases, the pursuit of originality takes a backseat to that of utility.
Even the pursuit of original ideas doesn’t guarantee originality, however. At times, visual trends can operate outside the laws of physics and resemble something closer to spontaneous generation. The simultaneous invention of Calculus by both Newton and Leibniz serves as a testament to the fact that ideas, at times, seem to hover in the collective consciousness, simply waiting for the right moment and mind to give them form. As keen observers, designers are uniquely positioned to put a finger to today’s aesthetic breeze and transform the ideas floating in the zeitgeist into tangible outputs. After all, designers are a bit like scrapbookers: we methodically select and combine elements from existing sources to craft novel interpretations. Rarely do we make things completely from scratch. Instead, we curate select elements from the world around us to create something we feel is novel. But what is novelty? Our collective definition of newness is ever-changing, and exists only in relation to what we see frequently. What we consider original tends to be the opposite of whatever we consider ordinary. Critics often refer to the “20-year trend cycle”, which implies there may even be an empirical consensus around when things begin to look new again – Gen-Z loves Y2K fashion precisely because they didn’t have to live through its first iteration. As the often-referenced pendulum swing dictates, when sans-serifs hit oversaturation, we individually, but collectively, feel the itch to use a slab.
In today’s interconnected global culture, we seem to be experiencing an increase in creative group-think, where any designer’s attempt at a unique approach can inadvertently mimic another; each designer a single bird in a murmuration, looking only at their neighbours but still contributing to a scale outside their understanding. This tendency towards a herd mentality in design is so prevalent that Deanna German and Caroline Fox, creative directors at Koto LA, note that the creative and strategy teams across their five worldwide offices (New York, LA, Berlin, London and Sydney) meet regularly simply to ensure the positioning they’re building each brand from is different, and that there’s no substantial overlap between the work produced in each studio of the same company.
And while the marketplace of ideas champions originality, there's value in the familiar. Humans are wired to recognise and feel comfortable with patterns. Formal cues, when used at a large scale across time, begin to cohere around predictable messaging; kraft paper connotes the natural and organic, while metallic foil the futuristic and progressive. Those brushy illustrations mentioned earlier? Great for tech companies whose digital products can’t be photographed and who need a jolt of humanity to offset their image. By deploying certain visual tropes like these, brands can quickly cue consumers to their product’s function or ethos.
Rebrands in particular tend to emerge as a direct response to a company being out of lockstep with contemporary values or aesthetics. In that sense, the very nature of updating an identity for a new period seems to necessitate reflecting some aspects of the current environment back on itself. A rebrand that looks too different from the current commercial landscape can be a deficit, ultimately positioning a brand as too much of an outlier. With rebrands, there’s also the concern of changing too much for an existing identity and alienating existing customers. On the other hand, a rebrand that’s too successful in defining a new visual language opens itself up to copycats – as in the case of Graza’s squeeze bottle and the many imitators who followed. As beauty editor Tynan Sinks says in a recent interview with strategist Nikita Walia, “everyone is trying to look the same, but also to stand out – and you just can't have both”. Archivist Richard notes that reflecting the zeitgeist through intentionally trendy aesthetics has actually been considered an asset for many brands historically. He points to Italian typewriter company Olivetti as an example: from 1930 to 1970, the logo changed almost every 10 years, precisely in order to “always stay relevant” and current to the contemporary landscape.
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Nihilo: Olami (Copyright © Nihilo)
Joseph Han, a creative director at Collins, a studio known for its rebrands of organisations as varied as Sweetgreen and the Institute of Design, notes that Collins prefers to eschew the word “rebrand” entirely, as its process of re-imagining organisations is so revolutionary as to surpass the simplicity of the word. Joseph points out that while all rebrands do share some commonality – the goal of transforming a company for its future – contexts vary: is a 100-year-old company trying to regain cultural relevance? Is the company expanding its business or product offerings? Are they scaling up to reach more audiences, or merging with another company? As Joseph puts it, “understanding the context and motivation behind rebranding allows us to set appropriate criteria to measure success. How is their current brand expression dissonant with how they want to be perceived?” In this framework, the measure of success isn't just how unique or bold the final product is, but how well it resonates with the company’s objectives and ethos. “Originality is a product, not an intention,” says Joseph. Dave echoes this sentiment, noting that “not every rebrand is going to be the most cutting edge or incredible thing you do – some people don’t want to shift entirely and it’s not feasible for them to do so”. In Dave’s words, “a font is not a brand, and an illustration is not a brand. There is no original idea – it’s how you assemble parts in what order.”
It may be that the genuine magic of a rebrand only happens when designers become deeply attuned to their clients' challenges and visions. To craft truly unique ideas that stand the test of time, one must focus only on tailoring solutions to the problem's exact nature. With that clarity, decisions can be both spontaneous and deliberate. Nihilo’s Winer agrees, noting that “many clients mistake newness for bravery, but sometimes bravery can be something restrained, if that’s what the client needs”. Mike Smith puts it even more succinctly: “sometimes you need a pop song.” After all, who can resist humming along to a good pop tune – even if it sounds a bit like everything else on the radio.
About the Author
Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.