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How to Find the Soul of Your Brand and Design a Powerful Brand Identity

The Seattle24x7 “How-To” Interview with Tim Girvin

In the pantheon of designers who have changed the way brand marketers think about developing a visual identity, Tim Girvin’s leadership and impact have been transcendent.

His internationally known, Seattle-based studio, eponymously named GIRVIN, has fostered an environment for creative expression where ideas take on the dimension of cultural artifacts. The kind of objects you might find in a museum exhibit commemorating your industry, your products, and your presence, far into the future.

Girvin’s logos are symbols that encompass a brand’s DNA and operate to define a brand’s deeper meaning, its “emotional” architecture and its place in history, a word which, at root-level, constitutes the concept of “story.”

If you are contemplating the creation of a visual identity for your firm, product, service, publication, film title, or slogan, Tim will advise to start by searching for its soul. What is your brand story? What is the nucleus of the brand message? A symbol that rings true to your market audience can only arise from a process that discovers what is genuinely distinctive and authentically true about you.

Think of the Hollywood movies you have been drawn to over the years. The typography and imagery in the movie poster, advertising and title treatment encapsulate the story behind it, setting the stage. GIRVIN has been the branding force behind many of the major motion pictures of our time.

Like a movie about outer space, Tim personifies the kind of human talent that belongs on an inter-stellar spacecraft bound for a new world—a vessel sent off to foster a new civilization. Once on the new planet, he would develop a coherent design system for the many aspects of the new ecosystem, bringing order to the uncharted frontier. In the final analysis, isn’t every identity project about creating a bold, new world for your brand?

Designer. Iconoclast. Philosopher. Synthesist. In this meeting of minds with Tim Girvin you will unearth how to create a “brand” new world for your maiden voyage.

Seattle24x7:  Tim, you have observed that the “making of marks” is an ancient and deeply felt part of the human condition and an ancient calling. Does that make “logo designer” the world’s oldest profession?

Girvin: I think that mark-making, the making of designs and signs—sigils and signets—to tell people things, point to directions or tell stories, to ward off badness, to bring on prosperity and happiness are all wrapped up in this proposition. Ancient yes—and the ancient truths hold. To make a mark is to tell a story, to offer a premise, to map a way, it’s an exchange as simply profound as using drawing to explain something to someone. It takes an idea and marks it in time—even if that idea is how to get from point A to point Z. 

Seattle24x7: Flash forward 200,000 years, creating a mark today is still what you have described as a “pattern language,” a way of meaning. It sounds like you are tapping into something that is deeply rooted in our subconscious minds?

Girvin:  The way I see it, people perceive things, events and experiences, in patterns. They understand patterns and their making as sequences—just as in a storytelling—“first this happened. then this, and then this…” And in that telling, there’s a pattern. That patterning can be core to the sequentiality of the narrative, but that could be, too, part of a brand story, whose symbolic merit and character could find their way to a graphical device, which then becomes an approach to a mark, which is then a form of typographic treatment, which is then applied to an interior patterning language.

We think that way all the time—“what’s the story, who’s telling it, what’s it sound like—and look like?” And there might be a patterning in there with variations on the markings—that could code a visitor to the brand in a way that storytelling, which is evidenced in a marking, which is shown in a patterning, reveals.

Working, for example, with Disney, we built a patterning language that permeated everything, from environmental graphics, floor and wall treatments, products and take-aways, website, collateral, interiors—they were all subtle, but all synchronized. And memorable—people commented on the integrative detailing. 

Seattle24x7: The creation of a brand identity is truly a multidisciplinary process, involving the talents of a market researcher, graphic designer, illustrator, typographer, storyteller, and creative director who is part cultural “anthropologist“ or “archaeologist”— for starters. Is there a leader to this tribe?

Girvin: The leader would be the synthesist, someone that  synchronizes and synthesizes the efforts to arrive at a team’s collective grasp of the best pathway forward.

Seattle24x7: The outcomes of a brand identity project are equally wide ranging: naming, packaging, marketing, print, digital, social outreach and more. Is the right way to look at an identity project one that anticipates these different outcomes as integrated, cohesive pieces of the project as a whole? 

Girvin: I think that you could think of the entire parable of branding and identity design as a process of weaving a layering of ideas, inspirations, symbolisms and storytellings towards the articulation of a designed ideal or exemplar, that which stands above all. There is the loom, which might be the team convening a table of conversations and explorations—there is the weft of one grouping of ideas and there is the warp of another discourse; the shuttling bobbin electrifies and articulates the detailing of how the patterns converge on the loom’s outcomes, the tapestry: and together, they form the patterning that holds the design solutions for the future.

Seattle24x7: You also promote an experiential approach to design, integrating strategic elements and the overarching plan to build sensory brand exposures.  Do you see design as a stimulus to activating a particular response?  How might you anticipate the response that a particular identity stimulates during the design process? 

Girvin: People think about brand “experiences” as only this—they walk by, they walk in, they walk away. It might be that they touch, they hold, they smell—taste and hear. But the key to any journey, anywhere, is what did you remember? 

It is the conglomerate of details that holds that journey to memory, otherwise it’s shuffled away. To our thinking, that entire layering of the constructs could be memorable. We think of that sequencing as a string of “e’s:” enchantment, someone hears the song, the chant, of a brand—in whatever promotional or experiential reach-out there might be, from shelf to site; then engagement—the commitment to the brand, the added exploration; and finally embracement: which is whole-hearted commitment to the offer. 

Seattle24x7: In terms of identity, you advocate the creation of a BrandCode®,  “a coded system of genetic attributes” that identifies the unique DNA of a product, service or company. ” What are some of the attributes that are “tagged” in this process? What are some of the elements that come out of it?

Girvin: If you think of a brand as having a soul—a spiritual force that drives it—emboldened by humans, then that becomes a manifestation of stance, character and personality. The genetic code is spiritual to begin with, then becomes humanized in personality and attributes of action. “What would this brand do? What does this brand stand for? Why am I working here?”

Seattle24x7: When commencing a brand identity project, is there a similar point of origin for every outcome?  How do you have everyone reading the same page?

Girvin It’s a progression—if you keep the team in active and connected collaboration and working cooperatively towards direction and outcomes, then everyone has touched on the proposition and considers that they’ve played a role. We build team workshops—BrandQuests® and BrandStorm charrettes to get to the answers as a cumulation of minds—another apt metaphor. These set the fertilized ground for building the BrandCode® that will lend itself to colors, messaging, type, patterning details, systems and architecture and all return to the principle of identity experience strategy and design. 

Seattle24x7: In the process of designing a brand identity, how much attention should be paid to auditing other brands in the same market space? Presumably, the design elements, typeface and color palette want to be distinctive compared to others who compete for mind share?

Girvin:You should always know your field well—just like any visibility of the horizon, it’s good to know where you and your brand stand, what the benchmarks are, and where the truth would be for your telling—how distinctive is your story, your distinguishing values—how memorable are you, your brand, your proposition of offerings? 

Seattle24x7: You have developed “logotypes” (typographic logos or treatments) for the titles of a great many major motion pictures including: Forrest Gump, Good Fellas, Fantasia 2000, The Matrix and Scooby Doo. to name but a few, for studios like Paramount, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM.  When doing a title treatment for a movie, what is your interpretation based on?  A reading of the script, the book, or other input?  Is the typeface you will use for a movie title always created as an original font? How many custom typefaces would you say GIRVIN has created over the years?

Girvin: For a movie, obviously, we have to know the story and what it will look like, who’s in it, who’s portraying whom, what’s the vibe of the shooting style, what is the intent of the cinematography? That’s back to the “what’s it look like?” Which too would speak to production and set design, as well as clothing, environments and visual collateral.

The more you know, the better tuned the solution. Reading the script is one part—but knowing the bigger picture is important. I draw types that are specific to the illustration of the film that I have in mind—bringing along my teammates in the evolutions of these solution developments. I would prefer to go custom-built on all type design. 

Seattle24x7: Speaking of typography, would you advise a corporation to create a custom typeface to match their corporate logotype?  

Girvin:Only if they can create a look that is distinctively unique to them—that is the most pertinent premise for a custom font system.

Seattle24x7: Would you advise a medium-to-large size business to create a custom typeface when choosing a typestyle for their logotype, or to select one from a type foundry?

Girvin: Custom font systems are pricey—and likely out of reach of many in the space of conventional marketing. So then the solution might be to chose a contrastive font—one that acts as a foil to the identity visual plan. 

Seattle24x7: When honing in on a new logo candidate, how many different logo treatments or versions do you feel are customary to introduce into the decision-making process? Assumedly, the number of directions and choices must be limited. How do you set the parameters? 

Girvin: I like to focus on strategy as the start-up or brand evolution—what’s the strategy and scale of what we’re trying to undertake and in that study, how broad should the field of candidates be? Money counts: the smaller the budget, the more careful the spread of ideas—more specific to tighter loops of decision-making and review. 

Seattle24x7:  Is there a “timeline” for the lifespan of a brand’s identity? 

Girvin: I have logos out for a quarter century now—half my career. Nordstrom, for example. Others are out for a campaign season as the launch of a concept [like a movie] but last decades.

Seattle24x7: Conventional wisdom suggests that consistency and longevity engender brand stability whereas changing a brand’s “true colors” or symbolism can imply uncertainty or weakness.  Are incremental changes to a logo, such as modernization, more advisable the  wholesale changes? What are the barometric pressures that affect identity change?

Girvin: It’s all about the strategy—what’s really important, what’s memorable—what’s unforgettable about the brand and its identity and what should be retained, evolved or adjusted? Strategic evolution and marketplace responsiveness should be core. 

Seattle24x7: In an increasingly, mobilized and interconnected  global community, how can today’s designer of identity systems best fashion an identity that operates internationally? You have pointed out that “different cultures approach brands in varying ways.” Do you advise localization of product design for other parts of the world, or creating a unifying graphic standard that transcends borders?

Girvin:  If the design is localized with specificity to select regions, then better to—as an identity designer—know precisely what’s happening in those regions. Some brands are very specific to their locations, internationally—like Eastern Europe, Middle East, North Africa, SubSaharan, South Africa, South American, Asia—each of these has attributes that are definable, and there is some unity, but as well there are distinctions—knowing them helps in defining design—and the potential demographies it can serve. 

Tim Girvin is a designer, creative director, calligrapher, writer, public speaker and photographer who founded the design firm known as GIRVIN in 1976. The firm’s clients range from Nintendo and Shiseido, to Microsoft and Apple, Paramount Studios to Wynn Resorts. Visit GIRVIN at Girvin.com