Rogue Designers

by Dan Woychick

A group of people gather inconspicuously in a public place. Participants nervously wait for their cue. And then it begins, simply at first, then building momentum as more join in. The exhilaration grows as bystanders stop and watch with surprise and delight, finally bursting into applause as the unexpected performance reaches its conclusion.

Flash mobs – with singing and dancing that transform an ordinary classroom or train station into a scene from Glee – are usually performed by volunteers, often total strangers, for nothing more than the fun of it (and repeated views on YouTube).

When it comes to design or brand standards, most organizations are looking for consistency, choreographed through manuals, training, and the occasional friendly reminder. The goal is to display admirable skill and precision that reflects well on the organization – we are good at what we do! So, why is it so damn hard to get people to use your logo correctly?

The art of conformity
At one time or another, we’ve all encountered a well-intentioned – I’m giving benefit of the doubt here – “rogue designer” in our midst. This is the sort of departmental do-it-yourselfer who might decorate the president’s official business with a clip art border of puppies, or arbitrarily change corporate colors because they were “feeling orange” that day.

In the nonprofit world, where a “big media buy” means a trip to the copy center, each impression is precious. That’s why it’s so important to get everyone voluntarily pulling in the same direction.

I recently polled a few colleagues who’ve had success managing brands to assemble some best practices for keeping aberrant design behavior to a minimum.

Ongoing communication
Developing design standards is a painstaking process, but often too much is assumed. An email is sent, a couple meetings scheduled, and some files are uploaded to the website – then we move on with our busy lives. And, so do our colleagues. It reminds me of the warden in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke admonishing his prisoners, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Less famously, Mary Ridgway, creative director at Fort Hays State University, wisely notes: “Branding isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process.” In fact, the process – planning how and when you will communicate with internal stakeholders – is as important as the product (logos, fonts, and colors). Keep in mind:

  • Transparency matters. Getting buy-in works best when people feel involved. Let them know what’s happening, how things are progressing, and ask for feedback. Start early and keep at it.
  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How does what you’re asking people to do make their lives more difficult or less convenient? How can you make it simpler or easier? Ideally, this is a two-way street, says Sheila Hines Edmondson, a communications consultant. Empathy helps build trust and encourages open discourse.
  • Training days. The brand launch is only the beginning, a time for handing out balloons and coffee mugs. Schedule workshops – and annual orientation sessions for new hires – to bring everyone up to speed on what the brand standards are, why they are important, and how each person has a role to play in the brand’s success.
  • It takes a village. Recruit a committee of brand champions – ambassadors who lead by example and help you reinforce the brand consistently across the organization.

Chain of command
As a child, no one ever said, “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a manager.” And certainly nobody aspires to the fresh hell of serving as a manager without authority. Brand standards won’t succeed unless there’s visible and vocal support in the executive suite. Without it, the benign paternalism of the brand manager can quickly devolve into resentment and bitter resignation.

Despite the benefits of ongoing communication, ultimately every brand needs a benevolent dictator. Allison Manley of the Chicago-based firm Rogue Element observes, “Getting buy-in from multiple voices is fine, but it’s impossible to please everyone. There must be one or two people making the final decisions, and willing to take any heat they might receive.”

Control of the purse strings is a useful policy as well, says Mary Ridgway. “If someone bypasses my approval, the purchasing department won’t pay the bill, and the rogue must pay out of their own pocket.”

Style and substance
It’s important to document the elements that define your visual brand. The style or brand guide is the foundation for everything your organization produces. These guidelines summarize the brand and illustrate components of the organization’s identity, including: key messages, examples of common print and online applications, explanation of the logo, typography, color palette, and graphic elements.

Make electronic files and templates easily available by posting them on your website. Do you really want to be the bottleneck that responds to every random logo request? However, to discourage foolishness, make those graphics and templates difficult to edit or alter.

Your aim is true
Let’s face it: designers are all kind of control freaks at heart. Accepting that some battles aren’t worth fighting or fretting over is a tough step for some. Where do you draw the line? The answer is rarely crystal clear. Accept that some of the “rogue” work is going to look fine and some is going to be horrible. Sometimes, the best you can do is to ask the offenders for future cooperation.

For most people, there’s joy and fulfillment in being part of something bigger than oneself – cheering on the home team, going to the cineplex, or gathering for Sunday services. Creating the conditions for brand success require tapping into that innate human desire to belong.

Finally, as with a flash mob, don’t underestimate the element of surprise and delight. Ongoing, involuntary drudgery inspires little brand enthusiasm. When all else fails, take the words of Chuckles the Clown  to heart: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

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