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How to Escape Brandcuffs

Your Idea

Brandcuffs: Working within a style guide that's so tightly defined, the grid of every brochure must not deviate one millimeter from the provided templates and if you even consider a photo or illustration that doesn't exactly match the provided disc of examples, their branding group will effectively fire you. (I didn't come up with the term... I stumbled across it on Chris Korbey's portfolio site.)

I'm a very big believer in brand guidelines, and spend a lot of time working with clients that have extraordinarily articulate brands that have been around in some form for 20 years or longer. The amusing thing about working with such brands is that client groups within those companies are always asking in meetings for work that skirts along the bounds of the brand in some way they can't articulate with mere words. "Show me something I haven't seen before," is usually the rallying cry.

The trick, in such situations, isn't to throw the brand style guide away and just start dreaming of crazy-cool ideas. You've got to inhale the brand book and the words describing the real brand essence, consume it voraciously, look through examples of what other designers have done with the brand (if any exist). Then, throw it all away and meditate on the real core or spirit of what the client wants to tease out of the brand essence. This is concerted, thoughtful effort. It prepares you for the creative journey.

After sussing out the spirit of the brand, then you can put the book aside and start sketching out ideas, ideally without consideration for their form and content in the brand language... yet. Often, I end up pitching ideas where everything exactly conforms to the brand style except for one exceptional element, what I'd call the "hero" of the piece, that ties into the brand in a less literal, more conceptual fashion. 

I learned this trick from an art director I had for many years. He was peerless at distilling very rigid brands into exceptional creative work. One of his concepts that I ended up helping execute was an explorer's map that was digitally printed and personalized to put the recipient in the same line of great explorers as Columbus and Magellan, complete with silhouette that was matched to the recipient's gender. The clients were especially concerned from the onset of the project about matching the style guide to the letter. When they saw this concept however, it easily passed brand review. Even though it was far outside the gamut of the visual brand, it encapsulated the spirit of what the brand meant in words. It contained the brand's vision.

I find that when starting to finesse a big idea into a brand's visual language, sometimes this is the only way to create something that will meet a client's expectations for something new.

A few other guidelines that may help after you have a strong idea in hand:

1. Clients need to make the case to brand review. And you need to arm them. You've gotten a strong concept in front of your clients, and they love it. But they can't just send it off to brand review and call it a day. Give them the details and rationale they need with the creative work at concept and get it approved by brand straight-away, before you move into execution.

2. You need more than a good reason for bending brand rules. Your work needs to be exceptional if you're asking for an exception to branding rules that exist for a reason: they protect and help preserve the spirit of a company's true reason for being.

3. You need a Plan B before you fully implement Plan A. Work gets shot down for the strangest of reasons, due to politics that you often can't manage. Be ready to redo or back up mid-stream if your tenacious, well-considered arguments fall on deaf lawyer ears. Don't expend too much energy thinking about having to go there. Just be mindful of the possibility.

4. Watch out for the "We'll ask forgiveness..." party line. A few pebbles fall onto the path in front of you, and the trickle turns into an avalanche. Pretty soon, you're buried. That's the same thing that happens with clients who say they'll let a concept pass without brand review. Somewhere along the way, when the brand people find out where you're going, there's a much greater risk of paying the price -- with killed work.

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