Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Miles Newlyn on the succesful creative team and the design process

September 19, 2012, 12:03 AM

Miles Newlyn is one very rare designer that seems to be involved in almost every significant rebranding project across the globe. Browsing his website (links at the end of post), you’ll be amazed to see how many top companies’ identities, logos or custom typefaces have been ‘helped’ by his hand. Miles was one of the speakers at this year’s Brand New Conference, and his presentation is just as unconventional, inspiring and thought-provoking as his work.

Two things have stayed with me the most — first, Miles’s description of the ideal creative team:

[…] the most successful teams consist of a classicist, a mannerist and a romantic — classicists have the attitude of being in harmony with their place in time, they rejoice things as they are; mannerists have the attitude that creates its own little cosmos amidst the chaos, and the romantics dream of better times and places than here and now — these three human qualities I feel always provide the best team. Ocassionally you may have somebody who embodies both, or all of them, or it might be a bit lopsided sometimes […]

and second, his thoughts on the design process:

My process begins with ugliness […] Part of design is to perceive what is ugly, and a deep understanding of ugliness is the flip side of what we do — how can you make something better if you don’t know what is wrong with it? That understanding of ugliness is necessary to be able to move towards beauty […] Once you got beauty, the next stage for me is realness […]  Once we’ve understood what’s ugly in a piece of work […] the next stage is an understanding of which particular beauty it posesses […] falling into three main categories, the same categories that I’ve mentioned earlier […] classical, mannierist and romantic. Each of these categories of beauty are particular human perspectives, and so each of them are beautifully flawed. I tend to think very deeply about which particular beauty something posesses, and wonder whether that’s appropriate for the job […] The end of the process, which is always the point where you know you’re finished […] is ‘Have I found truth?’ — that’s when I know it is finished.

There are many other bits of wisdom, don’t be fooled by the slow first part. Here’s Miles on stage, with one of his beautifully crafted designs:

One quote that seems to have become quite popular is this one:

Stories have an end, and unless you want to think of your brand as having an end, then forget the storytelling idea, and forget people who talk about brand storytelling.

While I like its wittiness, I can’t say I agree with it. Good stories are always worth being told again, even if they end (Disney aside, Jack Daniels comes to mind here, they always have so many nice stories about their founder and their traditions) — plus some stories have a way of going on an on an on, sometimes never ending. I hate to use this as an example, but Eastenders and other soap operas are like this, people don’t seem to mind their way of continuing, they come back for more, no matter how absurd. And there are also some stories (especially Asian ones) where the reader has to add, continue or complete them. But I do think that ‘brand idea’ as a term is better than ‘brand story’.

Here are some of the logos shown in Miles’s presentation that he has designed or improved (and that are not on his website). You can recognise quite a lot of them from other big agencies’ portfolios:

The video of his presentation is available for download on the Brand New Conference website (you can hardly spend £3 / $5 in a better way). And of course, do visit to see Miles’s impressive portfolio and maybe get some of his beautiful typefaces up for sale.


— some more quotes from BNC 2012 can be found on the BNC website;
— photos of Miles by Eric Ryan Anderson.



Lava — Dutch Design Talk At The Design Museum

February 21, 2012, 8:05 AM

Dutch designers are almost by default among the bravest and most inspiring, so there was no way I would’ve missed Mr Hans Wolbers’s talk at the Design Museum last week. Under his helm, Lava Design have produced some great pieces of graphic design and branding over the last 20+ years.

The event's quirky poster and the 'Free Magenta' book

The event started with Mr Wolbers thanking the sponsors and explaining the idea behind the event’s poster. Taking a different approach, the sponsors became the main focus, their gold-foiled logos being repeated several times, while the ‘content’ took a more humble place at the bottom.

Mr Wolber’s simple presentation, white text (using Impact!) on black background, showed nine sections on the table of contents and was announced to have 600+ slides (for 45 minutes). I thought it might actually be a stop-motion film, but Mr Wolber’s delivered a fast paced, very insightful and humorous presentation. ‘A monkey called Bokito’ was the first section, explaining again the Lava philosophy of telling a story in a surprising way. Why show a gorilla (Bokito) when everyone knows how one looks, when the story in the newspaper is about how it managed to get across a big water ditch? So the whole article showed only photos of the ditch, no gorilla.

Design is not about beauty, it is about telling a story

Next was their definition of design: Design is not about beauty. Design is about telling a story. Followed by the Lava ‘corporate’ film, funny and self-deprecating, showing a good sense of humour that was present throughout the whole evening. One example: the founders Hans and Greet names could’ve led to a hilarious Hansel & Gretel company name, but it was not meant to be (the illustration had the packed hall roaring with laughter). Mr Wolbers continued with how, not having a lot of work, he and his partner decided to start with a holiday first. A volcano in Indonesia led them to their name, Lava Design. And a train from Shanghai to Amsterdam provided more than enough time to read one of the ‘Bourne Identity’ books and change the rules of the spies into the designer’s:

  • Think as the enemy client
  • Always stay in control
  • Do the unexpected

Back from holiday, both partners had around 600 meetings in 5 months, 3 per day for each, showing their portfolio to potential clients — this perseverance soon paying off. The fun story around this point: putting on their letterhead Alain Prost’s quote: ‘If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough’ (attributed to Mario Andretti, but with the Internet, you never know) led to an appearance in one of the Rockport books with Mr Prost as the ‘boss’ of the company.

‘If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough’

Next came a collection of photos of weird, funny, vernacular or over-designed toilet signs from all around the world — a growing series for a future book. These supported the point that understanding clichés can help in understanding design as stories and visual communication in general. Btw, If you have any similar photos, Mr Wolbers would be happy to receive them: hans at lava dot nl or contact him on Twitter at @hanswolbers.

A very good tip on how to explain the importance of brand identity to clients followed: using details of Van Gogh paintings, easily recognisable without seeing ‘the logo’ — Vincent’s signature — because of their style, something that a good brand identity should possess.

Visual style versus 'logo' — understanding the difference

The next sections were case studies of LAVA projects. Worth mentioning is that most of them had video presentations, showing animations of the logos with music in the background — I bet this makes things more interesting (and easier to take in) for the client. First was ‘7 days of inspiration’, a flexible identity for a networking event:

'7 days of inspiration' flexible identity

The THNK project, another flexible identity for the Amsterdam school of creative leadership, based on the idea that there is no ‘I” in Think, led to a multitude of I’s coming together and overlapping to form a network:

A flexible visual identity for THNK, the Amsterdam school of creative leadership

The following case study was titled ‘G-Spot’, about a South Korean company called Gabia in need of a new identity. A project started with what seemed like a spam email, but which proved to be a very good lesson on why you should avoid working for a client without knowing their background and paying a visit — they did only after three rejected concepts. The first one relied on four coloured circles, very similar to the very popular billiard signs, present all over the place in Seoul.

The visual identity for the Dutch National History Museum was next — a very simple yet so bold, different and fresh approach. Instead of going for the usual long name or the NHM acronym, they chose the ‘in NL’ name and developed yet another flexible identity, worthy of comparison with the identities of acclaimed art museums like Tate, Pompidou or MoMA:

Connecting the past and the present, the Dutch Museum of National History identity

A similar project but with a different solution, the very fresh identity for the Moscow Design Museum (launched that very morning):

Russian glassware inspiration for a flexible grid …

A visually striking array of symbols, all based on the same grid:

… leading to a multitude of symbols.

“Claiming a colour is nonsense because colors are from God”
— Gert Dumbar

‘Free Magenta’ was the next story — if you’ve missed the total nerve of T-Mobile for claiming the magenta colour as their own a few years ago, read more on the website: Mr Wolbers’s story proved again that designers should (and have the power) put their skills in service of good causes.

The last section was titled ‘How to earn more money’, based around some priceless advice (in the words of Peter Griffin: ‘see what I did here?’):

  • Explain the value of your work creatively — Hans’s business card shows the classic ‘good—cheap—fast’ triangle, of which the clients can only pick two — very simple, very effective and also quite fun;
  • Be market sensitive — good advice on how to adapt to the market, especially during a crisis, as Lava explain on this specially created website:;

A very entertaining story was the one about tenders — most designers’ nightmare. After frustratingly seeing client after client skipping the carefully-written presentations just to go directly to the last page and start complaining about the price, no matter how high or low, Mr Wolbers started to look for a ‘design solution’ to this problem. It came in the shape of three sealed envelopes, one with a ‘cheap’ price inside, one with a medium price and one with a high price. You can imagine the client’s surprise to this approach. They would almost always avoid the cheap one — no one likes to be seen as cheap. That would leave the medium and the expensive. What’s the difference, the client would ask?

Paris in your old, rusty car …

Well, for the medium price, it would be like going to Paris in your old, rusty car …

… is not exactly Paris in a superb Jaguar.

… while for the expensive price, you’d be going to the same Paris, but in a superb Jaguar. The destination is the same, but the necessary time and the experience are quite different. A very smart way to put it, and two out of three clients would go for the expensive package. The ending conclusion: Think creatively not just in design.

Think creatively not just in design.

Questions and answers followed, myself starting by asking whether Lava presents more directions to the client or one, and more after if the first one fails. It seems they present early concepts and involve the client early in the process, choose one direction and develop only that one. Another question made Mr Wolbers confess that he’d love to design an airline (who wouldn’t?). Another good question was whether Lava are specialised or not (from Mr Lee Sankey, see below for link). Their aim is to have/be more ideas people who could direct a team of visual specialists (freelancers). A question about pitches made Mr Wolbers explain the advantages of having a strong Dutch design association (think AIGA), meaning they only take part in paid pitches. Still, he admitted that competition is getting tougher.

Mr Hans Wolbers

Personal note
I’ve taken the time to write all the details I could remember (and recreate some of Mr Wolbers’s examples with images from the web) as this has been probably the most inspiring design presentation I’ve seen ’till now. Dutch design, no matter how beautiful, often seems ‘alien’ and undoable in other places but the Netherlands, but hearing the stories for each case study convinced me that there is no excuse to not doing fresh, surprising work. This review might be on the long side, but I hope it is useful nevertheless. Thanks again to Mr Wolbers and the organisers.

— see more case studies on the Lava website;
— you can follow @LavaDesign and @hanswolbers on Twitter;
— keep an eye on LongLunch and the Design Museum for more events;
— Mr Lee Sankey blogged about the event as well.



Angus Hyland at the Typographic Circle

January 21, 2012, 5:56 PM

Thursday evening saw The Typographic Circle welcoming Angus Hyland from Pentagram. His talk was split in two, first part entitled ‘Symbol’, a slightly shorter version of his talk introducing his same-titled book from last year, presented at Pentagram and Design Museum. Again, a pleasure to hear details about some of the world’s best symbols-as-logos. You can watch the talk from last year on Vimeo, so I won’t say more about it (see end of post for links).

'Symbol', edited by Angus Hyland and Steve Bateman

In the second part, titled ‘Mark & typeface’, Mr Hyland talked about the ongoing partnership between Cass Art, the London art materials retailer, and Pentagram. Over more than ten years, Pentagram have developed a beautiful brand identity, based mainly on typography (with very nice recent additions of colour). Just like most successful brands, Cass Art based its strategy on a very good manifesto/strategy: “let’s fill this town with artists”, being the first aiming to sell affordable art materials to everybody, not just highbrow artists.

The Cass Art store in Soho

Other highlights were the Cass Art Kids side-project, the packaging for own-label products, based on Mr Hyland’s habit of ‘colouring’ bits and pieces in his free time, and the retail design done together with Pentagram’s architecture team. Oh, and after ten years, they finally got around to making the business cards too :)

Cass Art Kids books, illustrated by Marion Deuchars

Each illustration suggest the purpose of the item

Colour names on the front …

… famous art pieces referenced on the back (that use the colours on the front).

The event was sold out, some even being willing to stand just to get to see Mr Hyland’s talk. Questions at the end ranged from the typical-student-question, ‘what’s your favourite symbol’ (Woolmark, if you’re dying to know) to more interesting ones. My question was that since sustained advertising (Nike etc) or just simple repetition (Google) seem to hit the spot with consumers, how valuable is a well-designed mark anyway. Mr Hyland made a very good analogy, saying that a good mark ‘is like a good suit, it won’t guarantee your success, but it will make you look good and feel better, and in time, people will associate you with that image‘ — quite similar to what Thomas J. Watson meant with ‘good design is good business’.

[a good mark] is like a good suit, it won’t guarantee your success, but it will make you look good and feel better, and in time, people will associate you with that image

It was also very interesting to see Mr Hyland using terms like brand equity, brand proposition and others, showing that, these days, even Pentagram has to talk more branding than design.

The Typo Circle members were wonderful hosts and I must say I can’t wait for the next event. And especially to receive the Circular magazine, designed by Mr Domenic Lippa (Pentagram), which you get for free as a member.

One of the four-series posters specially designed for the event, given away at the end (kindly signed by Mr Hyland)

So, if you’re in London (or in reachable distance), do yourself a favour and sign up as a Typographic Circle member, it’s only £30 per year, for which you’ll get discounts for the events, the beautiful annual Circle magazine and the chance to say hi personally to some of the best designers in the world, every month.

— read even more details about the Cass Art project on Eye Mag’s blog;
— see the Cass Art projects on the Pentagram website;
— watch the
‘Symbol’ talk at the Design Museum on Vimeo;
— details about the event on the TypoCircle website and the Creative Review blog;
— you can buy the book ‘Symbol’ on BookDepository (free shipping worldwide) or Amazon.



Michael Wolff on The Three Muscles of Creativity

April 2, 2011, 12:33 PM

Intel has come up again with a beautiful short film in their Visual Life series. This time is about the iconic designer Michael Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Olins, one of the best British designers ever and one of the fathers of brand identity design.

I have three muscles, without which I couldn’t do my work. The first is curiosity. (You can call it inquisitiveness, you can call it questioning.) The second muscle [is] the muscle of appreciation. It’s not questioning so much as it is noticing… how joyful things can be, how colorful things can be, what already exists as an inspiration. The muscle of curiosity and the muscle of appreciation enable the muscle of imagination.

Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize it is only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see seeing as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: If you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything in your visual life.

A brand is really a way of remembering what something is like for future reference — something you value, something you feel attracted to. The job of a brand identity, how you package all of that — the purpose, the vision, what it does, what it brings — how you make that so that people can take it and receive it and value it and treasure it and choose it, that’s the whole process of branding. That’s what it is.”

— Michael Wolff

The film is beautifully shot, with a perfect pace & score, all adding even more value to Michael Wolff’s wise words. As one would imagine, his house is a designer’s playground, with Pantone mugs and other treats, like this beautiful tea kettle, that I wish I knew where to get:

Also, gotta love Wolff’s hilarious description of the classic Cooper Black typeface, affectionately calling it  “cow dong”. And last but not least, I love how he talks about cooking as related to creativity — “you never cook the same meal twice”. But enough with the spoilers, here it is:

Read more:
— “The Three Muscles of Creativity” by Maria Popova on the TBD Blog;
— “Michael Wolff on Creativity” by David Airey;
Thanks for the first tip.



Designing for Retail Brands: 6 Key Considerations

September 12, 2010, 11:20 AM

An article written in collaboration with Adam Rotmil — a fruitful exchange of ideas and a refreshing experience. Also available on the Adam Rotmil Partners blog.

Companies that have a strong retail presence require a powerful, memorable, and positive brand. It must be different from the competition and visible in the urban space. These are six things we have learned.

Even with the most visible, most advertised brands, it’s about a positive experience. Big media purchases may bring a spike in sales, but does that equate to positive reputation? Brand engagement with company employees has shown more long-term value. Having your own mini-army of proud, confident and helpful employees means connecting with customers at the most vital touchpoint: human contact. While price is one major element in customers’ decisions, most of us would rather go where we feel we are treated better, even if it costs a little more. For this to happen, employees must understand the brand and feel like part of its culture. Take for instance Apple. With rare exception, they’ll do almost everything to earn your satisfaction. Even if that means bending rules. It is a proven axiom that the most effective advertising is positive word-of-mouth. With the advent of social media, this is even more the case.

Where do you want customers to go first? Graphic elements are valuable in wayfinding, helping the customer get what he wants faster. But think about why grocery stores put the milk in the back. It’s so you’ll spend more time inside, discovering more, and buying more. Think about IKEA and their amusement-park approach to retail spaces. People who shop there feel that the space is meant for them, that they can stay as long as they like, and have everything they need.

Choosing colors requires first investigating the brand’s competition. What’s the most used color? the second? What’s the primary color of the biggest competitor? For food products, red might be the easiest color to spot. If everyone else is using red, doing the same thing can be a missed opportunity. Using blue often makes sense, since it is liked by men and women and implies trust. But, it may not help you stand out if most other brands are using blue. It is an important balance for the brand to look like what it is (whether coffee or life insurance), and to stand out. Some of the most memorable brands, such as Kodak, have colors that same-class competitors do not. And when I say Kodak, you instantly recall the Kodak yellow. When you think Cisco, you recall the Cisco teal.

Does size really matter (in retail)? Many clients ask for “the bigger, the better strategy.” These people are smart business owners. And big does work, at least in theory. But, check if it really helps. Urban spaces are extremely crowded most of the time. Imagine a completely white fascia or a large mesh ad on a building. Everything around it would be all images and big type. But you’d be the quiet space everybody would turn to. You’d stand out because you’re different: you’re not shouting. Designer Bruno Monguzzi reminds us, “If you continue shouting, you are not communicating better. You have simply removed whispering from the system.” Think about the Beatles’ release of The White Album. When it hit retail stores, it was an oasis.

Best-in-class brands have cues that can be dialed up or down. These cues include the senses. Everyone can recognize a Tiffany’s box. Failing to integrate lighting, color, shape, touch — even smell — means missing opportunities. Developing brand properties, or attributes, is the best way to gain top-of-mind relevance in your customers’ minds. It also gives customers a beacon toward the brand. The shape and color of Sephora’s striped entrance, for instance, makes it easy to recognize from far away. Lighting is sometimes more important than the logo outside or the posters in the windows. The flooring is an opportunity to connect with customers emotionally. How does it feel: cold, soft, textured, solid, reliable? These attribute choices will influence how the customer feels about the brand, and how they will remember the retail experience. Remember stepping inside an Adidas shop. You know the smell, you recognize it right away. Memory takes many forms. It starts with specific experiences and gradually crystalizes to a general association with a bundle of promises and expectations. Triggers to recall these memories include scents, music, materials, lighting, furniture, being offered a cup of tea, and more with a well-thought retail brand.

New brands usually start from zero, with the luxury of getting it right in the first place. Redesigned brands, however, are much more complicated and require caution. Unless a brand is toxic, don’t throw out the brand’s entire DNA. The core of its visual identity has gained years of equity. The essence of brand properties (colors, symbols, a mascot,…) may be of great service to the revitalized brand. With Cisco, the bridge-in-a-box became a more open and abstract symbol. But the core DNA of the bridge, all of its implications, and the literal connection to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, remain. Reinventing a brand, while keeping the merits it has earned, helps ensure customer loyalty, while expanding the customer base.

Many of the general principles about brand strategy and design apply to designing for retail. But these are some considerations we think you should bear in mind. These are just starting points. Talk about these issues with your colleagues and your clients. We hope this helps you build a better brand expression.

Iancu Barbărasă is an experienced graphic designer specialised in brand identity design. He has previously worked for the leading Romanian branding and design company Brandient, taking part in large rebranding projects like Dedeman and CEC Bank, internationally awarded (Best of Awards and Merit at Rebrand, 2009, Rhode Island, USA). His experience covers a multitude of design fields, from identity, retail, packaging to print and web design. As of September 2010, he is living and working in London, UK. Iancu believes that good, idea-driven design means good business and a more enjoyable life for everyone.

Contact Iancu via E-mail
Visit Iancu on the web at

Adam Rotmil runs the Japan office of Adam Rotmil Partners, specializing in brand strategy and design. He has 15 years of brand and design experience with companies of all sizes. He held a senior creative position at Marsh and McClennan Companies, the premier global services firm. Adam later designed at Brown Brothers Harriman, the largest private bank in the United States. Adam lives in Japan and partners with experts worldwide, sharing projects and talent. His singular vision is to improve brand value through strategy, exploration, and discovery. Adam knows good work implies social awareness, dedication, honesty, and integrity.

Contact Adam via E-mail
Visit Adam on the web at



Proud as I can be: Brandient 101 — The book

March 28, 2010, 1:47 AM

Later note: even if it is filed in the ‘Book reviews’ category, this is not one in itself — it is more of an announcement of the book’s launching, as I was involved in it too.

Rarely have I been so proud to be a designer as I am now. Two days ago, Brandient launched “Brandient 101”, the first book dedicated to Romanian brand design (limited edition of 101, signed).

I’ve been part of more than a handful of projects presented in the book, all of them being great experiences, from which I’ve learned a lot — the more difficult, the bigger the challenge and, of course, the reward. Working at Brandient for the last 3 years has been the real school that formed me as a designer (a brand designer, to be more precise, or a communication designer, as Mr. Erik likes to say), learning from and with my colleagues on all occasions, stressful or not (I found out over the years that the bigger the pressure, the faster you learn & work — of course, too much pressure is never a good thing, but one can never underestimate a designer’s ‘magical’ ability of pulling the ship around on the right track while the client is already ringing at the door :P) .

The book is designed by Cristian -Kit- Paul, Brandient’s Creative Partner, one of the best Romanian designers and also a great photographer — definitely follow him on Kit·blog. He’s also a very skilled speaker, another example that being a great designer is not only about drawing well-thought logos & identities, but also about explaining them, about promoting design as a business tool and last but not least, about teaching and inspiring the others.

But enough with the raves, here it is:

» Continue reading



Brandient 101 Romanian Identities

March 22, 2010, 11:59 AM

Brandient — the leading branding and design company in Romania, one of the most awarded in Eastern Europe and the one I’ve had the pleasure to be part of for the last 3 years — celebrates a wonderful milestone: over 100 brands and identities, developed over the last eight years. To honour this event, an exhibition will be held at Carturesti Verona in Bucharest (sub_Carturesti coffee shop). The opening event will take place on 26 march, at 5.00 PM, when Brandient’s designers will share their experiences during the “Brandient 101 minutes about design” talk. For more info, you can read the official press release.

The exhibition will be open from 26 march till 7 april. We’re preparing another surprise, so stay tuned.