Starting simply

I’m a big fan of simplicity in design. Given the human propensity to complicate and do more, simplicity remains vastly underrated despite its obvious appeal and value. One of my favorite articulations of this in the context of product design comes from Brian Christensen: “Most people need less done well, not more done poorly.”

But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity in the context of brand design. Specifically, I’m pondering John Gall’s famous comment on systems design, sometimes called Gall’s Law, which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

I’ve come to believe a similar “law” is at play with creating great brands. I’d state it like this: A strong and complex brand that works is invariably found to have evolved from a strong and simple brand that worked.

By “simple brand” I don’t mean something akin to Al Ries’ “Law of the Word” where FedEx = Overnight delivery, Kleenex = tissue, etc. I think that’s overly simplistic, and is one of the rigid ways of thinking that lead people astray from a real understanding of brand.

Powerful brands are rich and complex things, and the best of them are organic and alive. But any rich and complex emotional connection must start with, and be grounded in, a simple emotional connection. That’s what I mean by a “simple brand”.

Think of the relationships in your life. If you’re married, think of how you came to love your husband or wife. That relationship didn’t appear fully formed with all the richness and complexity that comes with years of shared experiences. Rather, it started with something simple. Maybe you noticed her hands, or her eyes, or the way she laughed. And from that initial connection, a richer relationship developed.

I’ve taken away two key insights from my pondering:

  • First, take care to not overdefine your brand at the start. Don’t limit yourself to one word, but neither indulge the temptation to have 12 “core values”. Focus on your core, and articulate that in a simple way others can connect to.
  • But second, don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to that initial brand definition. Allow your brand to grow and develop as your customers develop a more rich and complex connection to it.

Grounding your brand in a simple core, but allowing your brand to change and grow, is the path to creating something powerful and enduring.

Principal, Bez Brand