How Important is "Uniqueness" in Design and Branding?

August 11, 2010 | Branding, Design Basics

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The other day, I went into a coffee shop that I like to frequent in downtown Portland, Maine. They have an area where customers can put their business cards so that other customers may learn about their services. As I glanced over, I saw a business card that I recognized. I knew that I had seen the business card on the door of another suite in my office building. So I took a closer look, and read that it was a Yoga teacher’s card. I was confused because I knew there wasn’t a yoga studio in the same building as Visible Logic. I honestly was pretty perplexed until I realized that it was the same business card design used by two different businesses. One was a therapist; the other, a yoga teacher.

About one week later, I had a meeting with someone and we were trying to make some networking connections for one another. She opened her business card holder and I caught a glance of the same business card design, again. I asked: “Whose card is that?” And when my acquaintance told me, I realized it was yet a third business person in this small community using the same business card design. This person is an LEED AP (An aside: No, I don’t know what that means… do you? I can guess it has do with something with LEED energy stuff, but that’s all the card said.)

Business card from Portland, Maine business

Here is one of the 3 business cards. All use the same design template with different contact details

Uniqueness and differentiation are key in building a brand identity

This is in an unfortunate instance where uniqueness would help. Lack of differentiation is causing at worst confusion, and at best just a watering down of any sort of distinction between local businesses. Let’s say I was looking for a yoga teacher, but when I glanced at that card and recognized it as a therapist’s card I might not give it a second glance.

The bottom line is that all of these businesses are relying on a stock (I’d guess free) business card design. Probably each business owner went to the same online printer such as VistaPrint and selected the same free design. I’ve now already spotted three of these in our small community and there’s likely more.

If you’re trying to build a brand it needs to be distinct. What if another yoga teacher or therapist selects that same design? Then you’d look just like your direct competition; causing serious confusion and complete brand dilution.

The critical difference between design and branding

Design is just one part of branding. It specifically is about building a brand identity or visual position for a brand. On the other hand, branding projects are just one type of design projects that a graphic design studio or web design company may handle. You can read this post about Tropicana packaging to understand more about the difference between design and branding.

Is there a problem with the design of the card? No. The design is elegant. The color palette is pleasing. The larger organic shapes on the right are a nice contrast to the subtle geometric pattern on the left. The typeface is a bit difficult to read. If someone showed me this design and asked for a critique, I would not be horrified.

But, if someone asked me if they should use this as the basis of their brand identity I’d tell them to stop immediately. You need uniqueness to differentiate yourself and build a distinct look for your brand.

Are there times when a lack of uniqueness is OK?

Most graphic designers and web designers pride themselves on creating distinctive design solutions. However, one reality underlying the usage of free business card templates, low cost web site templates or royalty-free photos is that most small businesses have a very limited budget for their design needs.

My clients are in this boat too. I’m often working under the barriers of restricted budgets.

So I wanted to show you an example from my own work, where I got caught using the same design elements as someone else. But I’ll show you why it wasn’t critical to the design and branding for my client.

Below is a book cover design that Visible Logic created. The cover was meant to be part of a series, so that the dominant design elements would be recognizable even as small details changed. You can read more about the book design project and see the design of the other covers here.

Let's Eat Out! Book cover design by Visible Logic

Let’s Eat Out! Book cover design by Visible Logic

Just this week, I received an email from Borders Books that looks like this:

E-Newsletter from Borders Books

E-Newsletter from Borders Books

Right next to offer #1 is that same royalty-free image of the women eating at a restaurant that we used on our cover. I recognized it immediately because it was an image that I searched for, and it was an image that went under a lot of scrutiny from the client. But the reality is that in both cases it is just a quick way of making the viewer think “restaurant”. In neither case is it critical to the design and/or brand identity of either product.

This is a case where uniqueness is not that critical.

Sometimes you have to…

When you are forced to use design elements that are not unique, make sure they are NOT the one-and-only, the most critical, or the defining element of your design. Use free, low-cost, or widely available elements such as graphics, images, photos and decorative elements carefully. Ensure that they do not define your brand identity.

If you’ve seen other examples of that business card design above, I’d love to have them. I’m making a little collection. Also, if you know where the design comes from, I’d like to know that too—thanks!

3 comments

  1. Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron | August 11, 2010 at 10:46 am

    You should have listed all 3 cards Emily, that would have been a hoot! I remember once I was in a CVS Pharmacy and I saw a woman on one of the signs and I swore I knew her from someplace – she was the same woman in a stock image on a Web site for my then -employer that I just finished developing.

    “Seen it before” helps when it’s your own brand people see, not the same design used elsewhere. Stock anything is cheap, and you get what you pay for.

    mp/m

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