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August 2016

Verbal. Visual. Visceral.

Design company Johnson Banks is in the process of rebranding Mozilla and – in the spirit of openness that defines Mozilla – the whole process is being documented here: blog.mozilla.org/opendesign

I’ve been working with Johnson Banks on some of the verbal territories – not outward-facing copy, but strategic narratives that offer different takes on why Mozilla exists. It’s fascinating being involved at this stage – it feels like plugging into the motherboard of a brand and tinkering with it. A small insight could have a big outcome further down the line.

It’s also interesting to share this stuff openly – it counters the idea that branding is all about knocking out a few logos. Before you get to thinking visually, there’s the whole process of working out what you want to communicate. Johnson Banks pay especially close attention to this verbal stage, and you can see the results in the seven narratives (now narrowed to five).

Rather than me writing about it in detail, I’d suggest (if you’re interested) reading these posts in order:

Designing in the open 

Seven narratives 

Going deeper into the identity problem 

And then there were five

First design routes

But I’ll make one extra observation – I’m glad I’m a writer. Looking at the feedback, it’s clear that working in a world of words is a safer place than working with colours and shapes.

When the first-stage narratives were shared on the Mozilla blog, the response was thoughtful, positive and manageably small-scale. When the second stage came out, there was little response at all (although to be fair, this was more about refinement and people had already responded in stage one).

But the moment something visual appears (first design explorations), everyone has an opinion, and usually a strong one. Thanks to the way the process has been managed and communicated, there’s a higher ratio of constructive and thoughtful responses than you would normally get when a new logo launches. But the emotion level is also much higher – lots of withering put-downs and harsh critique.

I know people can respond viscerally to verbal stuff when it’s something short like a slogan or brand name. But with design, there’s no way round this onslaught on every project – people have a gut response, sometimes struggle to articulate it (because it can be hard to apply language to something purely visual), and the conversation spirals out of control.

In this case, the process is being managed by a smart client working with a smart design company, so it should stay on track. But whatever the eventual visual identity, I hope the project will make the larger point that branding a large organisation (when it’s done properly) is a process that involves lots of thinking, feedback, rejected work, refinement, and continual criticism – all the stuff that never gets written about when the press see the finished logo and dust off the usual ‘a consultancy got paid how much for this?’ article.

As well as that (and maybe counterintuitively), I hope it also highlights how you can’t entirely reduce branding to a process. For all the rigorous work, there is also that magic spark that can happen any time and from any direction – after which things fall into place instantly or incrementally.  

It’s worth following it all at blog.mozilla.org/opendesign – and let me know if you think of a good slogan that I can claim credit for.