Have UX Designers replaced Brand Designers?

OK before we start we need to agree on a couple of things. A couple of definitions. There is no doubt that it’s difficult to define both of the terms “Brand” and “User Experience”. No matter how hard we try to quantify them, a Brand or a User Experience can vary wildly from organisation to organisation, product to product or in fact from person to person. But for the sake of moving us forward in this ramble of mine, we need to be clear about what we mean by “Brand Design” and “UX Design”, so here goes: “A Brand Designer is responsible for designing customer touch-points across an organisation, product or service.” and “A UX Designer is responsible for designing customers’ digital experience with an organisation, product or service.”

Now I realise these are very simplistic definitions and neither of them take in to account the myriad of aspects to each profession. I’m quite sure that we could discuss and refine these definitions for many, many hours. However the world is moving way too fast and we are far too busy tweeting, tagging, checking in, blogging, streaming, uploading, sharing and basically using digital brands, to get caught up in semantics. What we do need to loosely agree on is the principle role of each profession in creating interactions between organisations and consumers.

So are we agreed? Good (if not, then thanks for coming, I’ll see you later, at the bar).

Looking at the definitions you can plainly see the overlaps in the disciplines and the areas of responsibility. Historically a Brand Designer (or Brand Design team) was charged with creating an identity across range of different media. A Creative Director in a brand agency would need to draw on in-depth knowledge of designing for each the customer touch-points (eg: print, point of sale, TV, direct mail, digital etc). Allowing them to dictate how the brand behaves and presents itself in at each touch-point. In the digital space this effectively means the principle components of a UX are dictated by a Brand Designer. This creative model is nothing new, it has been in play for at least fifty years, since the likes of Massimo Vignelli (whilst at Unimark) and Walter Landor (aboard The Klamath, his floating studio) began to solidify what we know today as the concept of Corporate Identity.

Now let’s fast forward to today, in all of it’s touch screen, cloud computing, life streaming, NFC activated glory and let’s look at how applicable this model is to our world. We now have UX Designers in the mix and they not only bring ‘hands on’ knowledge of the technology that drives the web, but they are also equipped with all the research and strategy tools necessary to draw out customer’s motivations and desires. We also have different business and marketing models. Many of which include none of the traditional customer touch-points. Consider the brands that are capturing the world’s attention right now, brands like Facebook, Skype, Google or Spotify. Brands which don’t deliver any kind of tangible product. Brands which don’t utilise print, TV, point of sale or direct mail. These brands exist purely in digital interactions. They only exist in the UX. So with that in mind, my question is this:

Who is best placed to design a digital brand? A Brand Designer or a UX Designer? I’m assuming that you’ve already answered that question in your head. I’m also going to be bold enough (read arrogant) and assume that you have a job role that either involves ‘Brand’ or ‘UX’ in it’s description. I’ve been lucky enough to work under both titles, so let me try and offer a balanced view from each sides.

The argument for Brand Designers

I’ve put this question to a number of Brand Designers and it’s safe to say if we had not been in a polite setting they would have been swinging for me. I think this is largely because the question is based on the assumption that Brand Designers don’t have enough skills or experience to effectively design interactions, user interfaces or create IAs. Is that fair? Well just for a minute consider the last set of Brand Guidelines you read. Did it include a section on behavioural targetting? Did it provide a robust UI pattern library? Did it have any clues to help you unlock a content strategy? Or did it simply spend 32 pages going over the exact colour ratios and include one cursory page on where the logo should sit at the top of a website? Let’s not stack all the odds against Brand Designers. Expecting them to appreciate the finer points of interaction language is perhaps placing unfair or irrelevant demands on them. A Brand Design is like very few other design disciplines because it’s a culmination of skills. A Brand Designer is expected to turn their hand to many different types of design. Progressive brand agencies like the mighty Wolff Olins or the ubiquitous Moving Brands have delivered brand designs that cover everything from textile design to service design and many disciplines inbetween. Where a Brand Designer comes in to their own, is when they are being asked to give broad overview, a creative direction. Something that can be used to underpin all projects. A good Brand Designer is able to reach past the nuances that make up each form the brand is expressed in and come up with an experience that reflects the needs of the organisation and the needs of its users. So from that perspective you’d have to say it’s logical for a Brand Designer to dictate the UX.

The argument for UX Designers

It’s not unreasonable to say that the term UX Design and the specific job are new to the design world. However you could argue that the role has been around for a while now. Digital Producers, Web Consultants, Web Designer, New Media Designer — the need to have a design approach to the overall direction and thinking behind digital interaction has been with us right from the start of the web, but it’s only in recent years that the need has been met by a reasonably well defined job role. So considering it’s still a fairly new concept we shouldn’t be surprised that there is some discussion about how it fits in to the mix.

Each of the different UX Designers that I know have different opinions on how far their responsibility reaches. Some believe that they are there to reflect a brand’s other marketing activities in forming an interaction. But some believe their role is more about delving in to customer’s needs and creating a digital experience that reflects the end users’ worlds. As the end users is at the heart of UX Design it could be said that a UX Designer is more customer focussed than a Brand Designer. However I think this is a mistake. Brand Designers have been using similar research and development techniques, to those employed by digital agencies for many years now. If you look back at research techniques employed by David Ogilvy, whilst at the height of his creative powers, there are obviously parallels with what is being used today.

The advantage a UX Designer can always play over a Brand Designer is that a UX Designer will more often than not have a sophisticated grasp of the many aspects of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) as well as visual design and front end development. This places them in a uniquely well informed position to develop each interaction, as well as the bigger digital experience. Coming from a digital background and having been at the ‘coal face’ of digital projects affords UX Designers a point of view that is beyond the label of specialist. Having laboured through an IA, content strategy and prototype only to have it shot down in rounds of user testing helps build an unrivalled understanding of how real people really use technology. Without that understanding your digital brand is always going to fall short of users’ expectations. So if a digital brand is going to be designed by anyone surely it should be a UX Designer right?

A possible answer

So which side do you fall on? It would seem to me that the two disciplines are ultimately heading in the same direction. As you can see the cross overs are growing and the need for designers of digital brands is also growing. So have UX Designers replaced Brand Designers? I suspect not. Firstly because we are only talking about digital brands here. There is still a need for brands that work in physical environments. Secondly I believe that the nature of UX Design will ultimately be merged in to the process of brand design. You can see how the roles are blending by looking at brand agencies like London based Someone, who have a Creative Director from a UX background or the San Francisco based digital agency Odopod who have a ‘Brand & Strategy Director’.

If Brand Designers wish to offer direction to digital brands, then they need to not only learn the principles of creating interactions and how people really use technology, but they also need to incorporate some of UX Design’s research methods in to their development process.

If UX Designers wish to create real end to end experiences they need work more closely with offline agencies and designers to understand what has gone before and which tried and tested strategies can be deployed online. Then perhaps we can begin to move past the mentality of “them and us” or even “old school and new school”. Perhaps it’s time for creative organisations like D&AD or Art Directors Club to stop separating digital design in to its own category and accept that digital forms part of every brand or campaign. Why not throw your brand and web teams together and see what happens. After all it was Mr Charles Darwin who taught us to evolve in order to survive. Let’s sprout some UX Design legs, grow some Brand Design arms and see how we survive.