Swim, Don’t Dive

Consistency in Branding & Design

I was talking with a friend recently who wanted to know my thoughts on their company’s current brand look and feel and messaging. They asked, “How can I improve my current brand?” It is a good question. Too often we think of re-branding when, in fact, more often what is needed is an advancement of the current brand you’ve got.

I said, “Consistency will improve your brand.” Consistency is a design principle that dramatically affects usability and learning in all systems, including branding and identity. It helps us transfer knowledge to new contexts, focus attention, and learn more quickly. There are four types of consistency: aesthetic, functional, internal, and external.

Aesthetic consistency is the type most obvious in branding. A logo whose style and appearance is the same, no matter where it appears (color, typography, graphic), sets emotional expectations and becomes a shortcut to recognition and decision-making. For example, Nike apparel and sneakers are easily recognizable because the company consistently features the swoosh prominently on all of their products (and in advertising, store signs, social media, etc.). We associate the swoosh with the quality and power built into the brand, and it informs people how they should feel and act; “Just do it,” according to their tagline.

Any parent can tell you how toddlers can “read” logos, long before they can actually read. My three-year-old daughter recognized the McDonald’s logo long before I ever took her there. She now cries if we pass by the distinctive golden arches and don’t stop.

Functional consistency refers to consistency of action and meaning. Humans require order, and functional consistency provides us with this order. Have you ever had a difficult time finding your way in a hospital? In the book, Wayfinding, the authors point out, “In a [hospital] facility of some 800 beds, no less than 8,000 hours of professional time are lost in redirecting patients and visitors to their destinations.” In the healthcare environment, investing in a wayfinding program is vital because, simply put, when people are lost, money is lost. Functional consistency allows us to leverage existing knowledge about how the design functions. The symbols on my iPhone use the same controls for playing music that videocassette recorders used in the 70s. Such consistency makes the new devices easier to use and learn.

Internal consistency refers to consistency with other elements in the system—your logo is the same online and in print—like designs within a park are consistent with one another. Such internal harmony suggests that the system has been intentionally designed to build trust with viewers.

External consistency means having the same aesthetic design or performance across multiple systems. External consistency extends the benefits of internal consistency across multiple independent systems. This is difficult to achieve, but fast food companies do this very well. Even technology companies, like Microsoft and Apple, recognize that it works. You can go to these businesses anywhere in the world and expect to receive the same service; that they will be using the same equipment, and in the same amount of time you will receive the same product.

In branding and design, if standards exist, observe them. If standards don’t exist, create them. Consider aesthetic and functional consistency in all aspects of design. From the book, Universal Principles of Design, “Use aesthetic consistency to establish unique identities that can be easily recognized. Use functional consistency to simplify usability and ease of learning. Ensure that systems are always internally consistent and externally consistent to the greatest degree possible.”

And remember, your brand is not a diving competition. It is a swimming competition.