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Visual Branding (the visual impact of brands)
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 147]

The creation of trademarks and design programmes that define the corporate identity have (or should have) an important impact in the evolution of the companies’ businesses. There are some questions we have to ask to ourselves when evaluating the visual impact of brands.

Identity is the condition of sameness with another element to which it compares. Identitas means “the same” in latin, nevertheless identity is just what differentiates us, what makes us recognisable by the others as people, but also as corporations.

Roman oil lamp with trademark FORTIS , found in York UK. 
: York Archaeological Trust

The Egyptians branded their cattle in order to identify them 3000 years BC. Manufacturing marks have been found in ancient Greek and Roman oil lamps and amphorae. In the middle age the heraldry provided tools for differentiation to the knights that fought in tournaments while the masonry was signed by their producers in cathedrals and other buildings. 

More recently trademarks have become a fundamental part not only of corporate identity but of the message that it intends to send to its customers, employees and society in general. This means that it is integral part of the communication strategy of the company. 

The mark and, more specifically the logotype, is essentially a visual element be it pictorial or textual. In general they are signs, elements, whose interpretation is different to their intrinsic one, that represent another thing than themselves and transmit, despite their simplicity, a complex fabric of meanings regarding what they represent.

But the visual part of corporate identity (the visual identity) goes beyond and, rigorously speaking, embraces what is commonly called a design programme. Per Mollerup in his excellent and more than commendable book “Marks of Excellence"   considers that it’s through a design programme how companies communicate consistently to their interior and exterior what they are like (or how they would like to be seen).

A design programme consists of a series of basic elements and a set of rules for its application. Typically the elements are:

  • Marks

    • Textual   for example "InfoVis.net"

    • Pictórial,  for example the Bibendum logo by Michelin bibendum.jpg (11769 bytes)     
  • Font faces, Arial, Verdana,...

  • Colours, for example the colour set chosen for the design programme could be 

The combination of these elements with the multiple rules that can be defined on them give rise to several applications, like the design of correspondence, sales leaflets, advertising, packaging, shop frontals and interiors, etc. 

Mollerup establishes a non-exact taxonomy of the different existing classes of trademarks, which we have adapted here using Conceptual Maps

Taxonomy of trademarks according to Per Mollerup. Adapted to conceptual map by the author from the figure in the book Marks of Excellence 

Examples of the terminal classes described in the conceptual map are the following ones:

BotCocaCola.jpg (21609 bytes) ConsBurela.gif (17949 bytes)
Non graphic
They are marks that aren't a graphic design, like the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle or the roof of some Pizza Hut establishments.  (Coca-Cola)
Non figurative
Imagenes that do not depict anything themselves. They are arbitrary-conventional. (Renault)
Figurative Descriptive
Images or diagrams that refer directly to its object, company or product. For example a canning company.  (Conservas de Burela)
Figurative Metaphoric
refer to its object through a shared quality, in this case the security of the key in the mark of a bank. (Keybank)
shell.gif (12309 bytes) braun.gif (6492 bytes) Shell GreyhoundLogo.jpg (44215 bytes)
Figurative found
Marks that refer directly to the objetc theyr reperesent (in this case a shell) that does not have anything in common qith the company or product they stand for. (Shell Oil)
Proper name
The name of the owner or founder. (Braun)
Found name 
A name unrelated with the product or company. (Shell Oil)
Metaphoric name  
refer to its object through a shared quality, in this case the speed of the greyhound for the homonymous bus company.  (Greyhound) 
DiarioNot.jpg (22880 bytes) esselte_logo.gif (2985 bytes) IBM_logo.jpg (12671 bytes)
Artificial Name
Completely new names without any special meaning (elf was chosen among thousands of computer generated three letter names)
Descriptive Name
A name that describes completely the company or product it refers to. (Diario de Noticias)
Non initial abbreviation
Abbreviations that aren't composed of initials. In this case Esselte is a phonetic abbreviation (ESSELTE)
Initial abbreviations that form a pronounceable word (IKEA)
Non acronym abbreviation
 Initial abbreviations that are pronounced as the sum of their individual letters. (IBM)

But more than focusing on the complex building of a design programme we are interested here in the communication of corporate identity and the rules that allow us to create the visual aspects of a good design programme and/or a good representation for the brand.

Mollerup follows the mathematical theory of communication of Shannon and Weaver. (see an introduction by the Georgia State University) that established the basic concepts of emitter , receiver, message, signal, noise etc, and detected three levels of problems in communication.


  1. The technical problem: how accurately can information be transmitted?.

  2. The semantic problem: to what extent the transmitted symbols convey their meaning to the receiver?

  3. The effectiveness problem. how effectively does the received meaning influence behaviour of the receiver?

These three points translate to three questions that a trademark has to answer:

  • Is it visible enough? Apparently a trivial question that receives less attention than it deserves.

  • Is it easily understandable? The message has to reach the user, what leads us to the important question of what do we want to transmit with the mark?

  • Will it produce the desired effect? Although this is a difficult question to answer “a priori”, it’s at least useful to consider this aspect when designing a trademark.

Regarding the transport of meaning, the comprehension of the message, the concept of noise in the theory of communication offers some aspects that can be useful in the design.

Noise is whatever interference or distortion that reduces the accuracy of decodification of the message. Besides technical noise, the one that disturbs the channel and degrades the signal, Shannon and Weaver recognise the existence of the semantic noise that is “perturbations or distortions of meaning which are not intended by the source but which inescapably affect the destination”.

Transferred again to our case Mollerup proposes two new questions:

The red cross and the red crescent: two variants of the same organisation's logo created in order to avoid the semantic noise in certain countries. 
  • Is the trademark sensitive to technical noise? For example is it too similar to the background against which it will be shown?, does it has textures or colours that distort the shape or deviate the attention towards elements that shouldn’t attract so much of the attention compared with others?

  • Is the trademark too sensitive to semantic noise? If the mark can be confused with other existing marks or symbols with very different meaning maybe the cultural or contextual “noise” distort the actual meaning.

Context and culture are common sources of semantic noise in communication. An interesting example is that of the Red Cross, that uses a red crescent in several countries of Islamic culture to avoid the confusion of their humanitarian interests with religious interests alien to the local culture.

The creation of brand, besides being a tool of Marketing, is a form of information visualisation, although here the information does not lie in a database but it has a lot to do with the many facets of a company, like prestige or excellence, the values and objectives etc. that are sometimes difficult to quantify. 

Links of this issue:

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/secrets/romtrd.htm   York Archaelogical Trust
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#Marks   Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup
http://www.gsu.edu/~mstswh/courses/it7000/papers/communic.htm   Introduction to the Theory of Communication (Georgia State University)
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