Business is good, why rock the boat?
From the days of scrabbling round for any job that came my way (I still have my cardboard sign, “Will design for food or exposure”) to working with global brands and even designing for an event at Buckingham Palace with the Queen personally receiving my design work (“One loves the kerning on the cover design Alex!”) – I’ve come a long way.
I’ve enjoyed every step of this journey, and every step has contributed to the knowledge I share with my clients today. But it’s not only my knowledge i’m passing on to my clients. It’s also my passion. The same passion that drove me to become a designer in the first place. And it was my passion that drove the discoveries I made about branding.
ikon is in a good place. But this seems like the best time to go back and look at how we’ve got where we are. The things we did right, and also the things we did wrong. I don’t think we can make the next step forward with a brand strategy without first looking back.
So even though this article is about myself and ikon, hopefully the lessons I’ve learned will give you valuable insight into how you too can apply the same principles to improve your branding and marketing.
I’ve read almost my own height in articles about branding and I’m 6”5”. I was uninspired by most of what I read. So many pages waxing lyrical about how you should create a brand strategy – in theory. But not fact. Very few of the articles I read described how they implemented their own strategy and how their example is so important for your business.
As a branding agency owner I put my money where my revenue is. With my team, I went back to the start to re-visit our origins to revitalise and re-energise ourselves for an exciting future.
There’s a long roll-call of businesses that have initially prospered then become complacent and vanished into the ether. Why? Because it's much harder to maintain success than achieve it in the first place. Take a look at the music industry and you’ll find a long list of one-hit wonders who didn’t stay the course. I give you Hanson. Chumbawumba. The Mock Turtles. The Mock who? Exactly.
So how do you become the next Rolling Stones or Oasis, and not the next Los Del Rio? They did Macarena, if you need reminding…
In the midst of the 2008 recession I had few job opportunities and a feeling of discontent as a graphic designer and full-time employee. I sat down with my boss and requested a sabbatical. I was ready to up and go if they said no.
Maybe they saw that in my eyes, because they granted me the leave. It was a terrific safety net as I set off on an epic nine-month journey through Mongolia, China, Pakistan and India with my wife-to-be.
Shortly after my return, I was made redundant and replaced with a cheaper model. Ouch. Actually, it was for me a blessing in disguise and the safety net worked, offering me the time and financial backing to set up as a freelancer.
Five years prior, I travelled solo through Asia for 6 months and found a special place called Gokarna in the Indian state of Karnataka. I remembered how inspired I was at the at time, and this memory made me think about forging ahead and creating my own destiny – my own business.
Karnatarka (with an extra ‘r’) was born – my freelance graphic design business. Karnatarka remained the company name before changing to ikon in 2014. I’d like to be able to say it’s a really good idea to name your business after something close to your heart. But I can’t – if people have trouble saying it or spelling it, it’s not the right name for your brand. Number one, it must benefit the business.
In my head the name was nicely phonetic – ‘Karna’ followed by ‘tarka’ seemed easy to say broken in two syllables but it was far from true in reality. A lot of people commented on the unique nature of the name and wanted to understand the reason behind it but when I heard the ridiculous pronunciations down the phone, it quickly became obvious I had slipped up.
To add to the pain, outsourcing to India started to become very popular so associations with a potential team in India working for a few rupees didn’t align that well with offering a high end service.
Since my days at university, I’d always been interested in the naming of businesses, especially names often derived from phrases. I remember seeing a company called Adestra with a clever hidden meaning ‘All Design Transparent’ but the phrase felt a little forced into the name as it’s not correct English and the acronym not particularly compelling.
Even the concept, it’s not that all design that is transparent. Good design can feel transparent when it works in harmony as it feels effortless. You definitely notice bad design as it jars and instills a feeling of mistrust. A brilliant idea, but for me, it fell short on execution.
Experimenting with ingenious word play is essential when naming a business. This was the process from which ‘Design Knows No Boundary’ emerged. This phrase resonated with me and as I worked with it I discovered the acronym I.K.O.N, by taking the ‘i’ from Design, the ‘K’ from Knows, the ‘o’ from No and the ’n’ from Boundary.
Not only was ikon short and memorable, it resonated with the science of branding and presented an opportunity to adapt the icon concept as a brand mark – it formed an ethos to live by. Push the boundaries and show people what is possible through the power of design.
I knew I had found my new name. Short, punchy, memorable and full of meaning.
The logo design was kept simple but thecustomised the font to ensure letters didn't have a closed 'boundary' – particular the letter 'o'. More importantly this time round, I conducted substantial market research. It was sayonara, Karnatarka.
As ikon, we attracted big name brands like Westfield, Porsche, F1 and Oakley – commonly working on projects with up to eight creatives delivering an agency experience.
However, I was so busy with my head down getting on with the day-to-day I never looked up and thought about where I was going as a creative – and as a business.
It was time to reset and re-think my strategy.
Yet again, I escaped on a mini-sabbatical, shutting up shop for a six-week break – this time with my wife and two young boys. The reason? A digital detox, and the opportunity of a lifetime for my children to experience a completely new culture. It was also a vital break from the monotony of daily life and a chance to reflect. It’s a state of mind that always brings to mind one my favourite films, Into the Wild from the book by Jon Krakauer:
“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
The break was a big turning point. With time to think and reflect on 10 years of running a business, it was clear we were advising our clients on how to be strategic with their branding – but we weren’t being strategic in ours.
MindValley, created by entrepreneur Vishen Lakhani, is on a mission to communicate that learning is a lifelong adventure. He often takes long breaks away from his business and his thoughts re-affirm the need for a break:
“Navigation is the compass to tell you where to go. Acceleration is the rocket fuel that gets you there. So I have to oscillate between navigation and acceleration. If you only work on acceleration – you fail to see new opportunities, to innovate or to learn from your mistakes. You’re so busy hustling, you forget to tune in and ask yourself if what you’re doing matters anyway.”
Most have a short-term view. “I can’t take time out now as it will set me back.”
But what if that time out helps you become more focused and more profitable when you return? It’s the same mentality often with brand strategy. It can feel difficult and seem costly to take the time out upfront. However, the future rewards far outweigh the costs.
Unfortunately, a lot of brand identity work focuses purely on aesthetics or industry trends – just ticking the boxes. In web design, sites are designed with complex effects like rollovers and animations when the fundamental requirement of getting their messaging right is sometimes not even considered. The work may win awards but you then have a site that complicates and slows down the customer’s experience – and does nothing for SEO to actually get the site found.
This is the main reason ikon feels a real responsibility to deliver high quality creative work that is focussed on aligning with a brand strategy, whether implementing one or working with a marketing team to ensure the visual identity is matching the strategy in place.
Many new businesses emerge from the frustration of customers interacting with an inferior existing product or service. That’s very much how ikon came about. We could clearly see and still see businesses being short-sighted and going for the quick wins, trying to plug holes in a leaky bucket. No working brand strategy, and a fortune spent on branding and marketing that isn’t connecting with the right audience – or if it is the correct audience, an incorrect message was being delivered inconsistently.
Chris Do, the CEO and Executive Creative Director of Blind discusses their re-positioning and how they are bridging the gap between strategy and design:
“A brand strategy design consultancy is a hybrid between what is offered by two traditionally different types of companies — business management consultancy and design firm. Strategists tend to be big picture thinkers, but don’t have the creativity and attention to detail of designers. We refer to this as the strategic divide that exists between concept and realization – where good ideas go to die.”
This is where our strength lies, the ability to express a strategy visually. At ikon we not only want to be more responsible for the work we are creating, we are doing it with a relatively new agency model.
To understand our position in the agency market, we had to get to the core of “why we do what we do” and work out how that relates to ikon. We examined our operating framework to understand our core marketing messages and how they contribute to developing a mission statement, core values, strapline, tone of voice and key differentiators.
This can be applied to businesses with a strategy in place to ensure their visual identity is saying what it should, as well as for businesses that may have skipped developing a strategy and need to create one to ensure future growth.
So, where does ikon sit in the digital marketing matrix? We undertook extensive competitive analysis of branding agencies and freelance graphic designers and how each model works.
And what did we discover? More skilled as a collective than a freelancer, and more agile and with lower overheads than a traditional bricks and mortar agency, we sit between these two – a flexible boutique agency hybrid. The benefit of our model is that teams are built to fit projects – not an agency roster – so the service is very personalised and bespoke to each client.
Knowing how and why you differentiate is key for targeting clients. Even the advice of reputable agency owners echoes this, many saying that if they were to set up again, they would go down this more agile route. I was always wary of being too vocal about how we set up not to alienate clients, but the business world has evolved dramatically and there are many companies undertaking big projects with teams all over the world. We see this model as a competitive advantage – at least my team are in the same city and our meetings can end with a beer!
When we were developing our agency model, one thing was clear. There are too many agencies relying on their ‘award-winning’, ‘look at me’ paradigm as a differentiator. Maybe it worked years ago, but when most of the industry tells you they are award-winning it loses its meaning pretty quickly.
Another glaringly obvious visual cue was the amount of agencies relying on a sans-serif logo and the typeset in a similar font. I get the argument the work should do the talking, but are agencies not practising what they preach?
There has also been more of a trend towards one font for a website and sometimes two. The challenge was to use three – not only to demonstrate a level of skill to do it in a way that complements each other – but also to purposefully give flexibility when styling articles that have been planned for a content marketing strategy where breaking up blocks of text is key to keep a reader engaged. Again, design with a purpose not just for the sake of it.
Having a bespoke content management system for our website complements our content strategy, enabling us to be very tailored in how we write the code – not only to style but to make it easier to be found on Google.
At the most basic level, ikon uses effective branding to help businesses stand out.
It’s in our core message: ‘Rise above the noise’. We help your business to stand out, to tower over and above the poor design that is choking the internet. Core brand messages can condense what you do and make your intent clear.
Why do we do it? Our mission is ‘to inspire and encourage people to embrace the power of design and create their own future.’
On a human level, I want to inspire and encourage anyone I meet to make the most out of life – because you never know what the future holds. Years ago I travelled with an Irish fella fresh out of Uni, we went to pretty much the same places, exploring the same countries, trekking through the same jungles, being bitten by the same mosquitos.
My travel companion died in a hospital in Thailand, mis-diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He contracted something much worse. I always say - work is important, but living life to the full is really fundamental.
So, back to the power of design. Hugely important, but not a matter of life or death. Having said that, poor label design has probably caused many a sticky end…
I have always been fascinated by how design can change the world. In its broadest sense, any invention can have a profound effect on society. And the way it is presented can even enhance its ability to deliver powerful messages commercially and even politically.
One designer I have always admired is Jonathan Barnbrook for his ability to make his work stand out commercially, while also producing political pieces and remaining ethical in who he works with. He reportedly turned down working with Coca-Cola on these grounds. Commercially he has gone on to collaborate with the likes of Damian Hirst and David Bowie.
The ‘create your own future’ idea is also important to ikon. Like most business owners, I wanted to run a business to drive my own future. I aim to work with inspiring people who are building their businesses to be as successful as possible and I want to help them on that journey.
This doesn’t apply only to business, but also to inspire my team and people who come into contact with me to help them design their own life outcomes and challenge conventional thinking.
You can’t simply say you are different, you have to prove you ‘think different’. This is the difference with brand strategy, it’s easy to make lofty claims about changing the world and what you value but it’s the actions you take that proves it all aligns which creates something powerful.
That’s why branding is so important and why brands are successful, they make you feel like you belong. But the proposition has to hold water. You can’t fake it.
Personally, I love to challenge convention. I went on honeymoon before my wedding. I delayed sending my son to school for a year to give him more time to mature. I shut down ikon for six weeks to travel with wide and two boys. And traveling through tourist un-friendly areas in places like Pakistan, despite many people was saying it was too dangerous.
I'm not saying I am the world’s biggest rebel, but I take risks and put myself in situations that are not the norm. That unconventional side has been in me since school. And deviating from the familiar, the tried and true, is what is going to help you cut through the noise.
It’s like Einstein quoted: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
To be honest, I don’t think I am anywhere near as bold as I’d like to be. It’s my life’s ambition to be completely fearless and the next big challenge is to master public speaking. But the new ikon strategy is making it even clearer to me not only how bold ikon needs to be, but also just how daring my clients need to be also – how much they need to take risks, be brave.
The ikon style typically suits particular industries, so we do talk to particular niche markets but we adopt an approach to attract the right people in a collaborative way to produce great work. A project can be what you make of it.
To think like entrepreneurs, not employees – with passion, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to embrace the unconventional.
We commonly work with freelancers before they become regular creatives, as they tend to perceive themselves more like a business rather than an employee. They better understand the needs of the agency that is employing them and this has been influential in delivering larger projects successfully.
Passion is a must, and they often have it in spadefuls. That’s why they are some of the best in the industry. Adventure flows from a natural curiosity for the world, just as inspiration comes from experiencing life and with a willingness to explore far and wide going against the grain as much as possible.
All of this freedom to explore, to be bold, to take risks is of course underpinned by trust. You have to be able to employ people who can work autonomously, without relentless supervision.
At ikon, we create, we discuss and then we refine. I used to think it wasn’t possible to build a nourishing and sustainable company culture if staff didn't all work in the same room. But after hearing that the creator of Wordpress closed a San Francisco office as workers preferred working from home, a coffee shop or wherever else they chose, I changed my mind.
Once the brand strategy and brand identity are in place for a client, we create brand guidelines and a marketing plan to act as a reminder and a reference – a map – for what we should be doing. If it doesn't fit with the ikon way, we don't do it.
If you are a business owner, could now be the time for a break to work out where you are headed?
Or perhaps you know where you want to go but, need the right strategy to get you there.
My journey to the creation of ikon has taught me many things about business and life. I have the scars to prove it! I’m keen to share my learnings with you – and to explore how your brand can become bolder, more fearless and more successful.