Why good design matters: 5 simple rules

… for effective branding, marketing and UX.

Here at Design for Geeks we’re on a mission to remind you that good design matters, and it matters a lot. Good design, in fact, often means also good branding, good marketing and good UX.

Here at Design for Geeks we’re on a mission to remind you that good design matters, and it matters a lot.

Good design, in fact, often means also good branding, good marketing and good UX. It’s a virtuous circle. Good design can also radically change the future of your business: make sure you make it go in the right direction.

We’re about to show you how good design matters, through the example of big brands as well as small people who got it right, just by applying 5 simple basic rules.

Case 1: When good design matters so much, that you don’t even need words.

The Ikea logo with no letters

What does this remind you of? A squished sun? An egg yolk with the white dyed blue?

I bet that most of you can probably think of a brand when you see this image. It’s also the colours of a flag.

When good design matters so much that you don't even need the words: this photo shows an Ikea shop without the word 'Ikea' on its side, but it's still perfectly recognisable.

Do you recognise this building even without a logo on its side? I dare say most of you do – and you can probably already smell the meatballs. It might even have already triggered memories of painful Sunday afternoons when you suddenly realised your marriage wasn’t as rock-solid as you previously thought.

This is a brand so strong that you recognise it even without the logo.

A blue and yellow building is most definitely an Ikea building, whether it says it on the side or not.

One of the applications of the Ikea logo is on the side of a massive building. Usually the Ikea shops are meant to be seen from the motorway at a distance. And that’s also why the logo is so simple as well as colourful.

If the logo were any more complicated, it wouldn’t work. Also the brightness of the yellow makes it vibrate even from afar and in any atmospheric conditions.

But another side-effect of its simplicity is that we immediately take it in.

The effort required of our brain to read first, and then store in the mind and recognise this logo is minimal. Once seen, always remembered. Very low cognitive load. And as we were saying, the branding is so strong that it doesn’t even need the logotype.

The primary colours and big, bold typeface ensure that it’s visible even when sized down and placed in the corner of a page. Plus, we all remember primary colours – those of us who are lucky enough to have no colour vision impairments.

The contrast in the logo does not rely on hue only, it is also based on brightness so even people with colour vision challenges can see it clearly. Ikea are not taking any chances.

Now, looking at this logo and thinking of its aesthetic merits: is this logo beautiful? Not particularly. Does it matter? No. The quality of the product and the fulfilment of the brand promise are what matters.

So, good design matters, but good design doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful. Contradiction? No. Carry on and you’ll see why.

Case 2: When good design matters so much, that it changes a company’s future entirely.

Compare the simplicity and immediate impact of the Ikea logo with this logo.

How long does it take you to take in the imagery and meaning of this logo? And what does it make you think of? What kind of product would you associate it with?

When I asked this question in a live talk environment, 95% of the audience had no idea who this logo was for. Many people said they thought it might be a cider brewery.

Do you know which company this logo was for?

Perhaps you’ve already done a quick image search or looked further down this post, so you now know that this was Apple Computer’s first logo.

Apple's old logo until 1976

It’s so far-removed from the pared-down aesthetics of Apple’s designs, that it really is a struggle to associate it with their products now.

So, is this logo memorable? I don’t think so. Our brain simply has to work too hard to take it all in and make the association. Even when we know already.

Moreover, if you don’t know that Isaac Newton, according to legend, discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head, you won’t even make any sense of the illustration.

It’s just a bloke with a wig reading under a tree.

Now picture it on the front of a modern Apple shop.

Yeah right.

Does it work? I think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t. No. So is it timeless? Not really.

And now put it in a corner of a page at a small size, which is a natural position and size for a logo to be in. Can you tell the details? Are you even able to discern the subject? No, obviously not.

It’s an overly-detailed logo, that is trying too hard to tell an irrelevant story, and all detail is lost when you make it very small.

Why good design matters in a company’s mission.

In fact, Steve Jobs did think that this overly-complicated logo design had to be partly responsible for the slow sales of the Apple I computer in 1976. Personally, I am sure he was right.

A logo such as this one makes you think of a stuffy, dusty, antiquated, obsolete, traditional company: the opposite of innovation. And the opposite of Apple’s mission at the time.

So Steve Jobs went for a total revolution of their corporate visual design, a complete change in identity.

Enter the wonderfully simple, vibrant, innovative rainbow-striped apple logo, with a small corner bitten off, which Ronald Wayne designed in 1976 (quite a good job he did, too, considering he was an engineer).

w rainbow logo, designed by Ronald Wayne in 1976

This simple, exciting, expressive logo is not trying to tell a story that’s impossible to tell in just one over-detailed image. It’s not trying to represent the un-representable, and it’s so bold that it’s just a symbol. There’s not even the word Apple. This is brave.

This logo was unchanged until 1998, for 22 years– a geological era, practically, for a tech company.

And of course this logo just works, at any size, wherever you put it.

Since 1976, it’s been simplified, stripped of the colours, used with gradients and in different iterations, but essentially it hasn’t changed much. So the revolution was followed by a gradual evolution.

The glass front of a modern Apple store in West Lake.

Can you imagine Apple’s trajectory  as the face of global innovation – with the old logo?

I am 100% sure that the new logo design was an integral factor in the pivotal, seismic shift that the company made in 1976.

It meant a completely different outlook from within, as well as a completely different perception of the brand from without.

Case 2 – Apple: the difference between brand and logo

So just to clarify, what am I talking about exactly? I’ve mentioned branding and logos in the same sentence. Am I talking about the brand or the logo? And what’s the difference?

Well, there’s a big difference. It’s like saying that your favourite outfit is you. But it’s not you, because you are so much more than the clothes you wear.

There is indeed a big difference between the brand and the logo, and we can start defining it by looking at the definition of brand.

This is the definition of “brand” from the UK’s Design Council:

A brand is a set of associations that a person (or group of people) makes with a company, product, service, individual or organisation.

I would slightly modify this very concise, apt definition by adding a few descriptors:

A brand is a set of factual, mental and emotional associations that a person (or group of people) makes with a company, product, service, individual or organisation.

Let’s look at the Apple case again with this in mind.

In this sense, while the Apple logo hasn’t changed much since 1976, the brand and the mental and emotional associations that people make with it have changed massively.

Apple used to be a computer company that produced incredibly powerful, innovative, expandable machines for a few specific industry niches who were their fiercely loyal customer base. The look didn’t matter: it was all about the power, and the superior operating system.

Power Macintosh 8500

I had this computer. It was ugly. But it did incredible things in 1996, and really only a very small minority of people had a Mac at the time.

Then Apple started making computers that besides being powerful and with a user-friendly OS, also looked ridiculously cool, like the first, colourful iMacs:

iMac indigo

Or the first, mind-blowing iBook that had a handle at the top and that I could carry it round as if it were a handbag as well as colour-coordinate my outfits to. Imagine that! Ah, how I loved my iBook. I had a whole set of garments and accessories with orange accents to pair with my laptop.

Advert for the orange iBook with a handle at the top.

But I was already a geek, albeit a fashion-conscious one: the important thing is that this gorgeous iBook was also very innovative. It was the first portable computer with wireless connectivity – which was big news at the time.

Notice also the slogan at this time: Think Different. In 1999 having (or wearing) a computer made by Apple really meant being different from most other people.

This was a masterpiece: fantastic graphic design, fantastic product design, fantastic brand consistency. I was completely in love with Apple.

The beginning of the end.

Then the first iPod came along, and it was another real revolution. At the beginning, we all loved it.

The original iPod

I have always been a music fiend and I will never forget how wonderful it was when my sister gave me my first iPod for Christmas, with an inscription from St Augustine on the back:
Canta et ambula. Noli errare, noli redire, noli remanere.
(Sing and walk. Don’t deviate, don’t go back, don’t linger.)

It was nothing short of a miracle that my huge CD collection would fit in this pristine, algid, beautiful, tiny, cryptic flat object. I was ecstatic.

But that’s when things started to change.

The new beginning for Apple was also the beginning of the end for Apple as we, long-standing loyal fans, knew and loved it.

After the iPod, it started becoming clear that Apple started their inexorable transformation into a company that makes overpriced products that look cool for people that don’t need powerful computers but who love the status given by the Apple brand and possibly also like the better operating system.

iOS devices

You might notice in my tone, even if I’m writing and not talking, the aggravation of the former Mac Taliban (that was my sister’s nickname for me: that’s how deep my loyalty to Apple used to run) that feels betrayed by their former favourite brand that they used to have a profound connection with.

A brand can represent a lifestyle, a set of choices, a very definite statement of identity and intentions.

Now the brand has changed, it has stopped serving me, and I am not a Mac Taliban anymore. I have quite strong feelings about this.

That’s what happens when you create a brand: you also creates emotions that can be very strong. I have a whole complex set of layered emotions connected to the Apple brand.

So as this example clearly shows, this is what I mean when I say that a brand is not a logo: it’s so much more than just a logo.

In some cases, a brand can represent a lifestyle, a set of choices, a very definite statement of identity and intentions.

So, a logo and the design identity are one of the ways that immediately help to identify and recognise a brand – but they are only part of the branding.

Still, you simply cannot get the design wrong – and Apple demonstrate that.

They are, however, elements that you simply can’t afford to get wrong. If Apple had stuck to their original Newton logo, and if they hadn’t started investing heavily in the design of their products, they would never have got to where they are now.

So in this sense, be like Apple.

Good design matters, and it matters a lot. In fact, design is a defining element of your brand: every single output of it.

To be even clearer, in this virtuous circle the various elements that compose a brand are all extremely important factors that inform the visual design.

Very importantly, they are also the same elements that shape the marketing and even the UX. This type of thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So good design is the result of good branding and good marketing. And vice-versa, it’s not linear.

When your company does everything thinking about their ideal customer, that’s a core aspect of good user experience as well as good branding as well as good design as well as good marketing. It’s a loop, a virtuous circle.

good ux is
good branding is
good design is
good marketing.

Good design matters, and it matters a lot. In fact, design is a defining element of your brand: every single output of it.

The four cornerstones of a brand.

So let’s have a look at all the factors that make up a brand and break them down in an easy-to-remember list.

You can find uncountable variations of this list of cornerstone elements of a brand. This, again, is my interpretation from the UK Design Council’s definition of branding, and it’s the one that I prefer.

  1. The big idea – what is the main driving reason at the heart of your company? AKA the unique selling proposition.
  2. Values – what are your moral values, your core beliefs?
  3. Vision – where do you want to go? or better said, where do you want your customers to go?
  4. Personality – how do you want to come across? And this is where the visual branding goes.

These are all the elements that you need to consider when you are working on your own branding.
I really recommend that you do take the time to consider these questions, and you’ll see why.

Your branding, among other things, is your visual language, informing every single visual expression of your business.

And what if, I hear you say, my clients come to me with no logo, or just a logo and no branding? What happens then?

Well, you need to let them know and advise them. You cannot have a business and have no visual language at all. So, with your clients you can put into practice the same advice I am giving you here.

Cornerstone 1: Ikea’s Big Idea

Having said this, let’s go back to Ikea for a minute, because they really do have a big idea that’s very clear for all to see, and it informs every single visual output, from product to any marketing materials.

IKEA is a brand that has been as revolutionary for design as Apple, even though their ethos is almost the opposite.

The real revolution brought on by Ikea is: “good design is for everyone, not just design snobs”. This is the IKEA mantra, and everything they do is to make this happen. This is how we recognise the brand, and it’s how we decide whether we want to shop with them or not.
It’s the democratisation of design. kind of the opposite of Apple.

Ikea’s mantra: “good design is for everyone, not just design snobs”

What matters with both Ikea and Apple is that they are both powerful and immediately recognisable brands, with an incredibly cohesive and consistent visual language that makes them recognisable both from their products and their marketing materials.

Ikea’s democratisation of design has been pushed to the point of creating a campaign on social media thanks to which you could have your own family featuring on the cover of the Ikea catalogue.

Ikea campaign putting real people on their cover

This is brilliant marketing (CHECK).

Not only are they re-asserting how democratic they are: they are also firmly putting the human beings using their products at the centre of their brand (CHECK).

This is at the core of the UX design process (CHECK). They are creating a very strong connection with their customers by proving to them that they care. They care enough in fact to put you on their cover.

And of course the visual styling reflects this ethos, and their visual identity is heavily informed by this, so this is really good design (CHECK).

There you are: IKEA has clearly proved to us now how this is good UX, good branding, good design AND good marketing. So, once again: good design matters. A lot.

When good design matters, the visual language extends to the products

The visual language of Ikea, as well as the visual language of Apple, extend to the products they create for their customers.

Their brand is not just recognisable because of their logo or marketing: you can also recognise their products, because they reflect their big idea. In fact, I’ll call it their visual ethos.

The main takeaway for you is: make your visual output consistent everywhere, not just in your branding but also in what you produce for your clients.

Make your visual output consistent everywhere, not just in your branding but also in what you produce for your clients.

How to get to your own ‘big idea’

These are the questions to ask yourself in order to get to your own big idea. Again, it’s not the first time you hear it – so perhaps it must be true!

  • How can I differentiate myself from others?
  • What is my unique offer?
  • Who are my ideal clients?
  • What do my ideal clients want? Or even better – what do they need, and how can I find out and give it to them?
  • Which gap in the market am I serving?

Cornerstone 2: Pret-A-Manger’s values

Back to our cornerstones: the second cornerstone is values.

Be careful with your values. And by this I mean: avoid the values that absolutely everybody lists.

Please don’t tell me that your values are quality, fairness, respect, passion, integrity… you know what I mean.
These are all fairly obvious qualities (not values) that your company must act by. To put it bluntly, you would be a crap company if you didn’t produce quality products, didn’t act with integrity or didn’t treat employees and clients with equal fairness. So I’ll take for granted that you do all that already.

What you need to make sure is that your values are what truly drives your company and shapes your output.

For instance, my values are: good design matters, empowering developers and agencies to deploy good design, educating and spreading the word, bridging the gap between design, development and marketing. accessibility, putting humans at the centre of my process. These are the unique values that inform everything I do at Design for Geeks. I don’t list integrity because I flippin’ well assume that it’s implicit.

The organic food chain Pret A Manger has shops all over the UK where they sell fresh food every day. They have always put at the centre of their branding and marketing how much they value fresh food, minimising wastage, and giving back to charity. 

All these values are not a list of platitudes: they are the motor driving every single choice the company makes, and every single output and product.

These values are also clearly reflected in their visual campaigns, an object of my great admiration for years. Pret A Manger advert with a butterfly made of lettuce leaves
The Pret campaigns featuring fruit, vegetables and other food imaginatively arranged to create animals or objects have always made me think – oh how I wish I’d thought of this myself! Clever, fun, beautiful visual puns that deliver the message as well as reiterating Pret’s values and philosophy. Chapeau!

While you may not (or perhaps you would! why not?) be as creative as Pret a Manger’s campaigns, you, too, can choose the unique values that define your business, reflected in every single product or output to come out of it.

Create your own, unique values
that are reflected in your business.

Cornerstone 3: Bill Gates’ vision

Now let’s have a look at vision.
Your brand’s vision means – where are you going? Or even better, actually: where do you want your customers to go?

These are the questions you must ask yourself in order to get to your vision for your company:

  • What is our main dream
  • What problem are we solving in order to make our clients’ lives better?
  • …Or, better said: I want to live in a world where…

…there’s a computer in every home, which is what Bill Gates said when his company didn’t even make computers.

And guess what: at least in the Western world, he definitely made his dream happen. He was consistent and determined, and here we are.

[by the way – I realise that my world view is from a very western, first-world perspective, because that’s where I’m lucky enough to operate from. If you have a different perspective please make a comment.]

So, for instance, personally I want to live in a world where…

…no one centres long chunks of text 
or puts copy on busy images…

Yes. this is definitely me, sometimes. I’m joking – to a point – this would be a bit reductive, but still… please don’t centre text. It’s just plain wrong.

Cornerstone 4: your brand’s personality

Now we have it, finally getting down to your personality.

The brand personality is where all the factors we’ve been looking at so far get together to shape the aesthetics of your brand.

This is what you need to build your brand personality:

  • Graphic design: visual identity and logo
  • Tone of voice
  • Customer service
  • Offline user experience

This are the elements that allow you to build your brand’s personality:
Graphic design – we’re finally there. And this is the point where good design matters considerably.

The visual identity of your brand, which also includes your logo, is a fundamental element in the shaping of your brand’s personality.

HOWEVER even here, the design is NOT everything that describes the personality of your brand: there’s also the tone of voice, which is very important in establishing the visual style of your brand, the customer service, and generally how you treat your customers on as well as offline.

The components of your brand’s personality

So let’s sum up the components of your brand’s personality:

Brand = Your company and its perceived image as a whole; the factual and emotional associations that your clients make with it; the visual language of both your marketing and your products.
This is very important and something that you don’t find anywhere else usually.
Identity = The visual aspects that identify your brand: colours, imagery, typography and logo.
Logo = Out of the identity, the logo is the graphic representation, symbol or stylised text of your company name.

The loop is now closed: the four cornerstones, aka your 1. big idea, 2. values, 3. vision and 4. personality all merge together to create your brands’ visual assets.

How to assess your own brand

If you already have visual assets, these are the questions you must ask yourself in order to work out whether you have a good brand or not.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can my customers recognise my brand via my visual identity?
  • Have I leveraged design to make myself memorable?
  • Is it easy to forget me, or have I leveraged design to make my brand and its outputs memorable?
  • Am I hitting the mark? have I leveraged design to make my marketing effective? The way we’ve seen Ikea do it?
  • Have I leveraged design to make my personality and my products consistent?

In short: Does my logo look like this…
Apple's old logo until 1976

…or like this?
White Apple logo against black background

How important is your logo?

I have very strong ideas about logos. They are sometimes seen as the main part of an identity, and way too much time and money is spent on them.
I think a logo is really important, but at the same time you should spend as little time as possible on it. unless you have money to burn, don’t spend much on your logo. Yes, I kind of mean that. And I’ll explain further down – please carry on.

5 simple rules for effective design.

In the meantime, I’ll give you 5 simple rules to follow in order to make sure your design output is effective – as well as your logo.

They are in fact the 5 rules that you are supposed to follow when designing your logo, but they apply to design in general.

Rule #1:
Keep it simple.

[aka the ‘KISS’ rule]
The first rule when designing anything is: simplicity, aka the art of knowing when to stop.

The other rules, if you just observe this one, will follow almost by default.

Let me say it again:

The other rules, if you just observe this one, will follow almost by default.
White Apple logo against black background
Again, just to reiterate, this brand’s logo and its product are based on simplicity.

Rule #2:
Make it memorable.

Then, your logo should as easy to remember as possible.
The Ikea logo
Just like this one.


Rule #3:

Make it timeless.

Longevity is very important. Don’t follow design trends! They don’t last. Design solid products that will stand the test of time visually.
The Coca Cola logo
A logo that looked almost the same when our grandparents drank Coke.

Rule #4:
Make it versatile.

Versatility is also essential. Your logo has to be easy to use in a variety of situations.
London 3 June 2011: close-up on Underground sign in Canary Wharf, Docklands, London's financial district. One Canada Square, the tallest completed building in the UK, in the background on the right, Reuters building on the left.
Another epically brilliant logo is the London Underground logo, which works perfectly on a huge variety of platforms, materials and situations. Just by using a specific typeface and their brand colours, blue and red, London Underground are recognisable everywhere.

Rule #5:
Keep it appropriate.

This is where visual style matters: style your brand according to your content and products. The style of your logo needs to be appropriate to your type of business, or type of audience. And when you design a product for your clients, you need to choose a visual style that suits their business.
The Lego logo

This is clearly a playful logo meant for a young audience, because of the strong primary colours, the soft curves and the capital letters.

Help! I’m not a designer

And now I can almost hear you scream: how can I achieve all this if I’m not a designer?

Sorry for stating the flippin’ obvious, but…

Hire a designer.

This would be an excellent solution.

The second wail of pain that I can hear coming from you now is:
Help! I can’t afford to hire a designer.

Don’t worry – I have a solution for that, too.

But first, an observation:
Design cannot be an afterthought.

If you design websites, then you should know how to design them.

If you don’t, then you should really hire a designer – or learn how to design.

In the meantime, if the main problem is your logo:
Just write your name in a nice typeface. And I mean it.

That’s exactly what I did with my client-facing brand, the very imaginatively named “Piccia Neri” agency.
I keep it consistent across platforms, which is what matters, and I make sure that it’s versatile.

I’m taking bets on how long you think it took me to come up with this logo.

However, as we were saying earlier, my visual language expresses itself everywhere, whenever I produce anything for my clients or myself – like this very same project, Design for Geeks.

And when you do decide to simply write your name in a nice font, remember that while Google fonts are fine, premium fonts are better.
Because guess what? Premium fonts look… premium. It’s a small investment, but it certainly is worth its while.

A real-world logo example: Split Hero

Adam Lacey came to me asking for advice on how to create a logo for his A/B split-testing product, Split Hero, without having the budget for a designer. I gave him the advice I just gave you – and this is what he came back with.

Split Hero logo

I think Adam underestimates his skills as a designer! this is a brilliant example of what I just said.

On its own, however, it’s still just a logo, not branding.

A real-world branding example: The Admin Bar

So here’s an example of ‘one of us’ absolutely nailing their branding and understanding why good design matters, way beyond the logo.

The Admin Bar are a Facebook group and a podcast run by Kyle Van Deusen and Matt Sebert.

Their Big Idea, in a nutshell, is to help small people like us have a happy life at work. They are present on many platforms, and they solved their visual identity with admirable flair.

Look at their ingredients:

  • simple logo with simple symbol
  • 1 typeface used in different weights
  • simple colour palette that also uses brightness so it’s accessible
  • good use of contrast

Follow their example: don’t use all the colours of the rainbow.

When you design anything, choose simple colour palettes that are either monochrome or use good contrast based on brightness – unless you are 100% sure that you know what you’re doing with colours (check out this blog post for advice on palettes and colour in web design in general).
Use just one typeface – yes you heard me right! with different font weights for differentiation and hierarchy.

And please please make sure that you check your colours in particular, and your designs in general for accessibility. Accessibility needs to be a #1 priority. There isn’t just a huge business case for it, it’s also a legal requirement.

I told you earlier how consistency is key. The Admin Bar are consistent all over, across all platforms.

This makes them immediately recognisable which creates brand recognition, which in turn produces credibility as well as confidence.

Finally, their logo is also versatile, because the horizontal version works just as well, and on a different platform. It’s clear that good design is at the foundation of their successful marketing.

So, all boxes are checked: I think we can all agree that The Admin Bar understand why good design matters. Their visual output is simple, memorable, timeless, versatile, and appropriate. And they do the same for their clients.

Wrapping it all up: why good design matters

Just in case you still need reminding of why good design matters, and what good design will do for you and your clients – I’ll just bang on about it one more time, until the bitter end.

  • Customer recognition and loyalty
  • Consistency makes marketing more effective
  • Brand equity
  • Credibility
  • Emotional connections
  • Buyer confidence
  • Accessible, functional, usable, effective products that work as well as look better

The final 3 words.

Keep it.

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